This month, the United States marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment — not the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. I make that distinction unapologetically, because the 19th amendment gave white women the right to vote. Black women were subjected to discriminatory poll taxes and Jim Crow laws until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Read the second blog in this series: Black Women Have Championed Voting Rights Throughout American History — As Suffragists, Freedom Riders, and Trailblazers
The 19th amendment didn’t give all Black women the ballot, but it never would have been ratified without them. You might not know it from the way the story’s been told, but Black women were the hands, feet, and beating heart of the suffrage movement. For too long, they’ve been erased and ignored, so as we mark this centennial, let’s give them their flowers. Ida B. Wells, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, Angelina Weld Grimke, the Forten Sisters, the founding members of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, and so many more helped pave the way for white women’s right to vote. Know their names. Honor their legacy.
Take Mary Church Terrell, a suffragist born to former slaves who was one of the first Black women to earn a college degree (both a bachelor’s and master’s, thank you very much!) and served as President of the National Association of Colored Women. She fought for civil rights and women’s suffrage because she recognized that Black women were part of “the only group in this country that has two such huge obstacles to surmount…both sex and race.”
Black women suffragists like Mary were leading intersectional fights decades before Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term. And because these women were fighting the twin burdens of racism and sexism, they didn’t have the luxury to focus solely on securing the right to vote. Consider Ida B. Wells, who was a journalist reporting hard truths and one of the country’s foremost anti-lynching activists in addition to her work as a leading Black suffragist.
My mom had an Alice Walker poem in her office that now hangs in mine, called “Women.” It’s about our ancestors making their way, and the last few lines are: “How they knew what we must know without knowing a page of it themselves.” That these Black women suffragists achieved what they did despite uneasy alliances with both Black men and white women is nothing short of miraculous.
White Supremacy in the Suffrage Movement
For all their labor in the women’s suffrage movement, Black women got little thanks and even less space in the history books. One example: The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 is seen as the “first women’s right’s convention.” Which women, exactly? No Black women attended the convening. None were invited.
The fact is, the women’s suffrage movement was quick to cast Black people aside in order to broaden their political appeal. White men’s votes and women’s comfort meant more than Black men’s humanity and Black women’s labor. Frances Willard invoked racist tropes and imagery to woo white southern women to the cause of temperance and suffrage. Susan B. Anthony spoke out virulently against the 15th amendment. She also said, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” And Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony literally wrote the book on women’s suffrage –– but erased Black women from the narrative.
At the Women’s Suffrage Parade of 1913 in DC, marchers were attacked, spit on by angry onlookers. White organizers like Alice Paul pushed Black women to the back of the procession. Ida B. Wells fought back when she snuck into the white Illinois delegation, refusing to march in the segregated unit.
Still Lifting as We Climb
With no seat at the table, Black women built their own. In 1896, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and Charlotte Forten Grimke founded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in Boston. In the Charles Street meeting house, these reformers coined the motto “lifting as we climb.” Ida B. Wells founded the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago, the first Black women’s club dedicated to the right to vote.
While Black suffragists helped their white sisters secure the 19th amendment, when the dust settled, they found themselves right where they were when they started. Because of Jim Crow laws, their right was in name only. They had to continue to fight for real suffrage, but now, the white women they had helped weren’t as eager to return the favor.
The fight for women’s suffrage didn’t end for Black women 100 years ago –– the fact is, for some of us, it's still not over. In states like Georgia and North Carolina, where restrictive voting ID laws or large-scale purging of voter rolls are all too common, the fight continues to this day.
As we mark this anniversary, our country is reckoning with anti-Blackness on a national scale. Part of that work requires us to acknowledge the pervasive harms of white supremacy even in some of the most pivotal and promising moments in our history.
Lessons to Learn: Reproductive Rights
As we try to reconcile the racist history of the women’s suffrage movement 100 years ago and the very real victories that movement secured, I can’t help but notice the parallels to the reproductive rights movement. Planned Parenthood was founded 104 years ago, by Maragaret Sanger, a woman dedicated to birth control and to improving women’s lives, who also held deplorable views on eugenics, which were inherently racist. Today, Planned Parenthood organizations across the country are reckoning with her legacy, and taking steps to engage in anti-racist work.
And while the Reproductive Justice movement –– led by Black women and organizations like SisterSong –– has fought for decades to expand access to health care, including abortion, predominantly white reproductive rights organizations have had a tendency to take up all the oxygen (and resources) in the room. Sound familiar? I’ll say it: this includes Planned Parenthood. We need to do better. Planned Parenthood was founded on the belief that our bodies are our own –– but we’re not free until everyone is free.
We must learn the lessons of our history, and ensure that no one is left behind in the fight for equality and justice. We should honor our sister suffragists’ legacy by fighting for intersectional policies for voting rights, reproductive rights, immigrants’ rights, and LGBTQ+ rights. Let that be the lesson we take into the next century.