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The Discovery Park of America Celebrates A More Inclusive Women's Suffrage Centennial Celebration

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The Everett Collection
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National Women's Party demonstration in front of the White House in 1918. August 18th, 2020 will mark 100 years since the ratification of the 19th amendment.

The Discovery Park of America in Union City, Tennessee, is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the women's suffrage movement with a variety of events, including a trio of pop-up exhibits, online discussion, and a December performance by the Historical Theater Academy. Jennifer Wildes, director of exhibits at Discovery Park of America and Dr. Renee LaFleur, associate professor of history at the University of Tennessee at Martin, speak to Tracy Ross about the museum and heritage park's upcoming events. 

The centennial anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment falls in the middle of unprecedented times, including a worldwide pandemic and civil rights movement. While celebrations might not look the same this year, LaFleur believes the prevalence of the Black Lives Matter movement further emphasizes the women's suffrage's white-washed history and the need to diversify the movement moving forward. "People are really talking about the role of African Americans and minority groups in the suffrage movement. That isn't something we really talk about. Women's history, in the beginning, was really dominated by white women. The way suffrage was written about was dominated by white women."

"The New York Times, the Atlantic, all these major publications are publishing these articles about what African American women contributed to the movement and how their fight to vote had to continue after the 19th amendment," LaFleur continues. "Even in the mess of the pandemic, I'm really, really excited about this alternative look at women's suffrage that gives us a fuller picture of what actually happened. Seeing [the Black Lives Matter movement] come out in the suffrage movement...talking about suffrage history...it sort of fits the moment, too, despite the pandemic."

The Discovery Park of America will present three pop-up exhibits celebrating different facets of the women's suffrage movement. "It appears as if it's one exhibit, but it's actually three different ones," Wildes, exhibit director, explains. "Rightfully Hers, provided by the National Archives in partnership with the Women's Suffrage Centennial Commission. There's the Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence, that came from the Smithsonian Institution. Lastly, To Make Our Voices Heard: Tennessee Women's Fight for the Vote. That came from the Tennessee State Library Archives and the Tennessee Museum."

"I think I -- and maybe several people -- have a romanticized idea about [the women's suffrage movement]," Wildes adds. "When the [19th] amendment was ratified, it wasn't like turning on a light switch and bam -- all women have the right to vote. That wasn't the case. Whether you are an African American woman, indigenous woman, Puerto Rican woman, there are still so many things that stood in the way of those women gaining universal suffrage. That's what's important -- to teach about the women's suffrage movement and the decades of activism that these incredible women participated in."

The three exhibits are now on display at the Discovery Park of America. The anniversary falls on Tuesday, August 18th, but the suffrage celebration will continue into December when participants of the Historical Theater Academy present a self-written, designed, and produced play centered around the women's suffrage movement. Students from 6th through 12th grade get to experience "working and creating a play, whether that's being an actor, costume work, set design, actually writing and the research, all those different facets of it. I'm really looking forward to seeing what they come up with later in the year. That's going to be December 5th...at the Capitol Theater here in [Union City]," Wildes explains. 

While the women's suffrage movement has made great strides since its founding at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, LaFleur says there is still much further to go. "Tiny things that come up when you're a woman -- someone says you're aggressive as opposed to being assertive -- just little things," LaFleur says. "But they all add up. And that's just me as a privileged white woman with a doctorate. Imagine what it's like for a woman of color who doesn't have that privilege. You add that on top of all the little aggressions I'm feeling, they're constantly getting it."

"Somebody had asked me, 'what can we learn from the women's suffrage movement?' I think there are things to learn from the organizing skills and tactics, but to me, the greatest lesson from the suffrage movement is what not to do. Not to be so divisive. To include all people. The movement is stronger when you work together, as opposed to when you divide. The white women were so concerned with their own vote that they never bothered to try to help African American women out when they still didn't get the vote. We see that again and again in women's movements. In the 1970s, they were leaving out LGBT women.

Most recently...the "Me Too" movement, for example...Alyssa Milano was the one who publicized that whole hashtag. She amplified it. It was actually an African American woman, Tarana Burke, who started the whole thing. I think one of the lessons from women's suffrage is to be inclusive in how we act and [to] be consciously thinking about that regularly. Who are we including? Who are we not including? How can we make this more diverse? The more diverse, the more inclusive we are, the stronger we are. I think, really, the more American we are in the end," LaFleur concludes. 

For more information on the Discovery Park of America's suffrage movement celebrations, visit the park's website. 

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