During the mid-1910s, the women’s suffrage movement was on the rise in Iowa thanks in large part to women’s clubs. The clubs consisted of middle-class, educated women with time to devote to social causes, education, and philanthropy. African American women also took part in their own clubs. One of the largest was the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (FCWC) which had an Iowa branch. The Iowa FCWC, founded in 1902, was an umbrella organization that supported the activism of its members.
Vivian Smith was born to freemen Clemmie and Samuel Smith in Kentucky. The family moved to Clinton, Iowa where her parents were hotel cooks. They then moved to Waterloo soon after the Illinois Central Railroad strike began in 1911. Education was important to the Smith family, all were literate, and every child was sent to school. Smith graduated from Iowa State Teachers College, now University of Northern Iowa (UNI), in Cedar Falls, Iowa in 1916 with a bachelors degree in English. Her cousin, Murda Beason, graduated from the same institution six months earlier. They were two of the first African American women to graduate from the College. Beason went on to be a teacher in Buxton, Iowa. Smith stayed in Waterloo but despite her qualifications, could not get work as a teacher due to her race. Black school teachers were not hired in Waterloo schools until 1952. She found employment as a house cleaner and directed her passion into creating the Waterloo Suffragette Council, which advocated for women’s rights regardless of race. Vivian Smith was listed on the 1916 board of officers of the Iowa Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (IFCWC), as the chairwoman for suffrage.
Iowa was split on the issue of suffrage. Iowa was one of only four states to have women’s anti-suffrage clubs run by women as well as by men. Some men believed that the right to vote would threated women’s responsibilities at home or that it was beyond their comprehension because it was outside of their day to day domestic life. Some women felt it was a needless diversion from more important struggles and they could and do accomplish more without needing the vote.
On June 5, 1916, Iowa voted on a referendum to grant women the right to vote. Though the referendum failed by 10,000 votes, it gained national attention. World War I created a pause in the suffrage movement as women entered the workforce. Two years later Congress passed the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote. This quickly prompted a ratification campaign run by the Legislative Committee of the State Suffrage Association. A special session of the General Assembly was held on July 2, 1919 to ratify the state constitution giving women the vote. Iowa was the tenth state to ratify.
The African American Museum’s current temporary exhibit, Unwavering: 21st Century Activism allows audiences to engage with contemporary social movements from Black Lives Matter to the Me Too movement. Through objects, stories, and hands-on activities, you can explore the stories of groups who continue to bring to light the struggle for Black civil rights and equality that began centuries ago. Within this exhibit you can develop an understanding of the past and present social movements involving the Black community, engage in the meaning of protest and social justice in the modern era, and become empowered to work for change within your own community.