Documentary highlights Va. role in women’s suffrage in 19th Amendment’s centennial year

Women gather at the Virginia Capitol building on International Women’s Day in March, to celebrate the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Film still courtesy of Boedeker Films.

Iman Mekonen, Spectrum Editor

Women advocating in January for the Equal Rights Amendment flood the Downtown Richmond streets in the opening scene of “These Things Can Be Done: Women’s Suffrage in Virginia.” The next clip jumps to a march at the State Capitol on International Women’s Day, celebrating Virginia’s ratification of the amendment.

Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. appeared at both demonstrations, marching in organized fashion with signs, banners and matching black and red outfits. The sorority made their presence known during the events, but African American women were not always in the forefront of the movement.

“We were one of the few African American participants in the Women’s Suffrage March,” said Anna Bradley, a member of the sorority, in the film. “They made us march in the back, because they were trying to appease white southerners. They didn’t really want a Black presence in the march, but we knew our day was coming.”

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the passing of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote in the U.S. 

In celebration of the centennial, the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, Virginia Public Media and Boedeker Films partnered to release the film on Thursday. Directed by Jeff Boedeker, it is available to stream on VPM’s Facebook page. 

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The 19th amendment was ratified 100 years ago on August 18, 1920. This amendment represents the largest enfranchisement of Americans, although the ability for all women to vote proved more difficult in the Jim Crow South. You can learn more about this historic change from local historians, including VMHC curator Dr. Karen Sherry, with @MyVPM's latest documentary, "These Things Can Be Done” (see the link in bio for more) ⁠ #VMHCEducation #TheseThingsCanBeDone #AgentsofChangeVA #VMHC #VIrginiaHistory #AmericanHistory #WomensHistory #19thAmendment #Suffrage #WomensSuffrage #SuffrageCentennial #WomeninHistory #Suffragists #EqualSuffrageLeagueofVirginia #VirginiaStudies #MuseumFromHome

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The film’s production was delayed at its halfway point due to COVID-19, which in turn pushed back its scheduled June release. Writer and producer Laura McCann said the delay worked out with the help of digitized historical records.

“We were really lucky in that sense that a lot of institutions that we worked with had digitized collections or had previously digitized collections for their suffrage exhibits,” McCann said. “So they already had a lot of resources they were able to share with us, that otherwise would have been impossible to access during a lockdown.”

The film takes a look at the prominent, Virginia-founded suffrage groups that organized in the early 1900s to advocate for women’s suffrage. It also addresses the racism and omission African Americans experienced from the movement and the lack of records indicating minority involvement.

“For understanding the role of African American women in supporting women’s suffrage, we just don’t have the records, or we haven’t been able to find those records,” said Barbara Batson, exhibitions coordinator at the Library of Virginia, in the film.

Members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., march to celebrate the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Film still courtesy of Boedeker Films.

The Equal Suffrage League of Virginia and the Virginia branch of the Congressional Union for Women’s Suffrage were spotlighted in the film. The groups differed on their aggressiveness toward the call for change; The Congressional Union focused on change at the state level, while The Equal Suffrage League organized in Washington D.C. to advocate for federal laws, such as the 19th Amendment.

Once the 19th Amendment was passed, the women’s suffrage movement often left out African Americans and included efforts to disenfranchise their votes with techniques such as poll taxes and literacy tests.

Maggie L. Walker and Ora Brown Stokes, two African American women from the Richmond area, saw disenfranchisement in their community and took measures to make voting easier.

“[They] played a key role and kind of helped organize some black women to pass the barriers that were put in place to stop them from registering to vote,” McCann said.

Virginia voted against ratifying the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, but the film shows that organization and persistence from women in the state made a positive impact on the suffrage movement.  

“The suffrage movement, even though it didn’t succeed on the ground here in Virginia,” said Karen Sherry, museum collections curator at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, “it did prepare a generation of women to feel that they can move forward and affect change.” 

Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment on January 15. Film still courtesy of Boedeker Films.

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