The Nineteenth Amendment gave women in the United States the legal right to vote 100 years ago, but it would be another 45 years until women of color could truly to exercise this right. During women's history month, museums, parks and other facilities in North Carolina are commemorating everything the amendment did and didn't accomplish.
The initiative, called "She Changed the World: North Carolina Women Breaking Barriers," is a statewide effort to host exhibits and events throughout March to honor women's history.
As a part of this initiative, the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh is holding the exhibit "You Have To Start A Thing." The exhibit opens March 6 and focuses on sharing the stories of those who both fought for women’s suffrage and those who rallied against it.
RaeLana Poteat is the curator of the exhibit.
“What I am most proud of with the exhibit is that I feel like a lot of this history — particularly with the women who fought for the right to vote in North Carolina — has just faded out in the general memory," she said. “As a team for the exhibit, one of the things we were very happy about was bringing some of these stories back into the state consciousness of people who fought for, and interestingly, the people that fought against it, and why they fought against it.”
She said the exhibit was originally thought up as a part of the statewide initiative, but that it hoped to highlight the motivations behind anti-suffragists, many of which she says were hesitant to support the amendment because it would expand voting rights to communities of color.
However, she said the amendment’s reach did not historically extend to individuals of color.
“The short answer is that we are doing it because it’s the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment and of women, which in North Carolina would have meant white women, getting the right to vote," Poteat said.
Poteat said because of Jim Crow, most women of color did not truly get the right to vote until 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
The Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum outside Greensboro is hosting multiple events, including a traveling exhibit on the North Carolina Women’s Suffrage Movement, a lunch to discuss the fight of African American women to gain the right to vote and a lecture series.
Leslie Leonard, assistant site manager of the museum, said the museum always planned to have this lecture series. But with the new initiative, she said they have worked to become active in the statewide commemoration.
“This year, we’re making sure our lectures focus more on women to feed into that women breaking barriers initiative," she said
Leonard emphasized the importance of the lecture series and the initiative given the exclusionary nature of the amendment.
“When you’re looking at the women’s right to vote and the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment and it giving white women the right to vote and leaving out other marginalized communities, it’s important for us to bring awareness to what those other communities were," she said.
Katherine Turk, a UNC associate professor who specializes in women's history, spoke on the importance of commemorating the Nineteenth Amendment in its full complexity.
"The way that I have seen some of these commemorations really seize this moment and all its complexity is to think about the Nineteenth Amendment on a balance," she said. "Yes, it was a major milestone. Activists had been working for an amendment like this for decades, and yet a lot of people were left out. It’s a mixed bag, it’s a story of achievement, but also equality denied. It bears quite strongly on today’s moment in terms of rights, I think."
Turk said she sees the commemorations for the Nineteenth Amendment as offering an opportunity to reflect on the past and think about its impact in the world we live in today. She said in movements such as the #MeToo movement, women of color laid the foundation, yet their contributions were ignored.
“I think these commemorations are really a moment to take stock of who benefits from legal equality, who benefits from an enshrinement of an anti-discrimination provision like the Nineteenth Amendment," she said. "And if a law like that is really going to be meaningful for all women, it has to be a lot more all-encompassing and take into account all the different ways that social justice and real equality would look for differently situated women."
For a full list of Women's History Month events in North Carolina, visit the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources website.
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