This week, the latest development in the fight for reproductive rights transpired on the national planning stage: President Joe Biden’s administration issued an emergency request Tuesday to temporarily block Texas’ near-complete abortion ban, which has upended clinics’ and patients’ access to abortions since it took effect about two weeks ago. The next day, a federal judge scheduled a hearing to consider the temporary restraining order for Oct. 1 (the day before the planned Women’s March, which this year focuses on reproductive rights). Women’s rights activists across the country fear the law will impact the most vulnerable women in Texas and beyond, as the ban has already inspired copycat proposals across the country.
Yesterday, local planners also focused on women’s rights: in particular, the right to vote. The District recently won an Underrepresented Community Grant from the National Park Service to conduct a historic context study of D.C. women’s history and suffrage. In a public meeting last night, the DC Preservation League and its D.C.-based consulting partner, Quinn Evans, unveiled the timeline and framework, a partial draft of the study so far, and their hopes as they put together an initiative that highlights how the women’s suffrage movement in D.C. was different in light of the disenfranchisement of Washingtonians in 1801.
The project is meant to help residents better understand why and how historic sites and folks in the District were so central to the national movement for women’s right to vote, which started in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention and went beyond the 19th Amendment. While its passage granted White women the right to vote, it wasn’t the case for BIPOC and women married to BIPOC: Native Americans couldn’t vote until 1924 (or, in some states, until the 1940s or 1950s); women married to immigrants couldn’t keep their U.S. citizenship and thus couldn’t vote until 1922; literate and illiterate Puerto Rican women could not vote until 1929 and 1935, respectively. Asian American women didn’t have the right to vote until 1952 and the voting rights of many Black women weren’t enforced until the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965.
The Sites Where it Happened, the Time When They Banded
The study takes us from Seneca Falls to the passage of the 1973 Home Rule Act, which created a municipal government in D.C. 1973 also happens to be the year the Supreme Court affirmed women’s right to first-trimester abortions without state intervention in Roe v. Wade. Given that advocates for reproductive rights see this liberty as under attack today, it’s an ideal time to shed light on women’s struggle for their right to vote and to make decisions about their bodies.
“This study … we’re hoping will really elevate these untold stories and sites of women’s suffrage in D.C. and really celebrate the progress of women’s rights,” Kim Elliott, an architect and historic preservation specialist at the Office of Planning, tells City Paper. “But I think it also will … highlight the fight that is still ongoing, and that we must all continue for equality.”
DCPL and Quinn Evans also hopes to work with an essential community partner: D.C. residents, who at times know better than traditional researchers the whos, whats, wheres, whens, and hows of the people and places underrepresented in women’s history in their hometown. Among these lesser-known stories are the details behind the work of the “Silent Sentinels,” or “Sentinels of Liberty” (no relation to the Captain America youth group of the 1940s) at Lafayette Square. The Sentinels, a group of women suffrage activists who would silently gather in the downtown park, faced jail time over protests that included the first picket line to ever take place at the White House.
For Nakita Reed, the Quinn Evans historical architect who is leading the inventory and assessment of buildings and sites, the most thrilling part of the project is two-fold: expanding the narrative to tell the story for Black women and other women of color, and pushing the common conceptions of what residents might see as an important site.
“It’s been really exciting to remember the fact that history happens everywhere,” Reed says. “And it’s not just in the big buildings that are the monuments that have been memorialized for decades—there’s really a lot more grassroots things that happen in smaller buildings.”
Let’s Talk About BIPOC and Gender Non-Binary Representation
When project leaders met with residents over Zoom last night to chat about the community-centric initiative, questions about representation within representation emerged. One of the key themes in the study, intersectionality, “acknowledges that women of color and gender non-conforming women experience the women’s suffrage movement differently from white women,” according to Ruth Mills, senior historian at Quinn Evans.
When a resident asked panelists via private chat whether they were diminishing racism within the women’s suffrage movement with their use of “experience,” Mills reassured folks that the team had racial disparities very much on their minds.
“It’s not an attempt to downplay that outright racism,” Mills said. “It’s something that we talked about fairly extensively in the Belmont-Paul historic resource study in relationship to the National Women’s Party, and the use of racist rhetoric and white supremacy as a strategy, which, you know, you very rightly point out.” Mills was referring to another recent study of women’s history for which Quinn Evans had received a National Park Service research grant.
“I think we wanted to make sure that we were being all encompassing of women’s, Black women’s, experiences … in a positive sense of the things that they were doing,” Mills said.
Black women and other women of color have historically faced a disproportionate level of intimidation and violence when advocating for women’s rights. Among BIPOC women’s suffrage activists the team hopes to elevate are Delta Sigma Theta, a sorority founded at Howard University, Native advocate Marie Bottineau Baldwin, Black and queer field organizer Alice Dunbar Nelson, and Filipina advocate Sofia Reyes de Veyra.
Calling for D.C.’s Input
Folks can find a partial draft of the study here. The team at the Preservation League and Quinn Evans encourages residents to give input on a place or person that they think is missing and should be featured in the study, suggest a site they believe should be considered for landmark status, or provide feedback on the document in progress here. The best way to cover potential blind spots in research and start to correct D.C.’s herstory with underrepresented stories comes, after all, from D.C. herself.
—Ambar Castillo (tips? email@example.com)
A previous version of this story stated that African American women couldn’t vote until 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. This post has been updated to clarify that Black women’s right to vote wasn’t legally enforced until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
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By Mitch Ryals (tips? firstname.lastname@example.org)
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