Growing up, Posie Cowan, of Blue Hill, didn’t hear family members mention her great-grandmother much, but there was a vague rumor that she had been arrested. It wasn’t until recently, when Cowan began looking into her great-grandmother Sophie Meredith’s history, that she learned not just about her family’s forgotten past but the often-overlooked fight for something basic to us today: the vote.
On Sunday, Cowan’s story will come full circle as she travels to Washington, D.C., to walk in her great-grandmother’s footsteps in a parade to honor suffragists. March 3 marks the 100th anniversary of the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade. The historic event, where a crowd of mostly men harassed and attacked the women who marched for the right to vote, while police watched, was a turning point for the suffrage movement, and Cowan, 65, has evidence her great-grandmother was there.
“The lesson is that a lot of women’s history has been lost and that it’s really important for us to know as women our history and to value it and to be inspired by it,” said Cowan, who was named Sophie Meredith Sides after her great-grandmother and was born on the date of Meredith’s death 19 years later. Sunday’s parade also is a reminder that rights worth fighting for — in the past and present — often require a sustained fight. For example, after a 500-day struggle, Congress on Thursday reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, which funds crisis hotlines, women’s shelters and other assistance for domestic violence survivors.
Around 2004, Cowan began the search into her great-grandmother’s history after watching the movie Iron Jawed Angels, which focuses on the American suffrage movement of the 1910s. On a whim, she Googled Meredith, who she knew had lived in Richmond, Va. She found an article from the Washington Star that said a “Mrs. Sophie Meredith of Richmond” had led a group of Virginia suffragists picketing the White House.
With that context, Cowan turned to the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum in D.C., which keeps copies of correspondence and photographs relating to the National Woman’s Party, led by Quaker and suffrage activist Alice Paul. In an index of documents were letters sent to and from Paul and a Sophie Meredith of Richmond. Cowan next traveled to the Library of Congress, where she found the actual letters and old articles. She learned that the rumor was true: Her great-grandmother had been arrested four times in her fight to earn the right to vote.
But her search didn’t end there, and again she was helped along by a bit of luck. In her father’s Massachusetts attic one day, she discovered a box with discarded draperies hanging over the side. Inside she found four cloth banners relating to women’s suffrage that no one in her family had ever mentioned. Cowan believes it’s likely her great-grandmother marched with one yellow and white banner, reading “Votes for Women,” in the 1913 parade.
Other banners specifically mention the state of Virginia, as her great-grandmother established the state organization there for the National Woman’s Party and fought alongside Paul for a federal amendment. Cowan went on to find the minutes of the meetings held at her great-grandmother’s house, showing that Paul came to speak there occasionally. She found pictures of her great-grandmother with senators and Paul and discovered her name on old letterhead. She also found a picture from 1915 of her in a car with one of the banners that was later stored in her father’s attic.
Cowan is currently writing an academic paper chronicling why her great-grandmother should be seen as a significant woman in Virginia’s suffrage history. “I really feel a responsibility of writing her back into the history in her rightful place,” she said.
Meredith did live to see success. The 19th Amendment, prohibiting any U.S. citizen from being denied the right to vote based on sex, was passed by Congress in 1919 and ratified by the necessary 36 states in 1920. In the remaining eight years of her life, she continued to press for women’s rights — for an Equal Rights Amendment — in a state that officially didn’t ratify the 19th amendment until 1952. On her gravestone she is described as “a zealous pioneer for women.”
On Sunday, Cowan will carry a canvas copy of the banner that her great-grandmother likely did in 1913, part of how she’s reclaiming her ancestor’s historic significance, step by step.