Esse Purse Museum sheds light on women’s rights

Gender and politics share the spotlight in the Esse Purse Museum’s latest special exhibition, which continues to explore topics that go beyond the fashion accessory inscribed in its name.

“Votes for All Women: The Fight for Equal Rights,” on display until June 5 after it opens in March during Women’s History Month, charts this ongoing battle decade by decade from the years 1920. Glass display cases combine women’s attire of the day with posters, photographs, and other memorabilia.

A cartoon, printed circa 1920 on the eve of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, depicts half a dozen toddlers walking. Under the heading “Giving Mom the Vote”, are listed the needs of children, including “food”, -light-on-womens-rights/”health” and “game”. A loosely rhyming verse rhetorically asks, “Isn’t it a funny thing that fathers can’t see, why mother should have a vote on how these things should be.”

The year 1923 is cited for the first introduction in the United States Congress of the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposal repeatedly raised unsuccessfully for nearly a century and still unfinished. Among the mentions of the persistent gender wage gap is a note that Franklin D. Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration during the Great Depression authorized lower wages in some cases for women than for men doing the same job.

Visitors to Esse learn that the 1917 U.S. Congress included only one woman, Jeanette Rankin. By 1929, that number had grown to nine, including Arkansas representatives Pearl Peden Oldfield and Effiegene Locke Wingo. In 1932, Arkansan Hattie Caraway became the first woman elected to a full term in the United States Senate. In the current Congress, 145 of the 535 members are women, including 106 Democrats and 39 Republicans.

Now that the United States has its first female vice president, having nearly elected its first female president in 2016, a well-worn campaign poster is a reminder of how slowly those paths were paved. Printed for the 1972 campaign of Shirley Chisholm, the first woman to seriously run for the White House, it promises she is “unbought and bossless”.

The new exhibit echoes Esse’s mission, as stated on its website by founder and owner Anita Davis and director Ally Short Weaver.

“We don’t just showcase props, but rather make HERstory tangible and familiar. It’s often the minute details, the scribbled notes in the margins of our story that truly encompass the female experience. As our museum takes you on the journey of the 20th-century woman, it is not only the sense of nostalgia but also the sense of togetherness that you will feel.”

The permanent exhibition of the museum is also mainly chronological. It “honors and celebrates the progression of the 20th century American woman – decade after decade – through the lens of her handbag and its contents. Through the artful collection and display of this material culture, as well as ‘Using photography and ephemeral, ESSE provides a contemplative depiction of the struggles, accomplishments and, more broadly, of the times in which she lived.

Esse Purse Museum, 1510 S. Main St., Little Rock, is open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $10 for visitors ages 6-59; $8 for students and those 60 and over; Free for children 6 and under. To visit or call (501) 916-9022.

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