OTTUMWA — The Wapello County Historical Museum opened up a celebration of women exhibition Friday. Dr. Rick Woten, the museum’s director, said the exhibit pays tribute to the centennial of the 19th amendment and highlights Wapello County women who have made positive impacts in the community.
“We wanted to celebrate the achievements up to 1920 and that amendment passing,” Woten said, “but at the same time push the discussion of museums and cultural centers to create a dialogue with their community to ask what’s happened since 1920.”
Woten said it is a different kind of exhibit. While there are artifacts and photos, there were more stories and “personas of their connections.”
“It’s also meant to be a bit more cerebral, but still accessible to the public,” he said. “We want them to think about how they contribute to making a change and in some ways hopefully opening up the doors for the next generation of young people to not only make the change, but to support positive changes to bring your community.”
Woten said volunteers and a team of staff took the time to pursue some research and pull archives to put out a display. In scrapbooks, there were old newspaper articles about the women in the community.
Attendees also get the chance to write down names of women who inspired them and look at a mirror and ask themselves how they can be agents of change.
The exhibit also features a suffragist statue standing next to a horse statue. The woman wore a white, purple and gold sash, with the words “votes for women” written on it, something Woten said, was common during the women’s suffrage movement. The horse also displayed the same words. The colors represented loyalty, purpose, light and life.
Mary Stewart, president of League of Women Voters of Ottumwa, felt touched by the display when she took a peek. Overwhelmed by the stories and information, she said it also allowed her to think about how hard women have fought for the right to vote.
“As hard as those women have fought for the right to vote, women are still fighting for rights in a number of different areas,” she said. “I would take that away and just how hard and dedicated women have been to speak up and stand up; it wasn’t an easy thing for them to do.”
Barb Hanson, Ottumwa High School Gear Up Coordinator, also believes women are still facing issues. She said it is important to continue the celebration of women as well as study women’s suffrage and rights.
“Every chance we have to empower women, young and old, we must,” Hanson said. “Women, who work as hard, or harder, then men, still are not getting equal pay. Why? This is systemic and by educating others, we can begin to make changes. Just like the women before us.”
“Like Carrie Chapman Catt championing for our right to vote, women can be inspired to demand equal pay,” she added. “Representation is also still an issue — whether it’s business owners, leaders, politicians or CEOs — women are held to a different standard than men.”
Just as Woten pointed out, Hanson also said women should be agents of change.
“We must allow women to harness their skills, find their voice, and have a platform equal to that of men,” she said. Let us strive to ‘be the change,’ as we saw Harriet Tubman, Maya Angelo and Mother Teresa do in their own ways.”
When it comes down to it, Woten said people should come to the exhibit and take the time to study women’s suffrage, comparing it to the American revolution when people were striving to gain independence from the British.
“He’s [Thomas Jefferson] trying to create a balance,” Woten said, “in which there’s this underlying tension between motivating the person to become emotional and be a participant in securing their own rights,” he said, “and at the same time not giving everything away so that there’s at least some sort of community good, the power is shared equally that balances what we see with every single one of these discussions with sufferings.”
“Even if we look in the large scope of American history, while that has gradually grown [acceptance of women and people of different races] there’s still a lot of work to do when it comes to the universal suffrage rights of people in the trans community or LGBTQ as a whole,” he added. “All those are part of the larger suffrage story, and women’s suffrage is definitely a part of it. That’s why it’s important.”