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Women’s Equality Day honors suffragists, urges voting equity

Christine Valeriann, WEDC chair and the group’s Baltimore lead, participates in the Suffrage Selfie Challenge as part of the events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the enactment of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. (Submitted Photo)

It was only a few years ago that Christine Valeriann learned about the Garrett County Pilgrimage, a 1914 “suffrage hike” where seven women crossed the rural county on foot to drum up support for the suffrage movement and ultimately enlisted over 800 women to their cause.

As Valeriann tried to find more details about the pilgrimage, she realized just how little information existed about Maryland’s larger women’s suffrage history, and that many women did not even know when the 19th Amendment, which granted white women the right to vote, would celebrate the centennial of its ratification. (Maryland did not ratify the amendment until 1941).

Valeriann wanted to elevate Maryland suffragists’ stories, so she formed the Women’s Equality Day Celebration coalition, a group of more than 12 organizations across Maryland dedicated to educating the public about the state’s suffrage history and advocating for voting equity.

“Our campaign doesn’t just look backward,” Valeriann said. “We are continuing the fight. The right to vote was hard won, but not done.”

While most 2020 WEDC events were moved to an online format or postponed, this weekend counties across Maryland will host Women’s Equality Day Celebrations to commemorate the ratification of the 19th Amendment and to encourage involvement in the fight for voting equity.

Participating counties include Garrett, Montgomery, Prince George’s, Allegany and Baltimore city, and the events are free, nonpartisan and family-friendly. Some will be held virtually.

Garrett County was the first county to join the statewide celebration. Held at Sang Run Park, the event will include a ribbon-cutting for the recently restored Sang Run Election House, the oldest standing election house in Maryland. Garrett County’s Democratic Women and Republican Women’s Club, who are among the event’s partners, will be leading voter registration side-by-side.

The county’s branch of the American Association of University Women, and the lead sponsor of the WEDC, will present monologues and biographies from state and county suffragists, including women who participated in the Garrett County Pilgrimage.

“It’s important that people know that women fought for the right to vote,” said Judy Carbone, president of the Garrett County chapter of AAUW. “There was so much sacrifice and suffering and protesting.”

In preparation for the event, Carbone went to the county historical society to see if it had any information on local suffragists, but until recently, biographies of Maryland women involved in the movement were nonexistent. So, Carbone started talking to people she knew, posting about her search on Facebook and conducting her own research.

Eventually, Carbone connected with Diana Bailey, the executive director of the Maryland Women’s Heritage Center, whose mission has been to uncover women’s history in the state, to help reveal these women’s lives.

At the same time, the MWHC was working on its own project for the 19th Amendment’s centennial, documenting the lives of women suffragists across Maryland. Volunteers with the center pored over letters, scrapbooks, diaries and petitions to find the names and personal stories of women who often were not favorably reported on within the newspapers, if they were acknowledged at all.

Some women have been commemorated with suffrage markers at their historic residences or workplaces across the state, and several more are pending installation.

“All these stories were lost until recently,” Bailey said.

The MWHC presented its findings in an online exhibit and will also be taking some of the suffragists’ stories to Baltimore city’s WEDC in Druid Hill Park. The event will include voter registration and an informal vote on a ballot initiative, meant to provide insight into the needs of the community and help WEDC coalition partners focus their efforts.

Montgomery County’s WEDC event will also emphasize the importance of voting, with a virtual evening full of TED-talk-style presentations ranging in topic from how to get more women elected to reflections of a first-time voter.

Laurie-Anne Sayles, event organizer and Gaithersburg city councilwoman, said she wanted the event to focus on the diversity of women’s voices and speak to the intersectionality of the voting rights movement.

“We wanted to ensure the evolution of women’s involvement in politics was part of this event,” Sayles said.

Sayles has always been interested in ensuring everyone gets a voice at the table. As the first African American elected to the Gaithersburg City Council, Sayles said she embraced the representative responsibility of the role, and now, as a candidate for Montgomery County Council, she hopes to use her position to elevate women’s voices and get more young people involved in the community.

“If we are not playing a role in deciding who’s making decisions, we are missing out,” Sayles said. “Our community works better when more of us are involved. We can’t let up.”

 

 

 

 

 

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