by Lois Rita Helmbold

[Editor's note: this entry is one of four awarded Special Merit by the challenge jurors and project history consultant. Read more on the Special Merit Entries​ page.]

My nine-patch quilt celebrates women's progress and exposes US retreat from democracy. As a historian and women's studies professor, I am struck by how much things change and still remain the same. Victorious campaigns for women's enfranchisement inspire us, yet men and women stigmatized by race, nativity, poverty, and youth could not vote in 1920. Native people, Chinese and Japanese immigrants, African Americans who lived in former Confederate states, poor Southerners of all races, and young adults subsequently acquired ballots (1924 – 1971) through activism and by changing laws. Today states increasingly suppress, rather than extend, democracy. Four blocks consist of images from commercial fabrics which illustrate women who may vote, but sometimes do not.


Suppression of votes targets the same populations not enfranchised in 1920: Black women, Native women, women prevented from becoming citizens, poor women. Not every person in these groups was or is disenfranchised. African American women living in the north and west could vote in 1920. Gender does not determine this repression; votes of men were and are also suppressed. Women are poorer and live longer than men, so they are disproportionately affected. My representations of African American and old women are self-explanatory.


Citizenship, acquired by birth or naturalization, confers the right to democratic participation. In 1920 federal law excluded Asian immigrants from citizenship. Today, undocumented immigrants, including those who came to the US as children, are ineligible. They have been my students. Their numbers are far larger than the population of Asian immigrants in 1920. Yolanda Lopez, a San Francisco artist who has re-imagined La Virgen de Guadalupe as various Mexican women, inspired my depiction of non-citizen girls.*


Historically federal and state laws, including poll taxes, disenfranchised many Native, Black, and poor women. Current strategies designed to suppress votes require new forms of identification, make it difficult to obtain ID, create long distances to DMVs and polling places, and purge the rolls. Lack of street addresses on reservations and closure of rural DMV offices obstruct voting. Surveying the Missouri River in South Dakota, 'Dignity', a fifty-foot stainless steel statue sculpted by Dale Lamphere,* honors Dakota and Lakota women and represents disenfranchised Native women.


Numbers of imprisoned women (231,000) and women under supervision by the criminal justice system (1,300,000) are growing rapidly. Compared with men, women far less frequently commit violent crimes but are sentenced more harshly. Laws criminalizing homelessness and activism will lead to more incarceration and loss of the vote. For most of us, women behind bars are faceless, so I have represented only their confinement.


In retirement I teach by quilting and writing. I am struck by the paucity of substitutes for the verb "vote:" choose, elect, select. Block, crush, deny, destroy, overturn, overpower, repress, silence, squash, squelch, stifle, withhold, are all synonyms for "suppress."


*Neither Yolanda Lopez nor Dale Lamphere has a web site. Google provides thousands of links for these artists.