Women’s suffrage anniversary commemorations highlight racial divide

The 19th Amendment was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920, but many women of color were prevented from casting ballots for decades.

Women's suffrage parade

Women on horseback march in a suffrage parade behind flag-bearers on Pennsylvania Avenue. (Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress via AP)

As the U.S. marks the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, many event organizers, mindful that the 19th Amendment originally benefited mostly white women, have been careful to present it as a commemoration, not a celebration.

The amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920, but many women of color were prevented from casting ballots for decades afterward because of poll taxes, literacy tests, overt racism, intimidation, and laws that prevented the grandchildren of enslaved people from voting. Much of that didn’t change until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

From exhibits inside the Arizona Capitol Museum to a gathering on the North Carolina statehouse lawn, many commemorations, including those that moved online because of the coronavirus pandemic, have highlighted a more nuanced history of the American women’s suffrage movement alongside the traditional tributes to well-known suffragists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

The 100th anniversary has arrived during a year of nationwide protests against racial inequality that have forced the United States to once again reckon with its uncomfortable history.

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“Like many movements, the stories are complicated and I think it’s important, as we have an opportunity to reflect and to celebrate, that we also are honest about how we didn’t meet all of our aspirations,” said Rhode Island Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, a Democrat born and raised in Puerto Rico who has helped to organize her state’s suffrage commemoration efforts. “It’s important to have these conversations so we can do a better job of going forward.”

The Connecticut Historical Society last month unveiled an online exhibit titled “The Work Must Be Done: Women of Color and the Right to Vote.” It highlights Black women from Connecticut who fought for suffrage rights as well as other issues, such as anti-discrimination, anti-lynching, labor reforms and access to education.

“We have really been wanting to make sure we talk about the complicated history of these issues in our country,” said Arizona Assistant Secretary of State Allie Bones, whose office came up with a program after working with about 60 community groups across the state, many of which were “very focused on not calling it a celebration, but … a commemoration.”

The complicated nature of the suffrage movement came full circle last week when Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden chose California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate, making her the first Black woman on a major party ticket.

In an appearance with Biden last week, Harris said she was “mindful of all the heroic and ambitious women before me whose sacrifice, determination and resilience makes my presence here today even possible.”

While their names are not as well-known as the white suffragists, Black women played both prominent and smaller roles in the movement. Members of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, for example, participated in the 1913 suffrage march in Washington, taking great personal risk while not being welcomed by some white suffragists who ultimately insisted the Black women march at the end of the procession, said Cheryl A. Hickmon, national first vice president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.

“They felt that it was their obligation, if you will, even though it was unsafe to march with the other women and show their dissension and feelings,” said Hickmon, whose organization has been working with organizers of the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial that’s being constructed in southern Fairfax County, Virginia, and includes an overview of the entire movement, including Black suffragists.

The 100th anniversary marks an opportunity to “honestly examine” the relationship between white and Black women in the women’s rights movement, said Johnetta Betch Cole, a former college president and anthropologist who is currently the national chair of the National Conference of Negro Women, an organization that was founded in 1935 to advocate for women’s rights.

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“There is more acknowledgement of the complexities of the strains, of the racism in the suffrage movement than ever, ever before,” Betch Cole said. “Unfortunately, one can be virtuous in one form of oppression and then turn around and victimize others on another basis.”

Doris Kelley, a former Democratic Iowa House representative who chairs the state’s 19th Amendment Centennial Commemoration, said it’s important to remember the historical context that suffragists navigated while acknowledging the movement’s complexities. The logo of Iowa’s centennial commemoration “Hard Won, Not Done,” Kelley said, is a nod to that unfinished history.

In June, protesters in Iowa demanded that Iowa State University remove the name of suffragist and alumna Carrie Chapman Catt from a building because of white supremacist and anti-immigrant statements attributed to her. Kelley said the protesters “need to understand history” and that Catt and other suffragists had to engage in the white-supremacist politics of the time.

“I think people need to stop and think that she was the one that had the winning plan in the very end,” Kelley said. “And as we all know, as a former state representative myself, there are times that you have to … do certain things and give a little to get something done.”

In North Carolina, Janice Jones Schroeder, a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, said she was impressed that organizers of the state’s suffrage anniversary activities thought to include her in a commemoration event last September on the lawn of the statehouse.

“At that time, American Indians were not even considered citizens of the United States,” she said. While the Snyder Act of 1924 admitted Native Americans born in the U.S. to full U.S. citizenship, it was left up to the states to decide who had the right to vote, and it took more than 40 years for all 50 states to agree to grant them voting rights.

Schroeder said there are still challenges today facing tribal members who want to vote. The American Bar Association has raised concerns about the effect of voter ID laws, long distances to register to vote on some reservations, lack of access to mail and socioeconomic disparities.

“I look at politics now,” said Schroeder, “and I think, ‘Do we still have a voice?’”


Naishadham reported from Atlanta.

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