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Documentary Commemorates the Women’s Suffrage Centennial in Virginia

Women pose in front of the Washington Equestrian Monument in Capitol Square
Women pose for "Today's Agents of Change," a photo project by the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, Capitol Square, Richmond, Va., February 2020 (Photo: Boedeker Films)
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A black-and-white archival photo of women posing in front of the Washington Equestrian Monument in Capitol Square, Richmond, Va., 1915
Members of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia pose in front of the Washington Equestrian Monument in Capitol Square, Richmond, Va., February 1915 (Photo: Boedeker Films) 
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The 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage is an auspicious time for Virginians to reflect on the fight for equality.

“These Things Can Be Done: Women’s Suffrage in Virginia,” a production of Boedeker Films, is presented by VPM in association with the Virginia Museum of History and Culture. The documentary premiered on August 13 at 9:00 p.m. on VPM PBS.

The Present Reflects the Past
"Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." —Equal Rights Amendment of 1972

“These Things Can Be Done: Women’s Suffrage in Virginia” opens not in black and white but in radiant color. It is January 2020, and a vast sea of women is gathered at Virginia’s Capitol Square in Richmond, Va. They are there to raise their voices, to hold placards and to make it clear to state legislators that they support the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. While on this crisp winter day, Virginia becomes the 38th and final state needed to ratify the ERA, a legal battle looms. The victory is largely symbolic. For the ERA, the path to the Constitution is far from clear. 

By contrast, a century earlier, American women won the right to vote. This victory was more than symbolic, and the 19th Amendment was formally added to the U.S. Constitution in August 1920. 

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” —19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution 

The Cause of Women’s Suffrage
"There is a world to be lifted into the sunshine of right thinking and right acting. These things can be done. Women of Virginia, awake!" —Mary Johnston, Virginia Suffrage News, October 1, 1914

The fight for women’s suffrage, like that for the ERA, was hard-fought. Although Virginia ultimately voted against the 19th Amendment, the efforts of Virginian suffragists were not in vain. They were part of a national movement that led to nationwide change. Through the efforts of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage and leading suffragists and organizers including Lila Meade Valentine, Adele Clark, Maggie Lena Walker and Sophie Meredith, women won the right to vote. 

Such efforts, however, were not without opposition and controversy. The suffragists faced fierce backlash from a number of their fellow citizens and groups such as the Virginia Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. The “Silent Sentinels” who protested in front of the White House endured not only bad weather but often abuse at the hands of the public and law enforcement. These more “radical” suffragists were arrested, thrown into jail and sometimes even force fed during their staged hunger strikes. 

While the 19th Amendment extended the vote to all women, the women’s suffrage movement itself had been quite insular, especially when it came to race. Many suffrage chapters were whites-only. Black women were relegated to the back of suffrage parades. The primary political focus was on white women. 

In addition, although the 19th Amendment technically applied to all women, in many states African American voters continued to face a multitude of barriers to the vote, including poll taxes, literacy tests and other forms of voter suppression and racial intimidation. This would continue largely unchecked until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Between August 1920, when Tennessee became the final state needed to ratify the amendment, and the election of November 1920, thousands of Virginian women registered to vote. That fall they cast their ballots and by doing so, helped enact political and societal reforms. In the years that followed, the General Assembly passed legislation that positively impacted women, workers, the healthcare system, public education and other causes suffragists embraced.

The Road Ahead
"It's important to be vigilant, not take anything for granted but continue to work for change and progress." —Dr. Sandra G. Treadway, Librarian of Virginia, Library of Virginia, speaking in “These Things Can Be Done”

Women in the United States have come a long way in the last 100 years, but discrimination remains. Women face a significant wage gap. Sexism persists. Sexual harassment and sexual assault affect far too many women. The Equal Rights Amendment remains in limbo. 

When our hearts are heavy and our bodies are weary, may we be reminded of these women who, a century ago, never gave up the fight. Each day, may we continue to strive toward that ultimate goal of equality for all.

Join the Virtual Panel Discussion
On August 14 at noon, the Virginia Museum of History and Culture will present a virtual panel discussion with the historians featured in the film. For details about this free event, visit secure.virginiahistory.org/694. Watch the event’s livestream on YouTube or Facebook.

Learn More
For more about the film, visit suffragefilm.com

Funding for this program is provided by VPM and the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commemoration in partnership with the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.