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Are We There Yet? 

A new exhibit at the MAC chronicles victories in women’s rights, raising the question of what’s left to fight for.

click to enlarge CAMERON COUCH
  • Cameron Couch

Sheri Barnard was crying. Spokane’s former mayor apologized for her cracking voice, the tears welling up in her eyes. But she couldn’t help it.

We met at the Oct. 30 opening ceremony of “Women’s Votes, Women’s Voices” at the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture. The exhibit covers the history of voting and suffrage efforts at the state and national levels, as well as recent issues women have faced. Many of the historical aspects of the exhibit are made more tangible with artifacts, like clothing from famous women suffragists.

For the opening, there were women wearing the vestments of the Suffrage Era — corsets, furs and hats. Barnard, who ran City Hall in the early ’90s, let her eyes wander around the room as she explained the personal significance the exhibit held for her as a female politician. “I know what it is to be elected to office… They were hard-fought campaigns — I mean, really hard,” she recalls.

The exhibit celebrates those who paved the way for women like her to succeed. Many of those pioneers were in attendance, like Marion Moos, who opened Past-time Feminist Bookstore downtown in the ‘70s. The store brought the women’s movement of that era to Spokane, focusing on disseminating the information needed to take action.

“To see the women here who supported the women’s vote, and to see them all proud and happy — they’re the people who helped Spokane become what it is today in women’s rights,” Barnard said.

Largely absent among those women in attendance, though, were the twenty-somethings. Considering many of these activists originally got involved in the women’s movement in their 20s, the absence was especially noticeable.

It’s a cultural transition that Anne Murphy, president of Spokane’s League of Women’s Voters, is aware of. “They are aging groups,” says Murphy of the activists, and filling in their ranks with fresh recruits hasn’t been easy. Partly, it’s a communication thing. Social networks have taken over the role once filled by tracts and pamphlets. Murphy, admittedly, doesn’t use Facebook. But she hopes that events like this one will draw the younger crowd in.

That’s what Marsha Rooney hopes as well. Rooney is senior curator of history at the MAC, and she hopes that “Women’s Votes” will provide a frame of reference to judge what she says is “still on the to-do list.”

“It invigorates me to look back and say, ‘Don’t stop. What’s next?’” says Rooney.

But what is next? What will be the next turn in what Rooney describes as the “weaving route toward equality?” The suffragists fought for legislation granting women the right to vote. Later, women won equal pay for equal work done alongside their male peers. They gained reproductive rights with Roe vs. Wade. Title IX helped women break into the sporting arena.

Besides wage equality, which is still a huge problem — the US ranks a dismal 64 th (out of 134) — the issues that most face women today seem to be social ones. During a recent peek under the “Hot Topics” tab on the National Organization of Women’s website, the first thing that pops up is a plea to stop reducing female candidates to mere sex objects.

It’s the kind of enemy that the big guns of marches and sit-ins and legislation don’t have the accuracy to hit. Maybe that’s the mantle to take up. If women like Moos were able to end discrimination on a systemic national level, we should be able to handle this Facebook business.

“Women’s Votes, Women’s Voices” exhibit • Wed-Sat from 10 am-5 pm, through May 7, 2011 • $5-$7 • The MAC • 2316 W. First Ave. • http://www.northwestmuseum.org • 456-3931

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