Behind the creation of “Toward a Universal Suffrage: African American Women in Iowa and the Vote for All”

CATEGORIES: September 2021, Voices

Gertrude Rush, the first African American female attorney in Iowa. Helen Downey, co-founder and first president of the Iowa Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. Vivian Smith, teacher and suffragist with musical talent. Mattie Woods, musician and parliamentarian. Sue M. Wilson Brown, founder of multiple civic organizations and first female president of the Des Moines chapter of the NAACP.

If you do not recognize the names of any of these women, you need to see “Toward a Universal Suffrage: African American Women in Iowa and the Vote for All,” a traveling museum exhibit created to honor and celebrate the contributions of African American women in Iowa to the women’s suffrage movement.

The 'Toward a Universal Suffrage' exhibit is shown here at the State Historical Museum of Iowa. Photo from the State Historical Society of Iowa.
The ‘Toward a Universal Suffrage’ exhibit is shown here at the State Historical Museum of Iowa. Photo from the State Historical Society of Iowa.

African American women who fought for suffrage lived in communities across Iowa. Seeking ways to fight for their right to vote, they joined organizations such as the Iowa Equal Suffrage Association, which was open to all regardless of gender or race. However, like African Americans across the country, they were disappointed when many of these organizations failed to address issues that were important to them.

By the early 1900s, Iowa women such as Helen Downey and Sue M. Wilson Brown had created their own women’s organizations, including the Iowa branch of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, later known as the Iowa Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. The IFCWC had committees in suffrage, health, education, social service and civics. Their mission was to help other clubs like the Colored Women’s Suffrage Club to succeed with their goals.

How did the “Toward a Universal Suffrage” exhibit, which tells the story of these women and their fight for suffrage and other civil rights, come to be?

The product of a collaboration between the Iowa Department of Human Rights’ Office on the Status of Women, the Central Iowa Community Museum and the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, the exhibit would not have existed without Kristen Corey and her intern Allyn Benkowich.

In 2019, Corey worked for the Iowa Department Human Rights as a program planner for the Office on the Status of Women. A member of Iowa’s 19th Amendment Centennial Commemoration planning committee, Corey became interested in doing a history-based project for the statewide commemoration. She says, “I started out my research knowing there was a gap, and I didn’t want the entire conversation to revolve just around white women in the state of Iowa.”

Unfortunately, the more Corey looked into this idea, the more she learned how little information was available about the history of Iowa’s multicultural women and their involvement in the suffrage movement. One historian she consulted even told her there weren’t any African American women involved in the movement. Corey flat-out rejected that idea.

Felicite Wolfe, a curator and collections manager at the African American Museum of Iowa, provided more helpful feedback. When Corey contacted Wolfe, describing the project and asking for guidance on finding the hidden histories of the women, Wolfe advised her on what sources to look for and ways to start researching.

Benkowich, then a Drake University student and a writing intern for Corey, did much of the research and wrote the initial drafts of the exhibit’s profiles. Corey says, “Allyn was behind all the profiles and then did some additional research. I couldn’t have done it without her help.”

A lot of Benkowich’s time was spent on scouring articles in the Iowa Bystander newspaper, the primary resource for the exhibit, and then filling in the missing gaps of the stories. The Iowa Bystander was an African-American newspaper founded in Des Moines, Iowa, and is considered the oldest Black newspaper west of the Mississippi.

Two other people vital to bringing Corey’s idea to reality were Eric Morse, founder of the Central Iowa Community Museum, and Karen Kedrowski, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics.

Morse, a museologist who connected with Corey through the State Historical Society of Iowa, advised on the layout and presentation of the exhibit’s content. He states, “’Toward a Universal Suffrage’ is set around 100 years ago, but I don’t really see it as a history exhibit. I see it more as an exhibit about today in our present moment but through that historical lens.”

Kedrowski, also a member of the 19th Amendment Centennial Commemoration planning committee and a political science professor at Iowa State University, identified the funding sources for the exhibit, which was generously supported by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ Dean’s Office.

Kedrowski also set up the process by which the exhibit could be reserved for display and has personally delivered it to a number of locations around the state since its February 2020 debut. More recently, Catt Center staff member Ashley Marsh worked with Iowa State’s Office of Risk Management to arrange insurance coverage for the exhibit that will allow locations without their own coverage to reserve it, and she now also handles the bookings.

The exhibit’s voting rights history timeline was drawn from the Women’s Suffrage in Iowa timeline created by Sue Cloud, communications specialist at the Catt Center, for the center’s website. It provides a chronology of events in the fight for universal suffrage in Iowa, as well as several significant national events that have occurred since the passage of the 19th Amendment.

When asked, “What is the hardest part about working with diversity and inclusion?” both Kedrowski and Morse answered that being careful not to use language that can be interpreted as cultural appropriation was critical. Kedrowski succeeded in doing that by asking staff from Iowa State’s Multicultural Student Affairs to review the panels and provide feedback on the exhibit.

Kedrowski also enlisted Keo Pierron, a graphic designer with the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences communications team, to design the exhibit’s panels. The exhibit contains a lot of written information, and Pierron’s design makes it easy to digest the information. He says, “This was a chance to bring forward an important part of history and how the suffragists of Iowa had their voices heard through this difficult time.”

The exhibit is available for display at organizations and events around the state, including schools, museums and libraries. The exhibit schedule and a portal to request hosting the exhibit can be found on the Central Iowa Community Museum website.

African American women have always been a part of Iowa’s history, and they all have a story to tell. They are attorneys, leaders, mothers, daughters, activists, suffragists, doctors, directors, musicians and much more. But most of all they are superheroes.

Article by Arwa Hassan, Catt Center public relations and events planning intern