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Asheville Hosts Symposium on Women’s History

Lillian Exum Clement, ca 1902, and unidentified friend Image courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina

Lillian Exum Clement, ca. 1902, and unidentified friend Image courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina

By Gina Malone

As the nation prepares to commemorate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage next year, several state organizations are ahead of the game with a two-day symposium, You Have to Start a Thing: North Carolina Women Breaking Barriers on Thursday, September 12, and Friday, September 13, at Pack Memorial Library’s Lord Auditorium. The schedule includes talks on a number of relevant topics by professors and historians and will conclude with a reception talk and tasting on Friday at 4:30 p.m. at Cultivated Cocktails.

Dr. Valerie Ann Johnson, Mott Distinguished Professor of Women’s Studies and director of Africana Studies at Greensboro’s Bennett College, will give the Keynote Talk on Thursday at 6 p.m. Dr. Johnson is a leading scholar of centers of gender, bioethics, disability, the health of women and girls, and environmental justice.

“One thing people may be surprised to learn is that the suffrage movement in NC got its start as early as 1894 in Asheville—not another larger city like Raleigh,” says Katherine Calhoun Cutshall, library associate for the North Carolina Room at Pack Memorial Library. “An actress named Helen Morris Lewis helped form the first pro-suffrage organization in the state. The North Carolina Equal Rights Association held its first meeting in the Buncombe County Courthouse in November, 1894.”

Plans for the event have been under way for a year. Organizers are UNC–Asheville’s Department of History, the Vance Birthplace State Historic Site, the Thomas Wolfe Memorial State Historic Site and the North Carolina Room at Pack Memorial Library. Topics for talks include challenges for Cherokee women, stories of Asheville’s Jewish women, and desegregation and race politics.

“This event is particularly relevant because women’s history is NC history and women’s historical narrative often continues to be an afterthought or a side story to the historical interpretation of white men,” says Kimberly Floyd, site manager for the Vance Birthplace. “It is especially timely given the growth and interest in women engaging in the political process of our country as well as seeking and holding key positions in institutions and businesses previously reserved for men.”

UNC–Asheville professor Dr. Dan Pierce will present the reception talk, Daring Amazonian Women: North Carolina Women Moonshiners. He is the author of a new book, How Secret Stills and Fast Cars Made North Carolina the Moonshine Capital of the World, set for release in October.

The event’s organizers hope to see women of all ages at the symposium. “As I conducted research for my talk,” says Cutshall, “I thought about all of the chances women of different ages had to encounter each other as they fought for more than 30 years for the right to vote. Lillian Exum Clement, the first female legislator in NC, was a teenager while Helen Morris Lewis traveled the county stumping for suffrage. Lewis cited Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton as influences. I like to imagine that this intergenerational exchange is the driver of inspiration and influence of women of all ages.”

Pack Memorial Library is located at 67 Haywood Street in downtown Asheville. Cultivated Cocktails is located at 29 Page Avenue in downtown Asheville. For more information call the Pack Memorial Library at 828.250.4740 or email katherine.cutshall@buncombecounty.org or contact the Vance Birthplace State Historic Site at vance@ncdcr.gov or 828.645.6706. The event is free and open to the public, however advance registration is strongly encouraged. For a schedule of events and a link to eventbrite.com for registration, visit BuncombeCounty.org/governing/depts/library/branch-locations/pack-memorial.aspx or WolfeMemorial.com.

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