FLORENCE — Rachel Maiore and Penny Geis competed for the Ward 7 Northampton City Council seat Tuesday but were united by the desire to pay tribute to one of their feminist forebears who made it possible.
Together, they mugged for a cellphone camera and tacked their “I Voted” stickers to a sash draped on the statue honoring abolitionist and suffragist Sojourner Truth at a small city park here in the Pioneer Valley. More than 100 people joined them, hoping to create an annual Election Day pilgrimage to honor an often overlooked heroine of a whitewashed movement.
Truth, who was born a slave, was central in the fight to get all women the right to vote. But history remembers its narrators best, and white women wrote the story of suffrage and claimed the starring roles.
On Election Day, voters flock to the cemeteries where Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are buried, in Rochester, N.Y., and the Bronx, respectively. In the 2018 midterm elections, activist Liz Friedman showed up at Truth’s statue alone, hoping her Facebook post would go viral. It didn’t.
So this year, she brought a committee.
“It just seemed like there was this moment where we really need to center her, raise her up in her full role in this moment in history, and to really counter the way the conversation is going nationally,” she said.
As they commemorate the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote, activists – including newly woke white women of the Women’s March era — are trying to be more mindful about crediting the work of the women of color who came before them.
“As a white woman now, I feel this fracturing legacy of white supremacy very deeply,” said state Senator Jo Comerford, a Democrat who spoke at the event and recalled how over the history of feminism, “white women both obscured and oppressed women of color.”
In truth, there has long been a lot of love for Truth in Florence, the town where she lived for 13 years and bought a house in 1850. The VoteTruth Committee formed this year for centennial celebrations focused on voting rights. The Sojourner Truth Memorial Committee that came before it was formed to build the memorial in the park, develop a curriculum for the schools, stage an annual celebration at Memorial Day, and present scholarships to high school seniors who have done work in social justice.
“We have a strong background here celebrating what she brought to us,” said Wendy Sinton, a member of both committees, who, like Friedman, is white.
The turnout was “astonishing” to Loretta Ross, an expert on women’s issues, hate groups, and violence against women who lives in Georgia and is currently a visiting associate professor at the Smith College Program for the Study of Women and Gender.
“That I would have to come from Atlanta, Ga., and Washington, D.C., to see my first statue of Sojourner Truth,” she mused in her remarks to the crowd. “I mean, really? I come from two chocolate cities. And this is not what you would call the most chocolate part of America.”
Denise Brown, a professor of African-American Studies at nearby Springfield College, called the event “a breath of fresh air.”
“And I really do believe Sojourner Truth is looking down, along with my mother and Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King and so many other great leaders and saying, ‘Well done. We’re finally getting there,’ ” she said.
Burgeoning efforts to better recognize women of color – and any women at all – are endemic in American cities. Earlier this year, when New York City announced plans for its first Central Park monument to feature women, organizers were criticized for more whitewashing: The proposed statue featured Stanton and Anthony, until Truth was added, due to public protest.
Brown believes that such divisions persist “because we don’t know our history and we don’t reach out to others and find out their history,” she said.
“The divide is, I believe, closing somewhat because. . . we’re having conversations and we’re educating each other. I feel we are overcoming.”