published: August 2019

Racism or political expediency?

by Diane Bairstow

August 1919 was a slow month for the Women’s Suffrage Movement in its push toward ratification of the 19th Amendment. Only one state, Nebraska, signed on. Now they had a total of 14 states with 22 to go.

Unity among the races

In the early years of the movement there was unity between white women and men and women of color. Frederick Douglass, a black abolitionist and social reformer, attended the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, which is considered to be the beginning of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. The proposed Declaration of Sentiments met with opposition on the issue of voting rights. Douglass spoke so eloquently in favor of the declaration that resistance melted.

Thirteen years later, the Civil War broke out, and the Suffrage Movement went dormant. After the war it was reignited. However, the passage of the 15th Amendment on February 3, 1870, which enfranchised black men, created a schism in the movement, and between the races.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony severed ties with the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), which supported the 15th Amendment. They formed the National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA). The motto of the new organization was “It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union.”

A century to get the word ‘male’ out

It has been suggested that racism was the motivation behind this move, and that Stanton and Anthony were offended that black men were enfranchised before white women. Perhaps, however, this quote by Elizabeth Cady Stanton seems to truly reflect their position, “If the word ‘male’ be inserted, it will take us a century at least to get it out.” She was prescient in her prediction, but her timing was off, it took 50 years and not 100. 

There are other examples of what could be considered racism. Susan B. Anthony asked her friend, Frederick Douglass, not to attend a women’s suffrage convention in Atlanta, fearing his presence would offend their southern hosts. Alice Paul tried to exclude black women and men from marching in the famous Suffrage Parade of 1913 that upstaged Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. When black women showed up, they were relegated to the back. Washington D.C., a southern district, was still inflamed by the recent rape of a white woman by a black man. Racial tension was high, and Paul reasoned that the presence of blacks would have a negative effect on the movement.

Political expediency

Was this racism or political expediency? These women, who originally embraced universal suffrage and abolitionism, realized they had to have the southern states on board to achieve their goals. They were faced with the same political dilemma that we see played out on the news daily, “Do we do what is right, or do we do what is needed to accomplish our goals?”

They finally swayed enough southern states to ratify the amendment, but it didn’t enfranchise black men, black women or even white women in the south, as the states enacted Jim Crow laws that made it virtually impossible for black men, or any woman, to vote.

Race & women today

Fast forward to 2019.  Three national women’s organizations are active today. The National Organization of Women (NOW) has been around since 1966. Their stated purpose is to eliminate discrimination and achieve and protect the equal rights of all women and girls. Supermajority is a brand new organization launched last April. Their mission is to teach all women how to be activists. Since women are in the majority, they propose banding together and forming a supermajority. She the People was launched in September 2018. Its purpose is to connect women of color to transform our democracy.

The first two are inclusive, the last one is exclusive. The tables have turned. This year is not only the Year of the Woman, it is also The Year of the Woman of Color. Thirty-seven percent of the women elected to Congress last fall were women of color.

The victory spilled over into the states as well. In Texas, 17 African American women, a record-breaker, were elected as judges, making the Texas courts more reflective of the population they serve. These women ran on a Democratic-sponsored campaign called “Black Girl Magic.”

The times they are a changin’.