The National Votes for Women Trail Leads To Success
This Preservation Month, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is celebrating People Saving Places, a national high-five to everyone doing the great work of preserving historic places—in ways big and small—and inspiring others to do the same. Throughout the month we are featuring various organizations and individuals who have been tirelessly doing the work of preservation, particularly in the last two and a half years. We wanted to provide space, a victory lap so to speak, for them to share their successes, challenges, and hopes for the future.
"I couldn’t wait to let the people in church know what’s going on about this history—that this young lady, a [Black] woman, came and spoke on behalf of women’s suffrage…because back then a woman, especially a woman of color, was supposed to be quiet. But she, with wisdom, spoke.”
This was the reaction of Pastor Ralph Smith when he learned that Dr. Mary Britton, the only female doctor in the Lexington area, had come to his St. James AME Church in Danville, Kentucky, in 1887 to speak about suffrage to a meeting of the State Association of Colored Teachers.
This is just one of thousands of stories that researchers found as part of the National Votes for Women Trail (NVWT), a project of the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites (NCWHS). The NCWHS was created in October 2001 by representatives of more than 20 historical sites linked to American women and some 20 others from organizations devoted to preserving women's history.
The NCWHS advocates for historic sites that center the preservation and interpretation of the important role of women and gender non-conforming individuals as core to the American story. The success of the NVWT is just one success story NCWHS wanted to highlight from the last two years.
Building the National Votes for Women Trail
In 2007, then-Senator Hillary Clinton proposed to fund a Votes for Women History Trail Route, and while Congress passed the legislation, funding was never appropriated and the bill (S. 1816-110th) died. The importance of documenting the 72-year bloodless revolution for women’s suffrage, however, continued to guide the NCWHS, and in 2016 they launched a volunteer effort to create a virtual trail of places across the country where the suffrage story can be told.
Based on a framework by Dr. Judith Wellman—the organization’s vice president—the NCWHS developed an online NVWT database. It was brought to life by NVWT Wisconsin State Coordinator Maggie McClain, and the first entry was made in February of 2016 by NVWT Maryland State Coordinator Diana Bailey. Slowly but surely the network of NVWT State Coordinators grew and, with it, the number of entries.
As the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment approached, a goal of documenting 2020 sites by the end of 2020 was established. Then Lauren Baird Harris—a consultant hired with a grant from the National Trust—developed a searchable map to display the data in the database.
Along the way, the importance of the project was recognized by the William G. Pomeroy Foundation of Syracuse, New York. One of the Foundation’s objectives is to focus on historic research, preservation, and heritage tourism. To give the virtual NVWT trail a physical component, the Foundation offered to fund up to 250 roadside markers for women’s suffrage sites of particular importance around the country.
The first NVWT Pomeroy marker dedications took place in Kentucky, home state of NCWHS co-president Marsha Weinstein. “This project is just so exciting. We are adding to the body of knowledge of American history! Hundreds of community members attended the Kentucky marker dedications for sheroes like Susan Look Avery, Dr. Mary Britton, Josephine Henry, Mary Barr Clay, Eugenia B. Farmer, and Madeline Breckenridge. People are thrilled to learn about the suffragist history in their communities,” explained Weinstein.
The Future of the Trail
After meeting the initial goal of 2020 entries on the NVWT database by 2020, the NVWT continues to grow, currently boasting more than 2,350 sites. “This trail provides a resource that has never existed before for educators, researchers, and heritage tourists,” continued Weinstein. “Since you can search the database by many different fields, we are looking forward to it being used to launch students’ research projects, local historical societies’ programs, Girl Scout badges, and a variety of other important efforts.”
“This project has always been coordinated virtually—initially by phone calls, and subsequently by Zoom meetings—so the pandemic did not impact our ability to meet our initial goal,” said Lindsay Hinkle, NCWHS Administrative Assistant. “In fact, anyone interested in submitting a site in their community can go to NVWT.org, click on the Trail, then “Get Involved” and submit a site for inclusion on our map.”
Meanwhile, public dedication ceremonies of new roadside markers are taking place around the country.
“Continued growth,” answered Lucy Beard, NCWHS Co-President. “We intend to keep pace by refining our database as technology changes and adding more sites to expand the story. We are currently in conversations with potential sponsors who see the value in being part of a project with such impact. Women’s suffrage empowered over half of our democracy. It was a grassroots effort, just as the National Votes for Women Trail has been a grassroots effort from volunteers in every state. We intend to keep shining a light on the unknown women and men who were committed to equal rights in 1920 and those who continue that struggle into the 21st century.”
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