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Celebrating a basic and treasured right

20th century woman holding flag
A 20th century woman holding a flag. Photo: SCETV website, "American Experience" series "The Vote."

Like many other celebrations during the coronavirus pandemic, events commemorating the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution have gone by the wayside. But Furman’s Distinguished University Public Historian and Scholar Courtney Tollison and other partners in the Greenville, South Carolina, community have found a new way to honor the 100th anniversary of the day women officially won the right to vote in the United States.

Courtney Tollison
Courtney Tollison, distinguished university public historian and scholar.

Tollison is involved in national efforts to highlight the landmark victory for women’s suffrage. One of those is Forward Into Light, which will be observed across the nation on Women’s Equality Day by illuminating selected buildings with the colors of the suffrage movement – purple, gold and white.

Between 8:15 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 26, Furman’s bell tower and Duke Library will be draped in the symbolic colors. At 8:30 p.m., students will read excerpts from the 19th Amendment and quotes from national and local suffrage leaders on the steps of Duke Library.

Other local partners such as M. Judson Booksellers, Greenville Drive Stadium and Upcountry History Museum–Furman University will also participate in the lighting ceremony.

A colorized photo of women marching for suffrage. The colors of the movement were purple, gold and white. Photo: Women’s Vote Centennial website.

Tollison is particularly excited about the significance of lighting M. Judson Booksellers, the historic Greenville County Courthouse, which bore witness to the 1920 event that dramatically changed voting rights.

Also lending context to the building’s notoriety is the fact that Mary Camilla Judson, the store’s namesake, was a stalwart for progress and opportunity at Furman’s predecessor, Greenville Woman’s College. “Judson voted for the first time eight weeks and one day before she died,” Tollison said. “The ceremony is going to be beautiful and very meaningful.”

In addition to facilitating Forward Into Light, Tollison is immersed in other activities related to  the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.

With support from The Riley Institute last year, she successfully pitched a program idea to SCETV about the centennial. She was one of three humanities scholars from the state enlisted to help craft content and was interviewed for the documentary, “Sisterhood: SC Suffragists – Moving Forward,” which airs on the public television network Sunday, Aug. 23, at 7 p.m.

Apart from the public TV program, Tollison is state coordinator for the National Votes for Women Trail, a project of the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites, aimed at telling stories about suffrage through historical markers in every state. She is also working on exhibits in Furman’s Duke Library – one from Washington, D.C.’s National Portrait Gallery, “Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence,” and “The Simple Ground of Justice: Greenvillians in the Fight for Women’s Suffrage” in Furman’s Special Collections and Archives.

Ultimately, Tollison wants South Carolinians and Greenvillians to recognize the far-reaching impact of women’s suffrage.

South Carolina was known as ‘the reluctant state,’ and though the General Assembly voted not to ratify the 19th Amendment in 1920, there was a small but powerful group of activists who fought for this right for decades, she said.

“They won the right to vote through the federal amendment, but many of these women also helped improve literacy, public health and social services, and pressed for other state laws that advocated for women and families, such as raising the age of consent, implementing child labor restrictions, and backing a law for compulsory schooling,” Tollison said.

“The centennial is a significant and timely reminder that we should always appreciate the efforts of those who fought for the right to vote, and never fail to participate fully in the civic and political life of our nation.”

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