What the Suffrage Movement Reveals About Race in America

Women's Suffrage
Sculptor Lloyd Lillie's “The First Wave,” in Historical Park at Seneca Falls, NY, features life-size bronze statues of the five women who organized the First Women's Rights Convention, and a few of the men who came in support of social, political, and religious equality for women. Photo credit: Keith Ewing / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
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California Sen. Kamala Harris’s nomination for vice president is historic, but it also highlights how women of color are still fighting for fair and free access to the ballot box 100 years after women first won the right to vote.

Never before has a woman of color been nominated for this position on a major party’s ticket. The intersection of race and gender, however, is not lost on the millions of women of color watching and keeping track of the racial disparity. 

This year marked the centennial anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, but the right to vote remains an uphill battle for millions of women of color.

Baseless claims that Harris might not be eligible to serve as vice president came within hours of her nomination — a new birther scandal, just in time for the 2020 election cycle. Harris is the daughter of immigrants, but was born in Oakland, CA. Most women of color were offended, but few were surprised.

Because when women of color run for office, their eligibility is usually questioned.

“This is what racism sounds like,” Symone Sanders, senior adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, tweeted. Newsweek, which published the article that boosted the birtherism claim, formally apologized for the “ugly message.”

“White supremacy is a belief system based on the idea that [people] of color, [especially] Black [people], are fundamentally illegitimate as equal citizens or human beings,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) tweeted. “Calling into question the citizenship of elected officials of color, [especially] when the answer is obvious, is one way it manifests.”

This year marks the centennial anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, but the right to vote remains an uphill battle for millions of women of color. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony are often hailed as the leaders of the Suffragette movement. President Donald Trump even pardoned Anthony for her crime of voting nearly 150 years ago. What is often overlooked, however, is that the two trailblazing women also opposed the 15th Amendment, which prohibited racial discrimination when it came to voting rights, and gave Black men the right to vote. 

Stanton, for example, called African American men “Sambos” and “incipient rapists” after the Civil War ended, arguing that she “would not trust [them] with all my rights; degraded, oppressed [themselves], [they] would be more despotic with the governing power than even our Saxon rulers are.”

Both Stanton and Anthony also aligned themselves with others who opposed the 15th Amendment and argued that “white women were more qualified to vote than Black men.” The dichotomy between Stanton’s views and those of Ida B. Wells, a Black journalist and civil rights leader, highlighted how suffragettes saw what freedom meant for women in the early 1900s.

100 Years After Suffrage, Full Equality Eludes Women

“The alleged menace of universal suffrage having been avoided by the absolute suppression of the negro vote, the spirit of mob murder should have been satisfied and the butchery of negroes should have ceased,” Wells wrote in 1900. “But men, women, and children were the victims of murder by individuals and murder by mobs, just as they had been when killed at the demands of the ‘unwritten law’ to prevent ‘negro domination.’”

While much has changed in 100 years, voting rights of Black women are still under attack; the attack is merely more insidious.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 came after the 15th and 19th Amendments were ratified. It was a monumental piece of legislation by which the right to vote was considered wholly protected for every American, particularly communities of color. States with a history of discriminatory practices, particularly those in the South, were required to end the long-standing barriers that prevented voters of color from casting a ballot. These barriers included literacy tests, poll taxes, and the grandfather clause (wherein those literacy tests and taxes were not applicable to current white voters in the Jim Crow era).

While much has changed in 100 years, voting rights of Black women are still under attack; the attack is merely more insidious. A majority of Americans still believe that the United States has yet to reach full gender equality and that it fails to lift up the lives of women of color as much as it has for white women.

More women are politically engaged than ever before. The Center for American Women and Politics found that in 2016, more than 53 million white women, roughly 67 percent of the eligible voting population, cast a ballot. Likewise, just over 10 million black women, about 64 percent of the eligible voting population, cast a ballot.

Yet, thousands of polling place closures, restrictive voter ID laws, and disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated individuals continue to prevent millions of voters — largely voters of color — from access to the ballot box.

“During this centennial year of the 19th Amendment, it is important and exciting to acknowledge the determination and sacrifice of those who worked to pass it,” Michelle Duster, Wells’s great-granddaughter, wrote in an Op-Ed Monday. “But in the midst of the tributes and celebrations, we need to dismantle the false narrative of a whites-only suffrage movement and broaden the scope to be inclusive and reflect reality.”

As women celebrate the right to vote on the 100th anniversary, it is more important than ever that our definition of women broadens to include those of all races, according to the ACLU. Suffrage without intersectional recognition is only freedom for some women, and 2020 America calls for civil rights for all.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from US Information Agency / Wikimedia.

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