In their latest exhibit, The Valentine puts a new spin on the fight to gain women the right to vote by imagining it as a social media battle between famous figures of the early 20th century.
If you’ve ever wondered what Maggie L. Walker’s social media presence would look like if virtual communication had existed during the suffrage movement of the early 20th century, you’re going to love the Valentine’s new exhibition. #BallotBattle: The Social Struggle for Suffrage, opening Thursday, November 21, showcases suffrage-era public discourse in ways that are familiar and relatable to modern Americans.
To commemorate the centennial of the 19th Amendment’s ratification in 2020, #BallotBattle features plausible interactions via Facebook feeds and Twitter threads between five high-profile Richmonders from the suffrage era, who represent a diverse cross section of the Virginia Capital’s political discourse from 1909 to 1920.
“In 2019, there’s so much political and social debate, and it all happens on our phones,” said Christina K. Vida, the Valentine’s Curator of General Collections. “So we wanted to use our current social media to represent how social this discussion was 100 years ago.”
“With the founding of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia in 1909 and the formation of the Virginia Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage in 1912, there was an explosion of public debate in Richmond,” said Vida. “It was happening in newspapers, in the Jefferson Hotel’s auditorium, at the Woman’s Club of Richmond, and on street corners all around the capital.”
Of the five notable Richmonders selected are women suffragists Maggie L. Walker and Lila Meade Valentine, and black suffragist John Mitchell Jr. From the opposing side of the debate are anti-suffragists Mary Mason Anderson Williams and Henry Lee Valentine, Lila Valentine’s brother-in-law. The exhibition displays Facebook profiles for each of them that look just like ours, including their relationship statuses, employment and educational histories, and even places around Richmond where they’ve checked in.
The social media interactions are modernized translations of historical documents, complete with the language of today’s online discourse such as hashtags, emojis, likes, heart-reacts, and memes. The exhibition also features an array of other documents, pamphlets, photographs, and propaganda from the suffrage era, compiled from the Valentine’s collection, the Library of Virginia, the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, and the VCU Special Collections Library.
Though the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, the Valentine’s suffrage exhibition contains decades’ worth of history on the fight for women’s rights. There’s a selection of historical documentation about the Equal Rights Amendment, including one of Elizabeth Shoemaker Parman’s ERA ratification brochures that circulated in the 1970s, and a 1973 photograph of Adèle Clark controversially lobbying against the passage of the ERA with Delegate Eva Mae Scott.
“We wanted to drive home the fact that the ratification of the 19th Amendment wasn’t a foregone conclusion,” said Vida. “There was still a lot of work to do then, and there still is now. We’ll continue that work from 2020 and on.”
The ERA was first introduced to Congress in 1923, and is designed to guarantee equal rights for all Americans by eradicating sex-based legal disparities in areas such as employment, property, and divorce. While the ERA was ratified by Congress in 1972, technically the congressional deadline for the ERA expired in 1982 when only 35 states had passed it in their legislatures. Since three-quarters of the individual states must ratify an amendment before it is added to the Constitution, three states were still needed for ratification in 1982. But after the 27th Amendment was ratified in 1992 after being introduced to Congress a record-setting 202 years earlier, validity of ratification deadlines has come under scrutiny.
Virginia is now in the national spotlight because the long fight for the ERA could soon be over. In the recent 2019 elections, Democrats won control of both houses of the Virginia legislature, and many of the newly elected have voiced their intent to vote on the ERA. Nevada ratified the ERA in 2017 and Illinois followed in 2018, so if the ERA passes in the Virginia legislature in 2020, it will be the 38th and final state needed to add the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Thus, there is an unforeseen quality of timeliness to the Valentine’s #BallotBattle exhibition, in addition to its intended concurrence with the 19th Amendment’s centennial year. “We might have to change some of the exhibition’s taglines depending on what happens in the General Assembly,” said Vida, with a palpable tone of excitement.
#BallotBattle will close on September 7, 2020. The Valentine is open from 10 am to 5 pm, Tuesday through Sunday. For more details, visit their website.
Photos by Noelle Abrahams