Legacy of the Women’s Project in Arkansas Preserved in Virtual Exhibit

A new multimedia website highlights the first two decades of the coalition’s history.

members of the Women's Project, a multiracial network of Arkansas women, pose for a photo on a staircase outside a home
The Women's Project helped Arkansas women access tools to address violence in their lives and communities. Courtesy photo.

Andrea Howard was a paralegal and activist working with women living in public housing when she first encountered the Women’s Project in the mid-1980s. Howard would later serve on the board of the organization, a multiracial network of women who tackled issues like racism, sexism, homophobia and economic injustice across Arkansas in the 1980s and ‘90s.

“They served as a support to keep me going because sometimes when you’re fighting these battles, you do need somebody to maybe sometimes show you that you’re doing okay and somebody that’s going to be there to say what you’re doing is the right thing,” Howard says.

To preserve the group’s legacy and share it with a new generation, the Arkansas People’s History Project has launched a virtual exhibition. The exhibit features text, photos, documents, videos and audio clips from oral histories, story circles and archival sources. 

“The Arkansas People’s History Project is an attempt to really tell some of those undertold stories in Arkansas — stories of resistance, stories like the Women’s Project — where people have stood up that haven’t really gotten the due they deserve or the reach,” says Acadia Roher, APHP co-coordinator and exhibit co-producer.

Uncovering the story of the Women’s Project was inspiring for Roher who says she’d been craving this type of wisdom and stories as an activist in Arkansas. Through the process of learning about the group’s history and gathering information to share with others, Roher has connected with previous members of the Women’s Project including its founder, Suzanne Pharr. 

“This exhibit is a compilation of two decades of building a community through efforts to dismantle sexism, racism and economic injustice,” Pharr said. “It is a gift to those who did the work and to those throughout the country who carry it forward.”

Founded in 1980, the grassroots organization helped Arkansas women access tools to address violence in their lives and communities. By the 1990s, their work included rural organizing around child abuse, confronting the Ku Klux Klan and convening conferences for Black women to share skills and strategize. 

Like Howard, Damita Marks became aware of the Women’s Project in the mid-1980s. As a young woman in her 20s, Marks encountered the group at a time when she was interested in exploring women’s issues.

“The Women’s Project just helped me open my mind,” she says. “It was like an encyclopedia and I just open and read, and I open and do, and I knew that I was okay to do that.”

Over the years, Marks worked with “battered women,” incarcerated individuals and people with HIV, experiences she says impacted her life and political views. Her participation with the Women’s Project also taught her the importance of community.

“Sometimes I marched by myself because it was the right thing to do, it was the right thing to do,” Marks says. “And that’s what I really like about this whole concept of having this history — sometimes you’re on your own on these journeys, but these journeys are made for others, not to be on your own.”

The Women’s Project virtual exhibit is available online at www.womensprojectstory.org. It was created with financial support from the Arkansas Humanities Council, Black History Commission of Arkansas, Highlander Research and Education Center and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is Editor-in-Chief of Arkansas Soul, the host of the Affirmative Action podcast and an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.