Exhibit Recounts Strivings of Women Reformers

THE year was 1918, and Christia Adair, an African-American suffragist, worked tirelessly in Kingsville, Texas, collecting signatures on petitions demanding that women be allowed to vote. She and thousands of other black women across the country thought their work was over when the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920.

But when Adair attempted to vote in her first primary, she was turned away. Not for another 45 years would black women and men be guaranteed the right to vote under the Voting Rights Act.

Adair is one of hundreds of women activists who have fought for basic rights for American women and society in this century. Twenty-eight of these women are featured in ''Women in Action: Rebels and Reformers 1920-1980,'' a traveling exhibit inspired by this year's 75th anniversary of women's suffrage.

''The exhibit honors many women who left a deep imprint on American political history, but whose accomplishments may not have been recorded in textbooks,'' says Becky Cain, president of the League of Women Voters, which is sponsoring the show. ''Their actions are gestures of faith in people's power to shape history outside of political parties.''

The show, which began a tour of 16 cities on Feb. 27, pays particular attention to the contributions of women of color, whose stories are not generally well known. There is Tye Leung Schulze (1888-1972), who aided Chinese-American girls who had been sold into slavery, and Sarah Winnemucca (1844-1891), who fought for native American rights. They are joined by the more familiar historical giants, such as Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), a freed slave who became a black-rights activist, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), a suffragist and organizer of the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848.

The exhibit brings home the point that these women were instrumental in securing advancements in many areas of American society. Their work brought public-health laws, labor laws, equal rights and civil rights, as well as a wider availability of more effective forms of birth control.

The exhibit's vignettes tell many stories of women's struggle and triumph. By 1917, 2 million women had joined the National Women's Suffrage Association -- a forerunner to the League of Women Voters -- under the leadership of the imposing Carrie Chapman Catt. The NWSA was a mainstream group that believed in working through the system.

A second group active at the time, the 60,000-strong National Women's Party (NWP), was more radical and modeled its protests after the English suffragists' movement, picketing and burning speeches of President Woodrow Wilson in front of the White House.

MANY sectors of society were opposed to the suffragists and waged campaigns against them. Some conservatives said males would lose their ''natural superiority'' over females if women were allowed to vote, and some claimed it would lead to the destruction of the family. Many Southerners believed voting rights for women would lead to efforts to give rights to blacks and Mexican-Americans, and alcohol manufacturers said the women would cost them profits by using their votes for temperance and prohibition.

Sometimes the fight was ugly. One photograph in the exhibition shows NWP President Alice Paul on a hunger strike and in jail, being force-fed. Later, she was taken to a hospital in an effort to prove her insane and thereby discredit her.

On Aug. 26, 1920, women won their fight for the vote when the 19th Amendment was ratified, and the voting electorate about doubled. Many suffragists, however, kept on agitating for change, now with the added clout of the vote.

The League of Women Voters alone had an agenda of 96 issues it wanted addressed. Women voted into office legislators who were sympathetic to their interests, while 15 groups formed the Women's Joint Congressional Committee, to have direct access to Congress.

Many women's groups had planned all along to use the vote as just one more tool of change. One sign carried in a 1915 protest read: ''Women need votes to end sweatshops.''

In 1921, women helped pass the Sheppard-Towner Act, the beginning of public-health programs in the US. The act provided public funds for maternal and juvenile health classes.

Soon after, a backlash began against the women's groups that had lobbied for the act. They were called ''red'' and ''communist,'' charges that would follow them through the era of McCarthyism in the 1950s and into the civil rights years of the 1960s.

''Rebels and Reformers'' does have a major fault: It is too small, with too much information crammed onto the three, long, free-standing boards that make up the exhibit. To view the photographs and accompanying stories, viewers must stand for long periods of time in front of the boards' panels. This is an exhibit for adults and older children.

In many cities, the show will be part of a package of events celebrating the suffragists. (See story right.)

r 'Women in Action: Rebels and Reformers 1920-1980' will visit 16 cities: St. Louis; Louisville; St. Paul, Minn.; Lansing, Mich.; Hartford, Conn.; Columbus, Ohio; Gainesville, Fla.; Nashville; Roseburg, Ore.; Raleigh, N.C.; Claremont, Calif.; Piedmont, Calif.; Bloomington, Ill.; Chicago; Ogden, Utah; and Houston. For locations and dates, contact your local League of Women Voters chapter.

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