Marylanders were actively campaigning from the very beginning of the national suffragist movement to secure voting rights for women a century ago, but their names and efforts have gone largely unrecognized in historical texts, according to a researcher who mapped historic sites in the state related to suffragists.
“We live in a patriarchal society,” said Kacy Rohn, a former graduate intern with Maryland Historical Trust. “Our sense of history, and what is of historic value, has traditionally prioritized the lives and achievements of white men. I think a lot of people were left out” of the narrative written by American historians, she said.
Rohn traveled throughout Maryland in 2016 and 2017 to locate roughly 50 sites integral to the suffrage movement that could be commemorated during the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment that granted women the right to vote.
What she found was “a lot of these places have either been [demolished], or in many cases, we recognize as a historic site but with no connection with the suffrage movement,” she said.
Rohn will discuss her research during Patapsco Heritage Greenway’s second annual Patapsco Days series, a monthlong exploration centered on women’s contributions in the Patapsco Valley.
The programmatic theme of “Women: A Force in History” coincides with the centennial of the 19th Amendment’s ratification, and will feature 15 programs throughout March at locations in Catonsville, Elkridge and Ellicott City.
U.S. Congress passed the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on June 4, 1919, but the amendment didn’t take effect nationwide until Aug. 18, 1920, when Tennessee became the deciding state to ratify it. The amendment was ratified by Maryland lawmakers in 1941.
The concept for the annual event grew out of the nonprofit’s History Days series, which focused on Patapsco Heritage Greenway volunteers and staff in partnership with other organizations, said executive director Lindsey Baker.
The series “allows us to hone in on certain specific topics within the Patapsco Valley that maybe haven’t been covered in depth,” Baker said.
The Patapsco Heritage Greenway oversees the state-designated Patapsco Heritage Area, which encompasses 24.6 acres across the towns of Catonsville, Oella and Relay in Baltimore County and Daniels, Ellicott City and Elkridge in Howard County.
The series kicks off Sunday, March 1 at Benjamin Banneker Historical Park in Oella with a talk on “The Importance of the Matriarchal Way” of the Piscataway Conoy Tribe, which once inhabited what’s now known as Patapsco Valley State Park before European settlers arrived and displaced them in the 1600s, led by Kikeokan of the Wild Turkey Clan. Interest has been high and preregistration is required, Baker said.
Baltimore County-based events include a two-hour talk on women in science over the past 4,000 years at the Relay Town Hall on March 10 and a costumed interpretation of the lives of the Ellicott sisters Martha and Betsy, who are billed as historians, educators, religious leaders, social activists and authors in the 19th century, at the Banneker museum in Oella on March 14.
In Howard County, events include a discussion on the two women — Margarita Melville and Mary Moylan — of the Catonsville Nine, who in 1968 burned records at the draft board’s office in Catonsville to protest the Vietnam War, at the Elkridge Furnace Inn, on March 18; a tour of the women-owned agricultural cooperative Myrtle Woods Farm in Elkridge, on March 25; a discussion by jewelry historian Elyse Zorn Karlin on how suffragists politicized their accessories, on March 24; a guided hike across 4.5 miles from Belmont to Avalon within the state park, on March 21, that will end with a lecture on the Wanderlusters, a Baltimore-based hiking club founded for women in 1913; and concluding with Rohn’s presentation “Maryland Women’s Fight for the Vote,” on March 28, at the Elkridge library branch.
“Maryland suffragists did a lot of these hikes or pilgrimages,” traveling from Baltimore City to neighboring counties on walking tours, Rohn said. For early suffragists, walking together was a way of demonstrating independence and was used as a tactic to sway other women to the cause.
“What we really wanted to focus on was making this as inclusive a series of events as possible,” Baker said. “Not just the history of white women in the suffrage movement but really broadening … and expanding our scope of women’s contributions in general in the Patapsco Valley.”
Rohn was dismayed at what little information was available on black suffragists in the state, a gap in documented knowledge that historians are working to rectify by compiling and digitizing documents and family histories.
White suffragists catered to the racist political views of the Democratic Party, which in the mid-19th and early-20 centuries was “hostile to an expansion of the vote,” fearing black women would support Republican candidates, Rohn said.
White women “employed a lot of racist rhetoric in efforts to gain the vote for themselves and exclude women of color nearly completely from the statewide movement,” she said.
Having a dialogue on women’s suffrage, particularly surrounding its exclusion of women of color, is “extremely relevant," not only for the centennial and the reignited fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, but for the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment’s ratification granting suffrage to black men.
“It’s a really important anniversary for voting rights in general,” Rohn said.
Voter registration services will be available at Rohn’s closing program, provided by Indivisible Howard County.
A full list of Patapsco Days 2020 events and where to go to register for them can be found here. Those who attend also have a chance to win Patapsco Valley-themed raffle prizes if they fill out the passport to track the events they’ve attended. Passports can be downloaded online or picked up at the opening event, and drawings will be made at the closing event.