We need to look critically at the power imbalances, even within progressive social movements. The women’s suffrage movement achieved its initial goal of getting the vote for (some) women. But who benefited and who was left behind?
On August 18, 1920, the 19th amendment was ratified in the United States. That amendment added the following to the US Constitution: “The rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged . . . on account of sex.” It was a culmination of decades of organization and struggle by the suffragette movement and its allies. And certainly, it was an important milestone. But, in practice, widespread voter suppression severely limited the rights of women of colour to vote. It was only with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 that women of colour effectively had the right to vote, and widespread disparities in access to voting continue in the US to this day
In many ways, the women’s suffrage movement was an empty promise for women of colour. Yet From the start, they were active participants in the movement. Black women played a big role in getting the vote for women: they attended political conventions, organized rallies, formulated strategies that could get women closer to the vote, they were a force to be reckoned with, and invaluable allies.
Too often, though, they were not valued as full partners. Black women were often excluded from the larger suffrage efforts. For example, the National American Woman Suffrage Association prevented Black women from attending their conventions, and black women often had to march separately from white women in suffrage parades.
On Monday, March 3, 1913, a woman’s suffrage parade was to be held. Alice Paul, a prominent and celebrated women’s activist who organized the event alongside Lucy Burns, argued that the parade should be segregated on the basis that White women would refuse to walk alongside Black women, this proposal was then approved by the association and Black women were forced to walk in the back.
You may have heard of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, famous American white women who fought for the 19th amendment. They are featured prominently in textbooks and they wrote a book called The History of Women’s Suffrage. This book, however, featured predominantly white women as the people who got everything done. At the same time, they were making speeches that elevated the rights of white women over those of people of colour. For example, when it appeared that Black men would get the vote before white women, Stanton said:
“American women of wealth, education, virtue and refinement, if you do not wish the lower orders of Chinese, Africans, Germans and Irish, with their low ideas of womanhood to make laws for you and your daughters, to be your rulers, judges, jurors-to dictate not only the civil, but moral codes by which you shall be governed, awake to the danger or your present position, and demand that woman, too shall be represented in the government (Stanton, April 29, 1869)!”
Women of colour worked side by side with their white counterparts, they were central in the fight to extend the franchise, and then, when White women were successful, the goals and hopes of Black women were put on the back burner.
It is clear that Black women were treated as second-class citizens in the suffrage movement. And that didn’t end with the passing of the 19th Amendment. Once White women achieved the vote, their Black sisters looked to them for assistance in ensuring that they had meaningful access to voting rights as well. But this was, by and large, not the case. Obstacles such as a lack of voting stations, the requirement to pay a poll tax, and actual physical violence all continued to be features of American political life.
Some may argue that criticizing the suffragette movement through a racial lens is not appropriate, that it is attributing today’s values to yesterday’s events. But this racial critique is not new. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a Black woman who gained fame as an orator and worked with Staton and Anthony, criticized her colleagues for their Whites-first approach to women’s suffrage. She believed that the vote for women could only be achieved if Black and White women worked together. At the 1866 National Women’s Rights Convention she said: “You White women speak here of rights, I speak of wrongs.” Harper was calling out the White women for their lack of female solidarity. Ida B. Wells another Black woman who was critical to gaining the vote was ostracized after confronting and holding White women responsible for being ignorant of lynching.
The history of women’s suffrage has been fraught with tensions between the white majority and POC. This difference isn’t new, it isn’t us looking back and imposing our view on it, but it’s been a consistent component of “women’s rights” and feminism since the outset. But nevertheless remained active
“I am not taking this stand because I personally wish for recognition,” Wells wrote in her autobiography. “I am doing it for the future benefit of my whole race.”
Cover Image: Mary Garrity / Adam Cuerden