"The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them."
- Ida B. Wells
The passage of the 19th Amendment, August 26th, 1920, celebrated today as “Women’s Equality Day”, is to be remembered in American History as a landmark achievement made possible after decades of unyielding advocacy efforts by activists, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth C. Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Lucretia Mott, Harriet Purvis, Alice Paul, Carrie Chapman Catt and many others whose names, but not their deeds, remain dormant in the archives of time.
With the annual celebration of Women’s Equality Day, we grapple with reconciling the widespread narratives of a triumphant, steady march towards women’s enfranchisement with the more complicated and painful reality of Black women’s experiences in the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s important that we celebrate the movement towards women’s equality, but not without engaging a historical narrative that is representative of all lived experiences of women in the United States at the time.
The Background of “Women’s Equality Day”
The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, designed to discuss the social, civil, and religious rights of women, gave birth to the “Declaration of Sentiments” which called for gender equality, women’s access to education and job opportunities, the ability for women to enter into contracts and own property, and women’s right to vote. The suffrage clause, demanding the right to vote, the most controversial of them all, soon became the cornerstone of the women’s rights movement.
In 1869, Stanton, Anthony and Mott formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) aimed at passing a Constitutional amendment that would ensure a women's right to vote. NWSA argued that the 14th and 15th amendments jointly assured women's right to vote, leading to Supreme Court rulings assuring women’s voting rights in Bradwell v. Illinois and Minor v. Happersett, in 1873 and 1875, respectively.
Anti-suffragist groups defied suffragist efforts claiming that most women refused to vote, their place was at home with their children, the right to vote for women would harm the institution of marriage, and that women lacked the capacity to offer a valuable opinion about political issues. In other words, opponents argued that women’s voting rights would only negatively impact the family and our social and political frameworks.
Race and the Women’s Suffrage Movement
In 1870, the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted the right to vote regardless of “race, color or previous condition of servitude,” only protected the right to vote on the basis of race, not sex, and therefore was only applicable to Black men. A disagreement about whether or not to support the Fifteenth Amendment led to a division in the women’s rights movement. A year before its passage, activists established two competing national organizations focused on winning women’s suffrage. The National Woman Suffrage Association opposed the Fifteenth Amendment unless it included women’s right to vote, while the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) led by Lucy Stone, supported the new law.
In brief, NWSA believed that instead of supporting the Fifteenth Amendment as it was, women’s rights activists should fight for all women to be included as well. AWSA, on the other hand, quickly became the more popular organization because it was more moderate in its aims. While NWSA advocated for a range of reforms to make women equal members of society (including marriage and divorce), AWSA focused solely on the vote to attract as many supporters as possible. Opposite to NWSA’s federal approach, AWSA sustained the notion that women’s suffrage could best be gained through amendments to individual state constitutions as a legitimate means to pave the road towards federal legislation. AWSA declared its first victory in 1869 with Wyoming becoming the first territory to recognize women’s right to vote.
For the next twenty years, the suffrage movement would remain divided, but women continued to campaign actively for their rights. And in 1890, tensions notwithstanding, NWSA and AWSA merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). The new organization’s strategy was to lobby for voting rights on a state-by-state basis. Black women were in a difficult position. Sometimes they worked in their own clubs and suffrage organizations, sometimes with white suffragists. Black women did not accept their exclusion from white suffragist organizations, or the racist tactics employed by white suffragists. In the twentieth century, more and more Black women joined the ranks of suffragists as the movement progressed.
Under Carrie Chapman Catt's leadership, NAWSA achieved the enfranchisement of women at the state level in Colorado in 1893 and Utah and Idaho in 1896, through amendments to their state constitutions.
In 1913 Alice Paul founded the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, whose principal strategy was to lead the federal government into taking legislative action. It later became the National Woman’s Party. The combination of NAWSA’s World War I efforts (peace and preparedness movements, mobilized wartime volunteer organizations, staffed medical units abroad, served in the military, and engaged in wage work at home) and the publicity from the National Woman’s Party’s pickets at the White House, led to extensive support for women's suffrage.
A Victory (Predominately for White Women)
President Woodrow Wilson, who initially opposed women’s voting rights, abdicated his position and entwined the proposed constitutional amendment to America’s involvement in WWI, honoring the role women had played in the war effort. Nonetheless, when it came up for vote it failed in the Senate by two votes. Then in 1919, the amendment was passed by the House, then the Senate, and then was ratified by thirty-five states, one state shy of the two-thirds required for ratification. In 1920, Tennessee provided the remaining vote for ratification.
On August 26th, 1920, the Proclamation of the Women's Suffrage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was certified and became the law of the land. The historical stepping-stone in the centuries old struggle for women's rights had become part of the Constitution despite the unyielding opposition by the Southern States where the issue of women's suffrage was related to racism.
As we revisit and celebrate movements of equality, it is critical that we frame them with an intersectional lens. Women of color (and later, non-cis women) were originally excluded from the suffragette movement by white women’s efforts to maintain a white heteronormative system – made by white people, for white people. It would be decades before people of color were actually “free” to vote in the true sense of the word – there still remains tremendous impediments to freely exercising this right even today. Although the 19th Amendment guaranteed all women the right to vote, this occasion was followed by an era of severely suppressing Black people’s freedoms, including their right to vote through the administration of poll taxes, voter ID requirements, and voter intimidation. In 1965, the end of the Jim Crow Era, was then followed by decades of manifested systemic racial inequalities—most of which we are still struggling with as a society today.
When retelling historical narratives, we must engage the lived experiences of all people – particularly from those who have not been given the power to document and write the history, most commonly recalled by a white patriarchal society.