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A stitch in time: ‘Women’s Voices, Women’s Votes, Women’s Rights’ quilt exhibit to open at Clinton Presidential Center

by Jack Schnedler, Special to the Democrat-Gazette | September 4, 2022 at 1:56 a.m.
Nancy Turbitt’s work, “Steps of Thunder” is part of “Women’s Voices, Women’s Votes, Women’s Rights,” an exhibit of 18 specially commissioned artistic quilts by 18 world-renowned fiber artists, alongside historic artifacts and multimedia displays exploring the risks that women and male allies took to win the vote, expand democracy and elevate human rights over two centuries. The works go on display Saturday through April 30 at Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock. (Special to the Democrat-Gazette)

A vibrant call to action is literally woven into the fabric of the special exhibition that opens Saturday at Clinton Presidential Center.

Spotlighting "Women's Voices, Women's Votes, Women's Rights" are 18 quilts commissioned from fiber artists specifically for the multimedia presentation. Their images are dazzling. Their topics span history. Their messages are inspiring. Their impact calls for action.

Curated by Allida Black, a professor of history and international affairs with special expertise on Eleanor Roosevelt, the exhibit is finally set to open two years after its original date was derailed by the covid pandemic.

A statement from Hillary Rodham Clinton, who encouraged the project, looks to the past and the future. She praises all the women who "have long been on the front lines fighting for equality and human rights." Asserting that "our work is not done," she cites women's rights as "the unfinished business of the 21st century."

Black says that the pandemic-related delay "was frustrating, more than I can say. But ironically, the exhibit is even more needed now than two years ago. It is a testament to keeping faith that the women in this exhibit displayed and to the work needed to keep democracy flourishing today — both here and around the world." According to Black, Clinton "loved the vision of the exhibit — connecting today's human-rights movement with the early battles against slavery, for the women's vote, for voting rights, for campaigns against discrimination and sexual violence. Then she let me loose."

On display through April 30, "Women's Voices, Women's Votes, Women's Rights" will be in two temporary galleries, one on the ground floor and the other on the third floor. Lectures and other informational events are planned during the exhibit's run. In December, the Clinton Center will host a Women's Voices Summit, open by invitation only but also streamed live online.

The most important unfulfilled goals standing in the way of equality for American women, as Black sees them, "go beyond the obvious — equal pay, gender bias in elections, stereotyping, gender-based violence and polarization. We must learn to see one another as equal in rights and dignity in ways that respect political and social differences."

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She hopes that the exhibition will instill in visitors this message: "America and other democracies are always a work in process that requires courage, grit, vision, vigilance and respect."

What might Black say to naysayers who would dismiss "Women's Voices, Women's Votes, Women's Rights" as just another effusion of the "Me Too" movement?

"They would miss the point by a million miles," she asserts. The exhibit, she points out, "encompasses every aspect of a nation's character and its march toward a society grounded in respect for differences and democracy."

In explaining the choice of artists' quilts as the show's primary visual element, Black emphasizes that "these are not your typical quilts, lovingly made by your grandmother, that live on your bed or in your cedar closet. These are intricate tapestries, portraits overlaid with intricate stitching — each created in a different artistic style.

"Women first expressed themselves through sewing. I had seen extraordinary quilts created by women from around the world to address the AIDS crisis, maternal health and the like. So I thought, 'Why not ask stunning American artists to use their magic to interpret women's struggles?'"

Black — who earned her doctorate from George Washington University and whose affiliations include Georgetown University and the University of Virginia — asked the artists to choose their quilt subjects.

"They explored that history as though they were in my graduate seminar, and then created jaw-dropping portraits of those who dared to make democracy real," she says.

Fifteen of the exhibition's quilts were created by artists working alone, including three works by Hollis Chatelain. Another, quilted on both sides, was created jointly by Deb Cashatt and Kris Sazaki, who call themselves Pixieladies.

Artist Gail Sims died before completing her quilt, which was finished by five friends. A cooperative known as Social Justice Sewing Academy created "The Radicals — An SJSA Community Quilt." The only man in the project, Michael Cummings, created the quilt "Shirley Chisholm for President."


Nancy Turbitt's "Steps of Thunder" pictures a key moment in the long struggle to achieve women's suffrage. The quilt stylizes a photograph of Carrie Chapman Catt, a leader of the voting campaign, as she led a New York ratification parade in 1917.

"When I first saw this photo, I was struck by a few things all at once," Turbitt says. "She was clearly an older woman, 57 at the time of the parade. As an older woman myself, I know how bone-tired we are most of the time. She had a set to her jaw that I recognized as willful determination. And she was stepping forward with the weight of the country and of all women on her shoulders with that American flag.

"I knew in an instant that this was a perfect image for the exhibition. I feel that in her step, captured for eternity, is the resounding and thunderous sound of millions of women — then and now — taking the same step forward all at once."

Turbitt intends her quilt to link the events of then to those happening now.

"Most of my image is in gray scale, which places it in the time of 1917 before color reproduction was common. But Carrie is rendered in full color. That was a bit of a challenge, because the women then often wore white from head to toe to symbolize purity of heart. I went about exaggerating the color to make sure the viewer gets the difference."

Lea McComas delved back to a Renaissance artist as inspiration for her "Women's Work" quilt, which portrays dozens of women attired from various time periods and set against an ancient Greek temple.

"Inspired by Raphael's painting 'School of Athens,' I realized I could create a piece celebrating the collective work of innumerable women throughout history," she says. "While Raphael depicts the great male minds of his time, my vision was to bring together important female figures from a variety of time periods and vocations. I grouped the 57 of them by theme or common area of interest to show how the work of women has progressed through the centuries."

As an homage to the iconic Italian painter, McComas included herself in the image.

"You can find me in the lower left foreground, presenting the quilt to my stepdaughter, Maya. Together, we represent the importance of passing on the legacy and the stories to the next generation of women — and men."

  photo  Shin-hee Chin’s quilt, “The Future Is Female” highlights “Women’s Voices, Women’s Votes, Women’s Rights.” (Special to the Democrat-Gazette)

Sylvia Hernandez chose to honor a lifelong rights crusader, now in her 90s, for a quilt with the bilingual title "La Lucha de Dolores/Delores' Fight."

"For more than 60 years, Dolores Huerta has organized against greed and discrimination," Hernandez says. "She co-founded the United Farm Workers of America, championed human rights and defended voting rights. 'You can protest until the moon turns blue,' she preached, 'and it's not going to change anything if you don't vote.'"

In her quilt, Hernandez aims for viewers "to have an image of the power, the resilience and the driving force behind a woman who is determined to make a difference in our society. When people doubted change was possible, she insisted, 'Si, se puede!' ('Yes, it can be done!') In 2020, she was arrested for the 23rd time while protesting congressional inaction on climate change."

Patty Kennedy-Zafred's "Shoulder to Shoulder" shows 20 images, looking somewhat like a panel of postage stamps, to depict a suffragist march down Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue in 1913 by thousands of women from every state.

"Opponents heckled them and questioned their womanhood," says Kennedy-Zafred. "But they persisted. I had originally considered using images of well-known suffragettes. Then I became more attracted to group photos of lesser-known women. They demonstrated that each and every woman who became active was important. In numbers, they could accomplish their goal of gaining the vote."

Shin-hee Chin's quilt, "The Future Is Female," presents a circular image of a dozen women's faces. All "have made significant contributions or demonstrated great potential in furthering global peace, equality, social and political rights, and environmental justice," Chin says.

Three are former national presidents — Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, Michelle Bachelet of Chile, and Mary Robinson of Ireland — "who have dedicated their lives and political careers to promoting women's equal rights," Chin adds. The other nine are young leaders "connected through a common thread: empathy for nature and others."


Complementing the show's quilts are nearly 100 original documents and other artifacts dating as far back as the middle of the 19th century and as recently as last year.

One of the oldest items, on loan from Clinton, is the Declaration of Sentiments from the August 1848 Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention, as printed in a New York newspaper. Two of the newest are a copy of Vice President Kamala Harris' speech delivered on Jan. 20, 2021, for the Celebrating America inaugural event, along with Justice Thurgood Marshall's Bible on which Harris was sworn in.

Honoring Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the ornamental jabots she wore as a collar with her justice's robe as a feminist message. Another piece of attire: the suit Clinton wore in 1995 in Beijing, where she delivered a famously forceful speech at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women.

Among objects with an international resonance is the head wrap worn by Liberia's Sirleaf while she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 2011. More homely is the display of kindergarten school papers done by Malala Yousafzai, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 after her advocacy for women brought her near-fatal shooting in Pakistan.

Visitors will also encounter 10 life-size stand-alone portraits of women that, Black says, "accompany you as you walk through. It's almost as though they are marching alongside you."

Print Headline: A stitch in time


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