Heights resident and historian Anne Sloan deliberated for five years about how to mark the centennial of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote.
Initially, she hoped for a Main Street parade, similar to what Houston women staged 100 years ago. But the obstacles of planning this convinced her and fellow historian Betty Chapman to look for other ways to mark the occasion.
Both were members of The Heritage Society and chose their small museum, in downtown’s Sam Houston Park, as the venue for an exhibit which would spotlight the participation of Houston women in their 72-year struggle for suffrage.
“We wanted to tell a story,” Sloan said.
“Houston Women Cast Their Ballots: Celebrating 100 Years of the Right to Vote” is now open in the Museum Gallery at Sam Houston Park, 1100 Bagby St., and will be available for onsite visitors and through an online virtual tour through March 2021.
The exhibit includes a lecture series and a celebratory event on “Women’s Equality Day,” to be held outside City Hall at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 26. Women, dressed in white and wearing American Suffrage sashes, will assemble and march to City Hall with female Houston City Council members. That evening, City Hall and other public buildings across the United States will be lit purple, white and gold, the colors of the American suffrage movement.
For their exhibit, co-curators Chapman and Sloan gathered material to show how Houston women helped mobilize the vote. The Houston Suffragists Project volunteers who belong to Houston Genealogical Forum have done groundbreaking research about the work of African-American suffragists during the early 20th century and the untold stories of what happened to women after Aug. 26, 1920.
These women worked through their churches, women’s clubs and their YWCA to rally their community. Olivia E. Turner, whose father was a runaway slave, as well as Jennie Belle Covington, Nobia Franklin and Ida Hubert are spotlighted.
Other important Houston suffragists include Hortense Ward, a Heights resident and the first woman in Texas to pass the bar exam, as well as Florence Sterling. Florence was the sister of Ross Sterling, who founded Humble Oil.
Recognizing his sister’s intelligence and capabilities at a time when women were seldom selected for important business positions, Ross Sterling appointed her secretary-treasurer of the Humble Oil Company in 1915. Florence Sterling, an ardent suffragist, founded Houston’s chapter of the League of Women Voters in her executive office on the 10th floor of the Humble Building on Main Street in October 1919.
Some of the items loaned for display in the exhibit include the silver loving cup given to Ward in 1918 for her suffrage work, the gavel Ward used when she served as Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court and the yellow suffrage sash worn by Mamie Ewing. That sash is the only known suffrage sash that still exists in Texas. A portion of Barbara Jordan’s speech delivered to the NOW convention held in Houston in 1977 has been loaned by Texas Southern University.
Also on display is Heights resident Melvalene Cohen’s tiny 1913 Corona typewriter, similar to the one carried in the Golden Flyer, a Saxon automobile used by two women who traveled more than 10,000 miles across America in 1916, campaigning for suffrage. On May 2, the Saxon arrived in Houston where the drivers were welcomed by Annette Finnigan, Julia Ideson, Mrs. Harris Masterson and other prominent local suffragists. The Houston women and the Saxon visitors staged an automobile parade.
The typewriter and a small hand-cranked Singer sewing machine, also on display in the exhibit, were used by the Saxon suffragists to respond to the ever-present hecklers they met during their trip who objected to women trying to win the vote.
“When men called them ‘unwomanly’ because they wanted to vote, they used the sewing machine to whip out an apron,” Sloan said. “When men yelled women did not have the brains to vote, they brought out the typewriter and wrote a poem.”
Other highlights of the exhibit include a 15-foot canvas printed with the names of women who registered to vote in Houston in 1920, providing an opportunity for descendants to find the names of suffragist relatives.
There is also a white dress belonging to Ideson, which illustrates the white clothing chosen by women who wanted to identify themselves as suffragists.
“They felt that the color white symbolized the purity of their cause and was a democratic color because all women owned a white dress,” Sloan said.
A full-sized 1911 Model T “driven” by two suffragists provides a photo-op for those wishing to commemorate the celebration with their daughters and granddaughters. The gift shop is selling “Women Win the Vote” sashes as well as buttons, T-shirts and a children’s book about the Golden Flyer.
The first virtual lecture occurs at noon Thursday, Aug. 20 with Chapman’s “A Look at Woman Suffrage: A Century of Struggle.” That and the subsequent monthly lectures will be available online.
Heritage Society Development Director Laura Woods said there is a groundswell of enthusiasm about the exhibit, and she hopes it will also raise additional interest in The Heritage Society’s mission and programs.
“We were very excited when they came along with the idea,” Woods said.
For current exhibit hours, virtual lectures and tours and to RSVP for the free “Women’s Equality Day,” visit heritagesociety.org.