Currents from the Past
Currents from the Past: The 100th Anniversary of Women’s Right to Vote and the Pursuit of a More Accountable Sisterhood
Brenda A. Joyner
This summer and fall we will see celebrations across the nation commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment enshrined in the Constitution that gave women the right to vote. There are significant activities, virtual and otherwise, planned in nearly every state and territory in the union. Every year in August some commemorative rituals repeat themselves paying homage to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott, most notably, as the central architects of a successful suffrage movement. However, there is a growing concern and critique among black feminists that this mythic monolithic narrative be unpacked and made more complete in its recitation of historical movement events. The representation of this historic milestone as a primarily white middle class accomplishment has the effect of eviscerating the substantial contributions, sacrifices and leadership of black and other women of color suffragists, and of whitewashing the movement. This incomplete version of the struggle to win the vote for women has carried over from the past to the present and has deepened a distrust among women, and put the hope for an authentic sisterhood in jeopardy.
So, what is going on here? What happened after the Civil War and during the first and second waves of the American women’s movement that created a chasm between women on the basis of race that has deepened a sense of betrayal proven difficult to heal to this day? The answer lies in a complexity of historical and contemporary contradictions implicating race privilege, racist and classist misogyny, internalized oppression and “divide and conquer” strategies including how piecemeal democracy is meted out by the white patriarchy.
Notably, prior to the Civil War, abolitionists and suffragists coalesced to advance both the cause to end slavery and for the woman’s franchise. It was in the abolitionist, Christian temperance, and the American Lyceum movements that many black and white women demanded and found their voices even as they were restricted from speaking from public stages. At the Seneca Falls Women’s Right Convention of 1848, abolitionists and suffrage rights activists all signed onto the “Declaration of Sentiments”, that reaffirmed that “all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…” At the 1850 National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts abolitionists Abby Kelly Foster, Frederick Douglass, Lucy Stone, Sojourner Truth, and William Lloyd Garrison formed a positive and strong alliance with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, other women’s suffrage attendees and with the movement itself. A number of women activists who had been shaped by reform movements of the era brought experience and bold leadership to the fight for women’s right to the vote. Preacher, abolitionist, women’s rights, and temperance activist Antoinette Brown was “shouted down by a hostile audience” when she tried to speak at the World Temperance Convention in 1853.
Twenty years later those coalitions began to fall apart. The 15th Amendment of 1870 that gave black men, but not black women, nor white women the vote became the source of consternation and broken alliances between many in the abolitionist and suffrage movements. Some white suffragists resented the fact that black men had gained the right to vote before white women. Celebrated suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton split with Frederick Douglass over the terms of the 15th Amendment and “warned that white women would be degraded if Negro men preceded them [white women] into the franchise.”FN1 The irony of such a reaction is that by the time the 19th Amendment in 1920 was ratified giving women the vote, the right of all white men to vote had been written into law fifty years before black men got the vote. It appears that little empathy attached to the fact that the formal eradication of slavery was insufficient to change the real status of southern blacks. Slavery ended and the Black Codes were instituted. In the Slaughter-House Cases (1873), the High Court described the effects:
“Blacks were forbidden to appear in the towns in any other character than menial servants. They were required to reside on and cultivate the soil without the right to purchase or own it. They…..were not permitted to give testimony in the courts of any case where a white man was a party…Their lives were at the mercy of bad men, either because the laws for their protection were insufficient or not enforced. FN2
Imposed poll taxes and literacy tests requirements for voting eligibility in southern states and other voter intimidation and violent tactics prevented black men from exercising the right embodied in the 15th Amendment.FN3
Fifty years later with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, those tactics of violence and obstruction were still in force. Taken together black women’s ability to effectuate the right to vote was severely curtailed, a right that white women enjoyed unimpeded. It would be another forty-five years until the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act before black, Native American, Asian, and Latina American women citizens would be able to exercise the right to vote in large numbers.
There was a range of tactics suffragists employed to win the vote for women including pickets, lecture tours, suffragette parades, hunger strikes, marches and civil disobedience. Susan B. Anthony was arrested in Rochester, NY in 1872 for illegal voting. In the same year, Sojourner Truth was turned away from the polls in Battle Creek, Michigan where she resided. But there were also racially conservative contingents within the women’s suffrage movement whose strategy “allied with racist Southerners” through the lens of odious racism. Some suffragists argued that white men should support women’s right to vote as a way to neutralize the black vote. Some thought it a persuasive argument that giving white women the vote would help “ensure immediate and durable white supremacy, honestly attained.”FN4 That prediction of a “durable white supremacy” has proved foreboding. It is difficult to imagine how four hundred years of structural race oppression could have survived without the collusion of significant numbers of white women who directly benefit from race privilege and discrimination. And it is difficult to imagine how systemic structures of women’s oppression spanning centuries could survive without direct participation and complicity on the part of large numbers of black and brown men who benefit from male privilege at women’s expense.
On the surface, these historical dynamics appear to be primarily ones between white women and black men with white men as the final arbiters. Black women are often invisible in this longstanding saga of solidarity, collusion and betrayal. Black women’s roles in the earliest stages of the fight for women’s rights and for the vote have been whitewashed by white women who made claim to that movement in their image only. There is ample historical record that black women joined and formed suffragist organizations. Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, and Francis Watkins Harper of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs in 1896 had a platform of suffrage and against Jim Crow laws and they fought for all of those causes with as much vigor and determination as did white women suffragists. Ida B. Wells founded the Chicago Alpha Suffrage Club, a vibrant membership of black women. As early as 1851, Sojourner Truth challenged prevailing notions of who qualifies as a “woman”, even as she fought for the simultaneous granting of the vote to black women, white women and black men.
Other women of color, many unnamed, were actively engaged in the suffragist movement. In 1912, Wilhelmina Kekelaokalaninui founded the National Women’s Equal Suffrage Association of Hawai’i, the first Hawaiian women’s suffrage organization. That organization advocated for native Hawaiian and Asian Hawaiian women’s right to vote. Mabel Lee was a well known activist in the New York suffragist movement between 1912 and 1917 when women won the vote in that state. Although the 1920 Amendment gave all women throughout the country the right to vote, again not all women were able to access that right. The Chinese Exclusion Act (1883-1943) prevented Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens which meant that Lee and other Chinese women were excluded from its provision by definition of non-citizenship.FN5
Even when women of color and white women suffragists gathered in solidarity at the National Women’s Suffrage March of 1913 black suffragists were asked to march at the back of the march, so as not to offend white segregationists. Wells and others protested and rejected that arrangement, ultimately marching with their state contingent. What has followed is a predominately white middle class identified women’s movement that has shaped an agenda of concerns of those with the most privileges already, and that reserves its highest honors and positions of leadership for their white sisters.
Those dynamics of separation and second class status remain to this day. The Lily, of the Washington Post, recently published an expose, “How Many Women of Color Have to Cry?”, decrying the “toxic white feminism” that runs deep in major contemporary feminist organizations such as the National Organization for Women (NOW), the American Association of University Women (AAUW), and the Feminist Majority, and how women of color have struggled to find a place of inclusion and welcome within their ranks.FN6 In her upcoming book, “A Dangerous Sisterhood”, Professor Kathleen Turk discovered that in its fifty-four year history, ten of NOW’s eleven national presidents have been white women. But it is not just NOW. Similar patterns of elitism and exclusion of women of color from real power exists in numerous well funded feminist, reproductive rights, and family planning organizations.
In acts of self-interest and self-protection, a number of Black, Latina, Asian feminist and womanist groups have begun to distinguish themselves from the white middle class feminist contexts by starting, leading, and promoting their own organizations – a dynamic reminiscent of an earlier time in history. To paraphrase Bernice Johnson Reagon of “Sweet Honey in the Rock”, sometimes the heat of being the “other” will compel you to seek a nurturing environment because that is the only way you can stay in the society in which you live.
In her book “Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women that a Movement Forgot”FN7, Mikki Kendall critiques mainstream feminism on the basis of what does not get included as a feminist or woman’s issue: problems facing women in poverty such as affordable childcare, affordable housing, and food security. She asks where is that women’s movement standing up for missing indigenous women and girls and murdered trans women of all colors? She points out that it is “past time to make the conversation a nuanced, inclusive and intersectional one.” Similarly, Nancie Caraway in her treatise, “Segregated Sisterhood”FN8, challenges the very notion of “sisterhood” and instead argues for a multicultural “crossover” coalition that encourages an “egalitarian feminist solidarity.” Bernice Reagon made a moving appeal at the West Coast Music Festival in 1981 about a way to enter into a conversation about coalition politics and the opportunity women’s groups have to do something special as we moved into the 21st Century: She said:
“I believe that we are positioned to have the opportunity to have something to say about what makes it into the next century. And the principles of coalition are directly related to that. You do not go into coalition because you like it. The only reason you would consider trying to team up with somebody who could possibly kill you, is because that is the only way you can figure out how to stay alive.”
Reagon warns us about the “barred room,” that place where you can only come if you look the same as the people inside already, do things the same way, believe the same. She reminds us that the time when you can have a space that is yours only is over. That kind of isolating is over, and we cannot survive there, none of us.
That is why I am encouraged by the opportunity that the Women’s Table (WT), brought together by Reverend Traci Blackmon of the United Church of Christ, has to examine and reimagine a gender justice ministry that is intersectional, cutting across boundaries and identities that often blur and prevent unity together. The WT is comprised of a multigenerational, multiracial diverse group of ordained and laywomen of the church seeking new ways to connect to each other and to the work that women are doing. It seeks to be a “bridge over troubled waters” and to find ways for truth-telling that names the roles we each have played in bringing about this George Floyd and Breonna Taylor moment. This group of church women has an opportunity to unearth fundamental truths about the forces that are pressing on all of our necks as women. If the WT can live out its vision of an accountable and anti-racist sisterhood, then there will be far less tolerance for sidelining women of color, far less tolerance for discrimination of trans women, women with disabilities, or of the “other.” No more barred rooms where who qualifies as a woman and allowed into the room is strictly enforced.
We are prayerful that we can live into what a genuine sisterhood and solidarity between and among diverse women of faith really looks and feels like. With a spirit of generosity and love, we can move from a politic and ministry of isolation, fragmentation, and competition to one of meaningful intersectional cooperation and power-sharing. Only when we meet each other eye to eye with empathy and grace will transformation be possible. Only then will we truly live up to the promise of Robin Morgan’s “Sisterhood is Powerful.”FN9
The dream of a more accountable sisterhood is within our reach. As Reverend Yvonne Delk has said:
“In the God houses, in the church houses women are still in walls around each other. We must find a way across the boxes, not isolated but existing in community defying isolation. The walls of race privilege that allow groups and individuals to fight alone must be torn down. We must tear down the walls that have imprisoned our vision for an inclusive church and society.”
We as women can find a way to begin again even as we are aware of the hegemonic trappings and burdens history and tradition have heaped upon us. Women, let’s tear down these walls and vote like our lives depend upon it!
1New York Times Editorial. Brent Staples. “How the Suffrage Movement Betrayed Black Women.”, July 28, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/28/opinion/sunday/suffrage-movement-racism-black-woman.amp.html.
2The Slaughter-House Cases, 83 U.S.(16 Wall.) 36 (1873).
3The Supreme Court upheld a Georgia statute requiring the payment of a poll tax as a precondition for voting in Breedlove v. Suttles, 302 U.S. 277 (1937). As late as 1959, the high court upheld a N.C statute providing that an individual voter must “be able to read and write any section of the state constitution in the English language.” (Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections, 360 U.S. 45 (1959).
5New York Tribune (1912). “Chinese Girl Wants Vote.” New York Tribune, April 13, 1912, p.3. Available through Library of Congress’ Chronicling America Project.
7Mikki Kendall. 2020. Hood Feminism: Notes From the Women that a Movement Forgot. Viking Press (Random House): New York.
8Nancie Caraway. 1991. Segregated Sisterhood: Racism and the Politics of American Feminism. The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.
9Robin Morgan. 1970. Sisterhood is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement. Random House: New York