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Suffragette City

A new Valentine exhibit uses social media to examine activists from the past.

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Anti-suffrage postcards from 1909 mock the notion of women voters in every demeaning way possible. One reads, “Would you trust your wife as letter carrier? Honest, would you?” under an illustration of a well-dressed woman with a mail sack over her shoulder as she reads letters from the mailbox. Another, “The Suffragette Studentress” shows a woman with her feet up on a table, smoking a pipe. The caption reads, “I want’er be a man!”

The new exhibition at the Valentine, “#BallotBattle: the Social Struggle for Suffrage,” uses modern social media platforms to re-examine the suffrage debate and the intersecting issues — race, gender, power and politics — that co-mingled in Richmond in the early 1900s.

The exhibit uses a contemporary twist as it examines the positions, opinions and disagreements between five high-profile Richmonders between 1909 and 1920. The legacies of these social activists are shown in familiar social media formats such as Facebook and Twitter, with profiles listing their work, education, basic information, relationship status, family members and even check-ins.

The five are Mary Mason Anderson Williams, president of the Virginia Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage, Maggie Lena Walker, John Mitchell Jr., editor of the Richmond Planet newspaper, Lila Meade Valentine, president of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, and Henry Lee Valentine, an advisory member of the Virginia Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage.

“We’re using Facebook and Twitter to illustrate how Richmonders actively engaged in debates on this issue,” explains Christine Vida, the Valentine’s Elise H. Wright curator. “Between 1909 and 1920, pro- and anti-suffrage activists fought for their core beliefs using every available platform to persuade the legislators and the public.” Their original platforms included pamphlets, direct mail, postcards, newspapers, letters and posters.

 Representing historical perspectives in a modern format offers a creative approach to the Valentine’s mission to engage and represent a diverse cross-section of local history. The museum secured Twitter handles for all five of the activists and is using archival materials to pull out quotes from each. Beginning in January during the General Assembly session, all five will battle it out on social media using historical documents to reflect what they were saying a century ago.

A lot was going on during that period. Virginia’s 1902 Constitution had stripped black men of their voting rights and the role of women in the home and public society was hotly contested: Those anti-suffrage postcards demonstrate that clearly. In the midst of this heated political and social climate, the five activists represent myriad positions beyond pro-suffrage and anti-suffrage. Vida says the intention is to give visitors a more nuanced understanding of a vitally important era in the city’s history.

Reading the Twitter feed of anti-suffragist Mary Mason Williams is enough to make a 21st century woman’s blood boil:

“Who needs to vote? Most of us know that being the best mothers and wives we can possibly be is what really benefits society the most #domesticgoddess.”

Far more thought-provoking is Maggie Walker’s tweet: “Happy to pay my $1.50 poll tax and exercise my new right, especially when so many others can’t.”

The parts of each tweet that are direct quotes pulled from archival materials are highlighted with pink quotation marks to provide viewers context.

As with all Valentine museum shows, there are compelling items pulled from its extensive collection as well as from the Library of Virginia and the Virginia Museum of History & Culture. A May 2, 1914, front page of the Richmond News Leader marked “Suffrage Edition” carries a graphic headline reading, “Did you know that…Virginia is one of 18 states out of the 48 where women cannot vote on any question? Who can’t vote: children, insane, idiots, aliens, criminals and women.” It’s a sobering reminder that when it came to voting, white men once equated idiots and the insane with women.

Visitors are encouraged to interact with the exhibition itself, using an Instagram wall and engaging with a changing list of written prompts where they can like, dislike and comment via sticky-note emojis. Fittingly, at the end of the show are pamphlets and voter guides from the League of Women Voters, an acknowledgement that the fight is never truly over.

Vida says the goal of the exhibit is to show the debate that went on in a relevant way.

“These days, we’re politically and socially inundated by social media,” she says, referring the recent statewide election. “But it’s the same idea because they were using the social media of their time.”

The Valentine’s “#BallotBattle: the Social Struggle for Suffrage” runs through Sept. 7 at 1015 E. Clay St., thevalentine.org.

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