Editor’s Note: Treva B. Lindsey is associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at The Ohio State University. She is the author of “Colored No More: Reinventing Black Womanhood in Washington, D.C.” and the co-author of “The Complicated Struggle for Woman Suffrage,” a scholarly discussion guide for the League of Women Voters Ohio. The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
On August 18, 2020, many across the nation will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution; on that date, the state of Tennessee became the 36th and final state to vote in the amendment’s favor. Often heralded as the historic moment in which American women were finally granted the right to vote, these centennial celebrations will honor almost a century of suffrage activism that led to such a significant, legal victory. And while those celebrations will rightfully encompass tales of heroism, persistence, mass protests, formidable allies and powerful solidarities, far too many will overlook the virulent racism, classism and xenophobia that plagued a storied movement for women’s right to the elective franchise.
The road to the 19th Amendment, without question, warrants commemoration. An uncritical celebration of its ratification, however, would be an acute misstep that fails to address the complicated legacy of the women’s suffrage movement in the US.
Typically demarcated as commencing at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention and ending with the passage, ratification, and adoption of the 19th Amendment, the women’s suffrage movement as fully understood reaches further back into American history and continues forward from 1920, through the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Prior to the American Revolution, property-owning women in some of the Northern colonies could vote. When these colonies became states, they stripped the right to vote from women. In 1807, New Jersey became the last state to limit the elective franchise to men. By the mid-19th century only white adult men throughout the country could vote.
Although Seneca Falls was the first women’s rights convention, some of the questions posed and resolutions drafted at this historic gathering stemmed from abolitionist activism through involvement in anti-slavery associations. White abolitionist women such as the Grimké sisters Sarah and Angelina, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton spoke out against slavery and began to make connections between abolition and women’s rights. Seneca Falls brought together those invested in the struggle for women’s rights and those fighting for the abolition of slavery, with some advocating for both causes.
While Frederick Douglass, a noted Black abolitionist, orator and writer attended, Black women weren’t present at Seneca Falls – but their voices and perspectives on women’s rights, which for them necessarily included the abolition of slavery, are part of the long history of suffrage activism as well. Both interracial cooperation as well as tensions stemming from anti-Black racism and anti-immigrant sentiments existed in the woman suffrage movement from its inception. The tensions between White suffragists and suffragists of color, primarily African American women, intensified post-Emancipation and after the passage, ratification and adoption of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited the federal government and each state from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
The last of the aptly named “Reconstruction Amendments” effectively enfranchised men of color in 1870 and left women of all races without the elective franchise. Notably, this Amendment was rendered nearly meaningless for newly enfranchised African American men in the years after its passage due to Black Codes as well other forms of Jim Crow era legal and extralegal voter suppression.
While the failure to secure universal suffrage irrespective of race or gender angered suffragists of all races, the virulently racist response to the 15th Amendment, particularly by prominent White suffragists such as Stanton, caused irreparable damage to already fragile cross-racial solidarities. The fracturing of the suffrage movement in the aftermath of the 15th Amendment briefly stymied the push for women’s voting rights. By the late 1800s, however, new and restructured local and national organizations, clubs and campaigns launched full throttle into reinvigorated efforts that would ultimately lead to the ratification and adoption of the 19th Amendment.
Women protested in front of the White House, organized parades in cities and towns throughout the country, endured violence from individuals and groups opposing woman suffrage and forged transnational solidarities with women in countries such as China and the United Kingdom.
This centennial is a momentous occasion to honor the tremendous political labor of tens of thousands of women who made the 19th Amendment possible. And yet, “commemorate” is the word I choose to use, because we cannot “celebrate” the ways in which the broader movement often attempted to relegate the voices and experiences of women of color to the background. Some White women even fought for a version of woman suffrage that excluded African American, Asian American and Native American women. Universal suffrage for adults was neither the intention or the end goal for these White suffragists.
Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, two of the most famous White suffragists, vehemently opposed the 15th amendment and used racial epithets, including calling Black men “Sambos.” After the Civil War, Stanton and Anthony used the National Women’s Suffrage Association’s publication, “The Revolution,” to propagate racist and xenophobic rhetoric, which in effect severed any semblance of solidarity with many African American, Chinese and recent immigrant suffragists. In a piece published in “The Revolution” on April 29, 1869, Stanton wrote “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 … demand that women too shall be represented in government.”
Stanton and Anthony weren’t the only prominent White suffragists who devalued the contributions of women of color to the suffrage movement. At the iconic March 3, 1913, women’s suffrage parade organized by Alice Paul, forceful attempts were made to exclude African American women from marching altogether. Relegated to marching behind the official procession, activist, writer and suffragist Ida B. Wells marched with her state’s suffrage contingent in defiance of the march’s organizers. Paul’s capitulation to racist logic of political expediency as to not alienate Southern suffragists rendered her at best an accomplice to those seeking to desert women of color on the path to woman suffrage.
Despite the attempts at marginalization and openly racist comments and efforts, women of color such as Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, Fannie Barrier Williams, Sarah Parker Redmond, Mary Ann Shadd Cary and Mabel Ping-Hua Lee were out in the streets for women’s votes too. Their labor contributed to the ratification of an Amendment that afforded White women the elective franchise.
The pervasiveness of racial prejudice and ethnocentrism in the women’s suffrage movement is an important part of the history of voting rights activism in the US. While it may be an inconvenient truth for some who want to simply celebrate a milestone in women’s history, it is imperative that we ask which women reaped the benefits of the multiracial and multi-ethnic movement that commenced in the first half of the nineteenth century.
After the adoption of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, most Asian American (primarily of Chinese descent), Native American, and African American women still faced barriers in attempting to vote. The White suffragists whom women of color worked alongside for decades largely abandoned the movement for voting rights after the Amendment’s ratification. White suffragists, for the most part, didn’t push for the Indian Citizenship Act, which granted Native Americans both citizenship and the right to vote. Most White suffragists failed to show up for Chinese women and played an almost negligible role in the activism that led to the Magnuson Act of 1943, which granted Chinese immigrants a path to citizenship as well as the right to vote.
White suffragists also didn’t show up en masse for African American women, who had been fighting alongside them for the entirety of the American women’s suffrage movement. African American women were, as Martha S. Jones notes in her new book, “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All,” at the forefront of fighting for women’s rights and continued to put their bodies, livelihoods, and lives on the line for the right to vote up until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Within this framing where we center women of African descent, the movement for woman suffrage spans over one hundred years before all women could actually vote.
The centennial of the 19th Amendment is a time to reflect upon the remarkable work of thousands of women – as well as the internal dynamics of the women’s suffrage movement that rendered the Amendment’s ratification a victory for some, but not all. Commemoration lends itself better to histories brimming with inequities and disparate outcomes. And we should commemorate this historic event.