Revived show on women's activism goes 'On With the Fight' at UT's Briscoe Center
Stay focused on the front row.
Eleven women, all African American, parade down a wide street during the 1978 March on Washington for the Equal Rights Amendment. They look confident and self-possessed. All but one wears sensible shoes. This is not their first march.
Enlarged and posted at the entryway, this cadre of women welcomes guests to a sharply devised show, "On With the Fight," at the newly reopened Briscoe Center for American History on the University of Texas campus. The exhibit, curated by Jill Morena and Sarah Sonner, originally opened in March 2020, timed to the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which broadly gave women the legal right to vote.
The exhibit closed a few days later because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Finally back, the show could not be more relevant. As one spends time with the photographs, diaries, posters, banners, memos, buttons, magazines, mementos and letters — as well as a crisply tailored World War II Coast Guard uniform — it is impossible to ignore the fact that the fight for women's rights, health and well-being is far from over.
Morena and Sonner divided the show into two sections that cover the first waves of that American campaign (roughly 1850 to 1950) and the second rounds (1950, give or take a few years, to today).
In part because the Briscoe Center has long counted the American South and social justice among its historical strengths, some of the first sections deal explicitly with race. Campaigners tried to convince Southern white people that while the women's vote might promote temperance and prohibition, it would not upset white supremacy. Black women would gain the right to vote, but it would be suppressed, they insisted.
One of the most fascinating related objects — and the only one not selected from the Briscoe's archives — is a poll tax receipt for Mary L. Sutherland of Bell County. On this rectangular document, which looks rather like a paper check, the word "colored" is crossed out, while the word "white" is left intact.
Honor is given, of course, to Minnie Fisher Cunningham, the Texas dynamo who not only helped persuade President Woodrow Wilson to back the amendment, but also lobbied Texas Gov. William P. Hobby. Texas became the first state in the South to ratify the 19th Amendment.
We see excerpts from second-wave magazines that range from the domestic to the radically underground. The section on reporter and humorist Molly Ivins includes excerpts from her youthful diary. On Sept. 8, 1958, she writes: "I am the master of my ship and the captain of my soul & by God you had better stay out of my way."
Says a lot about the fearless journalist that Ivins became.
More calm but no less imposing is a memo from CBS producer Marion Freeman to Eric Sevareid insisting on a better title and higher pay for her pioneering work in broadcast news. (Journalism and photojournalism are among the Briscoe's other strengths.)
Back to that uniform. It belonged to a member of the United States Coast Guard Women's Reserve (known as SPARS). It was expertly tailored and is shown next to a bright SPARS poster that shows women in immaculate white gloves, jaunty caps and full makeup, all to convince young women that they might look like movie stars Rosalind Russell or Greer Garson if they signed up for duty.
Other sections cover grassroots groups, union organizers and Title IX defenders. We learn more about the pecan-shellers strike in San Antonio and the Farah jeans strike in El Paso.
One item relays hope for the future of civility: a warm thank-you note, dated Nov. 21, 1988, from President George H.W. Bush to Gov. Ann Richards that includes a tiny silver foot, a joking reference to her speech at the 1988 Democratic National Convention when she said to loud approval: "Poor George, he was born with a silver foot in his mouth."
The Briscoe specializes in personal archives donated by influential people or their families, especially Texans. Hence, not only can we peek into Ivins' papers, but also those of the late Richards, trailblazing gubernatorial candidate Frances "Sissy" Farenthold and journalist/political aide Liz Carpenter.
Carpenter is of particular interest here, since she helped lead the national fight for the stalled Equal Rights Amendment, and she inspired this show's title. It comes from a personal note from Carpenter to Richards, scribbled on a 1980 photograph of Carpenter holding up an ERA sign. Her note reads: "The fight goes on and we go on with the fight."
If you go
"On With the Fight" continues through July 16 at the Briscoe Center, 2300 Red River St. on the UT campus. briscoecenter.org.
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.