First, let’s set the table.
Yes, I am that person that interjects with white women whenever someone mentions that it’s been 100 years since women gained the ability to vote. And if I don’t interject, I’m definitely thinking it. That might cause some folks to roll their eyes, but that doesn’t make my clarification any less true. We can celebrate an achievement while also pointing out how that same achievement fell well short of enfranchising the diverse range of women that lived in America in 1920.
History is a funny thing, isn’t it? Especially in this country. Instead of learning from it, we stubbornly choose to sand down its rough edges in order to draw our collective gaze to the loveliest smoothed over parts, completely avoiding the dry rot underneath that just keeps spreading. Maybe it’s because human beings are the kinds of creatures that crave rich narratives with beginnings, middles, and (happy) ends. Sweeping tales of heroes and heroines, all white, with the occasional person of color in a supporting role. The movement for women’s suffrage is no different.
Growing up, the story I learned about women’s long fought battle for what would become the 19th Amendment was fully housed in towering white champions like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. My small eyes scanned pictures of women in flowing white dresses and sashes, marching and demanding equal access to the ballot box, not a Black or brown person among them. No one mentioned Black women, who absolutely did not get the right to vote, despite their contributions to the movement. No one mentioned indigenous or Asian women either, who weren’t even allowed to be U.S. citizens at the time. Latinas were also left completely out of this victory for all women, as we’re taught to celebrate it today. This was a movement powered by white women, my history books assured me, without ever explicitly stating it. But you’ll be a woman one day, and so this was your victory too. Cool, right? I didn’t question this narrative, because what kid does? We ingest what we’re fed, until we’re old enough to realize that some crucial ingredients have been left out of the stew.
Throughout the month of August, folks have been talking about the 19th Amendment, leaning heavily into the Stanton-Anthony industrial complex, as they’ve always done. So I suppose it’s no surprise that this centennial of white women gaining the ability to vote has me lowkey annoyed, an undercurrent of unrest that buzzes directly behind my eyes. All month, I’ve been thinking about feminism’s historical inability to negotiate the intersection of race and gender. And this unwillingness to embrace intersectionality persists to this day, carried forth by generation after generation of women. I left a rather famous women’s organization in 2017 because of the blatant racism and toxic white feminism I saw and experienced there, a suffocatingly clique-ish environment dressed up as ‘sisterhood’. It was okay to have Black women and other women of color toiling for the organization and peppered into group photos, but it wasn’t okay for them to be in leadership roles or to ever point out racism within the ranks. In that way, it was very similar to the movement for women’s suffrage.
The betrayal of Black women by their so-called white suffragist ‘sisters’ caused a fissure in the feminist movement that’s still a gaping hole to this day. It always seems a little too easy for the concerns of Black women and other women of color to get indefinitely delayed or outright ignored so the group can focus on more pressing matters. Pressing always means what’s deemed important by the white women in charge.
When we learn about the battle for women’s suffrage in school, we never hear about the deep seated racism of its white leaders. We don’t hear about the tokenization of Asian and indigenous women, or the erasure of Latinas. We don’t hear about how it was just fine for Black women to do the work, but unacceptable for them to expect a seat at the table. Back in the day, ladies like Stanton were enraged at the thought of Black men getting the right to vote before white women. This is despite the fact that Frederick Douglass was an avid and vocal supporter of women’s rights, even showing up at the convention at Seneca Falls.
Racism was in the DNA of this movement. That much was evidenced by the racist rhetoric of its leaders. And the scope of the movement was narrow: push just enough to enfranchise white women, then stop. In the same way that Black men weren’t magically able to practice the voting rights set forth for them in the 15th Amendment until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Black women also weren’t able to access their right to vote after the passage of the 19th Amendment. But did newly enfranchised white women continue to fight for them? Of course not. Because this was never about the rights of all women. Black, Latina, indigenous, and Asian women were on their own, despite how hard they’d labored to make the ratification of the 19th Amendment possible.
The 19th Amendment didn’t do anything about the intimidation, poll taxes, literacy tests, and violence Black women faced when they tried to register to vote, just like the 15th Amendment didn’t protect Black men from such treatment. But Black folks had to figure this out alone. No help arrived from white suffragists. And, years later, these same white women would be lauded as heroines that contributed to the great American story while the suffragists of color were fully erased from my history books.
As so often happens in my adult life, I feel terribly cheated out of learning crucial parts of the American story during my first twelve years of education. It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned about Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, and so many others. I lived nearly two decades without understanding the crucial role Black women played in a battle for equality that I’d been led to believe was fought only by white women. American history is a story of white achievement, and all but a few people of color are erased by the centuries of white folks that have carefully constructed that narrative, from the ships arriving on Plymouth Rock to the present day.
Racism played a central role in the movement for women’s suffrage, and I’m not here to celebrate that. What I celebrate are the thousands of Black women and men that never stopped fighting for voting rights until they were signed into law in 1965. I celebrate the folks still fighting for these rights to this day, because the suppression never stops, it just takes another form: purging of the voter rolls, voter ID laws, polling locations closed without notice, etc. This month, I celebrate the perseverance of Black women, the way they keep rising, no matter how hard this country shoves them down or erases them from its history. We have a long way to go, but we’ve also come so far. I celebrate that too.