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100 years on, historical society features Ohio women during 19th Amendment ratification celebration

Posted at 4:03 PM, Aug 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-26 19:13:21-04

CLEVELAND — A century has passed since the adoption and ratification of the 19th Amendment. The amendment, which gave women the right to vote, and the process of its ratification is now the main focus of a new exhibit at the Western Reserve Historical Society.

“I hope that this will inspire people to remember that we're actively collecting today so we want people to go out and get inspired to be activists, and then help us document that for the future,” said Patty Edmonson.

Edmonson is the MAC Curator of Costume & Textiles at the society.

"I think what's really powerful for me is the surviving objects,” Edmonson said about the collection.

Because of the pandemic, the centennial celebration exhibit is now virtual. It costs $12 to view different pages, videos and photos that showcase how women in Northeast Ohio played a role in the Suffrage movement.

The photos show men and women before, during and after the adoption of the amendment.

"They were people like Belle Sherwin who I mean she basically created voting — voters guides, and she did that here, and then that's something that was adopted nationally,” Edmonson said.

For the past 100 years, the women in these photos have been seen across the county. You can read their signs, see their faces and understand their mission.

"It was really heartbreaking what they went through for such an important cause. We wouldn't be where we are today had they given up initially," said Deb Pieti. "The first time they were said no to, we may still not be able to work as women."

For Pieti, the bigger picture of the Women’s Suffrage movement wasn’t fully visualized until they were in color.

"You know they saw life in color,” she said. “And to see it, building upon itself…it’s just breathtaking. It really is, because then I see it as they saw it through their eyes, during that time."

Pieti was one of the first in the country to see the black and white photos come to life. A photographic colorist, she spent months in her California studio matching colors.

"It's given me a much greater appreciation for what they went through the sacrifices, or hardships that they went through for women to earn the right to vote,” she said.

She matched the purples, yellows and whites to what would have been in the mid-1800's and early 1900’s.

“To colorize a photograph authentically, I have to go with those muted colors,” she said.

Women across the country, including in Northeast Ohio, used the color of their clothes to make a statement.

"A lot of women did have, especially of a certain class, did have a white garment, a dress blouse and a skirt,” Edmonson said. “And so the idea was that if you had this sea of white, that it would make this huge visual impact and they would stand out amongst men and other people who are wearing darker colors."

As part of the virtual exhibit, the historical society has a dress and pair of shoes worn during the marches and movement in the area.

"The dress that we have that Mertice Laffer wore in the parade is white,” Edmonson said. “It happens to have red polka dots. Red is not a suffrage color but I'm just imagining that that was one of Mertice Laffer's white dresses and so that that worked for that day."

Edmonson said we can see color and clothing play a role in the modern women’s movement too.

"It has a similar impact to the Women's March, with all of those pink hats,” she said. "You know, it's something that stands out and when it's done by many people at once it shows this visual solidarity that symbolizes their political solidarity."

The museum has one of those iconic pink hats from the National Women’s March on display in the virtual exhibit.

In the museum, the favorites in any exhibit are easily determined.

"Everything's behind glass, so you can always tell what the most loved object is because they're like greasy forehead prints and fingerprints,” Edmonson said.

Even with the visitors behind a screen, Edmonson said the society is working to involve the public.

"We're asking people to share stories now. Stories of activism. Stories of just daily life,” she said.