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New exhibit profiles women in St. Pete history

Bill DeYoung

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In this 1942 photo, women push papier mache figures of the Axis leaders down Central Avenue, to encourage the sale of war bonds. In the white dress: Mary Sierkese, the first woman in St. Pete to purchase a bond. All images: St. Petersburg Museum of History.

Stories of the men who’ve made the gears turn in St. Petersburg, in the 132 years since the city was founded, are well documented.

At the St. Petersburg Museum of History, a new exhibit focuses exclusively on the many women whose tireless efforts were also key in the city’s development – and in creating its character.

Meddling: The Women Who Built St. Pete takes its title from historical descriptors of women who dared to step out of gender norms, into male-dominated spaces.

And oh, what a difference they made.

“Even in this building,” notes museum director Rui Farias, “who do we talk about? Walter Fuller, Perry Snell, all those guys.” The city’s “founding fathers,” justifiably, get a lot of the credit.

However, Farias adds, “It was a lot of the women’s organizations that created change. They did a lot of civic work. William Straub always gets credit for the downtown waterfront parks, and rightly so, but it was the Womans Town Improvement Association that took it by the throat and made sure that the parks were beautifully decorated, and that more parks were built, and so on.”

The Womans Town Improvement Association Building opened in 1913.

Meddling includes hundreds of photographs and text in several categories, including Pioneers (“the women who lived here in the 1800s and fought mosquitos as big as pigeons the entire time,” Farias laughs). This includes Sarah Williams Armistead, who was known as the “Mother of St. Petersburg.”

Mayme Provost was the only woman from St. Petersburg’s Red Cross to serve abroad during World War I.

The wife of landowner and city co-founder John Williams, she founded First Congregational Church, was active in numerous civic organizations, and according to historians was an integral part of the negotiations that brought the first railroad to the city.

Civic Leaders includes spotlights on educator Johnnie Ruth Clark, activist Mary Wyatt Allen, Mary Wheeler Eaton, who started the St. Petersburg Museum of History, and Margaret Acheson Stuart, founder of the Museum of Fine Arts.

In the Suffrage section, visitors can enter a replica 1919 voting booth, and “vote” on five amendments presented to citizens in that election year. It was the first election in which women were allowed to vote.

There are sections on wartime activities, politicians (learn about Virginia Burnside, the first woman elected to St. Pete’s city council) and former deputy mayor Kanika Tomalin, women from the present day (including business innovator Cathie Wood, educator Tonjua Williams and banker Katie Pemble) and more.

Dr. Tonjua Williams is president of St. Pete College.

“Actually, the hardest thing was who to leave out,” Farias says. “To remedy that, we put up this big screen TV that rotates photographs and information on dozens and dozens of other women.”

The idea for Meddling came from Museum of History archivist Jessica Breckenridge, who curated the exhibit. “More and more as she dove into this, and as we dove into this, we realized ‘Oh my God, these are amazing stories that have never been told.’

“Jessy kept discovering more – it was women who were signing these documents, it was women who were the majority property owners. It was women who ran these hotels.”

The exhibition is open-ended; there is no “closing” date on the calendar. “If we can get more artifacts, I would consider moving this into another gallery, and making it bigger,” Farias says. “Keeping it as a permanent exhibit.”

St. Petersburg Museum of History website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Gina Marie

    June 10, 2023at11:36 am

    Yes yes yes!!!! Let’s see more of this So many amazing woman pioneers and founders in St Pete history and present times! Love this convo and please let’s do more of this! In every form and fashion. ❤️ Lets preserve their impact through their stories, efforts, courage & journeys through Art, exhibits, news articles, dedicated Sculptures, Murals and Buildings to the bold, sassy, shining woman of St Pete!
    #GirlsBehavingBoldly #WomanInnovators #FemalePioneers

  2. Avatar

    Josette

    June 9, 2023at3:43 pm

    Cheers to Jessy Breckenridge, museum Archivist, for creating this excellent exhibit. It’s her interest in knowing the historic women that made this happen.

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