Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Celebrating 100 Years of Women’s Suffrage

Have you ever walked down Gundry Drive in Falls Church and wondered why it is named “Gundry”? The street is named for Mattie Gundry, a 19th and 20th century icon who lived, worked and made a difference right here in the Little City.

Mattie Gundry was a force to be reckoned with in this community. She was an effective and compassionate educator who opened The Virginia Training School in 1899. She operated this nationally recognized institute for special needs students for 50 years. The campus was located on 11 acres at the very center of town just off West Broad — now the site of the Winter Hill subdivision. It was the only school for children with disabilities in the South and later became the second largest in the United States. Look for the historic marker on W. Broad St. to learn more about the school.

Sometime around 1912, Mattie was elected to the Falls Church School Board by a large majority of her fellow citizens — but was not allowed to serve. By Virginia law, only registered voters could hold public office. Mattie was not a registered voter because women were denied the right to vote not only in Virginia, but in the United States of America, from 1776 until 1920.

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So, in 1913, angered and frustrated by this injustice, Mattie joined ranks with a local suffragist group as an active member, and later a leader. The 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote passed in August 1920. In 1921 Mattie was one of the first two women elected to the Falls Church Town Council. She served for three consecutive terms.

Mattie Gundry is a local hero, a determined advocate for equal rights, justice, and compassion for the less fortunate among us — and an eminent Falls Church suffragist. Through her example, we should be inspired to celebrate the centennial of women’s suffrage in America, and to venerate the suffering, sacrifice, and drive it took legions of women decades to achieve — women’s right to vote. Every person in Falls Church should know about the contributions of Mattie Gundry and her peers.

We are in the midst of a year-long national celebration of women’s suffrage. On June 4, 1919, the proposed 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed by both houses of Congress, and on Aug. 23, 1920 the Amendment was ratified by the states, granting American women the right to vote. The coming year will give each of us the opportunity to brush up on the stories of women who championed women’s suffrage, both locally and nationally. Exhibits at the Women’s History Museum, National Archives, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, and Library of Congress, as well as celebrations right here in Falls Church, will provide you an opportunity to learn about this pivotal moment in American history.

Mattie Gundry and her colleagues will be recognized here in Falls Church throughout the year in a variety of ways.

To initiate the celebration, at Monday’s City Council meeting, the Council issued a proclamation commemorating this Centennial. A group of suffragists attended in full costume to support this event. The suffragists who attended were members of our new Falls Church Women’s History Group — forces of nature in their own right: Jane Scully, Marty Meserve, Sally Ekfelt, Carol DeLong, Beth Hahn, Sally Phillips — all women who have been active in Falls Church for decades, and continue to share their work and talents with the community.

At this weekend’s Falls Church Festival, the Women’s History Group, the Falls Church League of Women Voters, and the Falls Church Daughters of the American Revolution will be celebrating the Suffragists’ movement at their respective booths — showcasing historical material, distributing voter applications, and circulating a petition requesting that Mattie Gundry’s portrait be hung at City Hall.

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The centennial of women’s suffrage will also be the theme for a series of events hosted by Falls Church civic groups throughout the year featuring presentations, displays, activities, and artwork. For example, in March 2020, the Falls Church Women’s History Walk will highlight women’s sacrifices for the cause of women’s suffrage. Later, in May, the Women’s History group is planning a suffragists float for the Falls Church Memorial Day Parade. Planning is in the works for these and other events. We welcome your input and involvement!

The very best way for all of us to honor the women and men who fought so tenaciously for passage of the 19th Amendment is simple: proudly exercise your right to vote. If you haven’t yet registered to vote, do it now at www.virginia.elections.gov.


Marybeth Connelly is vice mayor of the City of Falls Church.

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