The history of the suffrage movement is the history of America and is as full of all the contradictions, struggle, racism, bloodiness, and betrayal as the rest of it.
It touches on the relationships between Black, White, Latinex, Indigenous and Asian women in this country and points to the places of cross-purposes and cooperation, as well as co-option and betrayal.
This history is rooted in the way women hold power now, how they have been allowed to hold it in the past, and what that tells us about today.
We are often tempted, lulled into believing what now exists has always been. Why? I can’t say. Perhaps it’s a psychological mechanism. We, after all, are creatures of habit and it may be more comforting to some, to reach for the timeless.
While America is a plural nation with many nationalities and ethnicities, it’s peculiar history attempts to render everything in relation to the accepted rules and canons of that history. Then measures progress in what appears to be by different metrics which are heavily weighted toward the superficial.
Until very recently, with today’s protests in the streets visible representation has been substituted for effective policy; and continuing in some quarters, progress is measured by the appearance of being beyond racial and class distinctions which is problematic.
How can we fix problems which we will not admit exist? The question itself is indicative of one of the downsides of being a container for an easy, free-floating multiculturalism—one which does not examine its context or know itself. One obsessed by easy grace.
Behind this is a complex system which seeks to simplify and to cast and compare everything to the original monochrome dualities long settled on, even when it appears to be doing the opposite. The simplicity of Blackness and Whiteness, goodness and badness, maleness, and femaleness, deserving and undeserving, hard-working, and lazy, exempts subtleties, and whole categories and ways of being from genuine comparison, discussion, and inclusion.
It is also true because of this particular history of White supremacy and patriarchy. For the longest time there was only space to discuss the Black, the White, the Indigenous, the Mexican American, and the few Asians who were allowed into the country due to the exclusion acts like the one suspending Chinese immigration in 1882. Immigration policy kept the nation limited in this way until the Advent of the 1965 Hart- Cellar Act which abolished the National Origins Formula restrictions on immigration.
It is wonderfully strange to report on women’s suffrage around the anniversary of the 19th Amendment while anti-racist protests still roil the country. It has been remarkable to see the support and allyship being displayed by different races, ages, and sexes, led by our children and grandchildren—a brighter reflection of that history.
At this time perhaps it would be good to cast back and reflect on a brief history of the fight for women’s suffrage, a fight which grew out of other freedom struggles and defined the way they would be fought, remembered and described.
Suffrage is another place where diverse women, with agendas which sometimes meshed and sometimes conflicted met, struggled, fought, and contended to win a future which would be roomier. One which had space for women’s dreams.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton Courtesy of: NPR
White Women in Big Hats
The suffrage movement for many years was painted in a very Euro-centric manner. For most the word suffragette recalled a woman of a particular phenotype and a particular class. White middle classed women were always cast as the prototypical heroines of the movement—romanticized as cultural icons and harbingers of a future distilled wisdom. All great stuff if you are more interested in myth making than truth telling.
The women who made up the movement—whatever their social status—were as flawed as any real people and remind us, when looking for historical veracity, we should be searching instead for human beings full of the same contradictions and sins as most people, who are products of and live in particular contexts—for this is surely more enduring.
In her book on Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Lori D. Ginzberg described her, according to an article in the New York Times as:
“[A]n abolitionist more out of political convenience than conviction, she not only abandoned the movement for Black male suffrage after the Civil War to focus on White women’s suffrage but increasingly made vitriolic attacks on immigrants, the working class, and African-Americans in her writing and speeches. The consequences of Stanton’s racism and elitism were “deep and hurtful,” Ginzberg says, and she attributes the continuing difficulty of incorporating race and class differences into gender politics, in large part, to Stanton’s mixed legacy.”
Ida B. Wells Courtesy of: Public Domain
To round out a more complete version of the story of the Suffrage Movement, overlooked women’s stories and viewpoints of history are being excavated and included in the narrative, seeking to remedy the long-standing ways in which little or no reference had been previously made to the considerable contributions of Black women and women of color in the fight for the vote.
Women such as the author, journalist and crusader for justice, Ida B Wells, long recognized for her heroism in her campaign against lynching, was also a Suffragette. Until quite recently, our contributions to the movement were left to be stitched together like a quilt from information and sources, some of which were judged less than reliable, are now getting their due as primary sources of reliable information proving that sometimes, the most astonishing truths have been in plain sight all along.
The role of the “classic” suffragist is currently being re-examined not only for envisioning and executing a direct role for themselves in the political sphere of Civic life, but how they were also guardians of the White supremacists culture in which they also participated and benefitted.
When I was growing up, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Grimke sisters were the face of the movement for women’s suffrage. Even today, standard history states the movement began with a conference at Seneca Falls, a great place to begin looking in order to point to a more chaotic history.
According to Lisa Tetrault the conference at Seneca Falls, which was attended by the leading lights of the abolitionist movement such as Frederick Douglass whose speech it is said was instrumental in passing the resolution demanding the vote for women, would be used by Stanton, Anthony and Mott to create a myth about the conference centering them and leaving other founding mothers in the cold.
Mary Church Terrell
Courtesy of: Public Domain.
Most Invisible of All
Before the conference in 1848 where people central to the abolitionist movement of the day came to map out a vision for the future, complex relationships existed between White women, Black women and other women of color, and their allies.
As the cultural ground shifted after the civil war, societal positions in a White supremacist society strained and made those relationships n the abolitionist movement iincredibly difficult to negotiate. However, the history of America is also the history of these interactions.
In her seminal work “Most Invisible of all: Black Women’s Voluntary Associations,” Anne Firor Scott delved into the history of Black Women’s Voluntary Associations in the South which pre-existed the Civil War.
These organizations, which would flourish, grow numerous and in many ways create the backbone of a system of mutual aid and care instituted for Black people by Black people has been largely overlooked by history. It is out of these organizations of self-help where Black people developed the organizing skills necessary to create a civil rights movement.
This occurred during a time when self-help and mutual aid were the primary ways Black communities sustained themselves—a way of doing things born out of a hard and desperate necessity. Right after the civil war, governments at all levels, local, state, and federal were loath to provide too much assistance to newly freed slaves. An article on the website VQR declared the following:
“But insofar as the Black leadership was concerned, no call for the redistribution of land or for compensation of any kind was heard. Nor was this silence on the land question, which later historians have frequently referred to as a fatal omission in the program of Reconstruction, simply a consequence of the timidity of newly emancipated slaves. For, from the earliest days of Reconstruction, Blacks had forthrightly demanded equal civil rights with Whites, and many months before radical White friends of Blacks in the North were prepared to do so, they were already asking for the ballot.
Located primarily for the assistance and uplift of Black families, these women’s organizations were the vanguard for Black Civic life which have often been overlooked.
Their members used a sophisticated combination of skills and tactics to provide the foundations of more stable communities. For example, according to Fior in 1866 the Black laundresses of Jackson, Mississippi organized to ask for a consistent wage for laundry. They then pooled their earnings to care for themselves, the infirmed, the young and the elderly. Instead of being imitations of middle-class White women’s organizations Scott found that these foundational Black institutions were just as active and vigorous, if not more, as their White counterparts and may have pre-dated and prefigured them. These organizations laid the groundwork for NAACP and the Urban League. According to Scott however, the work they had before them was tough and outside assistance dried up.
“The northern benevolence that had encouraged Black women immediately after emancipation had begun to go in other directions and when the federal government had decisively turned its back on their needs, the principal agencies providing welfare for Black women, children and the aged came from their own organizations, according to a New York Times report, “How the Suffrage Movement Betrayed Black Women,” by Brent Staples.
After the civil war, Black and White women had different views regarding why the right to vote was essential Staples explained noting how White women for the most part sought the vote as a symbol of parity with their husbands and brothers, while Black women, who primarily lived in the South, sought the ballot for themselves and their men as a means of empowering Black communities besieged by the reign of racial terror that erupted after emancipation.
The Suffrage Movement in the United States had its birth in the human rights struggles of former slaves. What we see in the protests today, both here and around the world, is a larger example of what has happened before and will continue to happen.
The struggle to free others is always a struggle to free ourselves—no one can be free, if we all aren’t free.
Phyllis Kimber-Wilcox is an undergraduate student and history buff— a grandmother, a parent, a sister, an aunt and lover of people, animals, plants, and the planet.
Black and White women sought suffrage for different reasons. What were they?
Black and White women sought suffrage for different reasons. What motivated them?