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‘Ballot Battle’ Exhibit Sheds Light on Richmond’s Fight for Suffrage

Ballot Battle
The interactive exhibit adapts century-old interactions between pro and anti-suffragists into social media posts to showcase what the movement would have looked like today. (Photo: Yasmine Jumaa/VPM)

The Valentine Museum in Richmond is highlighting the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. On Thursday, it’s unveiling an exhibit that documents the city’s struggle for women’s suffrage. 

“Ballot Battle” looks at five key players in both the pro and anti-suffrage movement in Richmond, from 1909 to 1920: John Mitchell Jr., Maggie Walker, Henry and Lila Meade Valentine and Mary Mason Anderson Williams — and the social platforms of the time they used to promote their viewpoints. 

“Newspapers provided this really important point of discussion,” said the museum’s Director Bill Martin. “But also pamphlets, flyers, banners and posters were all used to communicate. So, how would we do that today?” 

The exhibit has a social media component that’s meant to represent the century-old interactions in real-time. Christina Vida is the curator of general collections at The Valentine. She said through her research, she found that the most popular platform for activists defending their causes was the Letters to the Editor section of the Richmond Times Dispatch. 

“I think these conversations as they play out in the social media of the day — in the newspapers, in the pamphlets and postcards — it really goes to show that [activists] didn’t know how it was going to turn out either,” Vida said. “They were just battling as hard as they could.”

The museum worked with the Library of Virginia, the Virginia Museum of History and Culture and Virginia Commonwealth University’s Special Collections to research interactions during the time period. Vida says the quotes they sourced will be the basis of the social media reenactments. 

The exhibit will amplify the stories and experiences of Black leaders in the movement. It features in-depth profiles of John Mitchell Jr., who was the editor of the African American newspaper, Richmond Planet, and an advocate for universal suffrage; and one of Maggie Walker, who collaborated with community members like Ora Stokes and Lillian Payne to ensure that African American women could register to vote here in the city.

Vida said “Ballot Battle” will also tap into the racism and racial tensions of Virginia’s fight for suffrage. 

“The Virginia Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage put out propaganda about how the state government would be taken over by African American women — the pamphlet is titled ‘Virginia Warns Her People Against Women’s Suffrage,’” Vida said. She added that the anti-suffragists attack came a day after Richmond’s Equal Suffrage League rallied on the Capitol steps in May of 1915. 

Bill Martin said that “Ballot Battle’s” timing is intentional — tying in Virginia’s efforts to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment — a highly anticipated issue on the docket for the upcoming General Assembly session.

"Ballot Battle’s" social media component will launch in 2020. For more information, visit @TheValentineRVA on Twitter , Facebook and Instagram

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