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Why women’s suffrage matters for Black people

The history of the women’s suffrage movement is inseparable from the history of race in the United States

While our collective memory of the suffrage movement is often a vision of a small band of white women — fighting the establishment alone, marching and picketing in their flowy white dresses — the story of the women’s movement was more complicated and nuanced than that. It involved many women, but also men, of different races who had to find their voice, identify allies and build coalitions.

As the centennial of the 19th Amendment’s certification on Aug. 26, 1920, approaches, many African Americans have questioned whether the suffrage movement is relevant to them, because most Black people in the South were disenfranchised anyway. For many African Americans, the movement’s reputation for discriminating against or dismissing Black suffragists and the long history of discord between white and Black feminists do not inspire enthusiasm for the anniversary celebration.

As we approach the centennial and the first presidential election with a Black/Asian woman in the race, the first woman of color on a major political party’s ticket, we should examine how we got the vote and at what cost.

To dismiss the suffrage movement as irrelevant dishonors the many Black women and men who participated — lobbying, debating, lecturing, petitioning, editorializing, parading and picketing alongside white suffragists.

As women are gaining greater leverage in the political system, now is the time to study and credit the contributions of all suffragists and expand our knowledge of the entire movement.

In many ways, the history of the women’s suffrage movement is inseparable from the history of race in the United States, as it is from so many issues. Indeed, the women’s rights movement was rooted in the anti-slavery movement, and African Americans were involved from the start.

The fact that racism often marred the good efforts of suffragists should not dampen the enthusiasm for celebrating this milestone for women.

When the American Anti-Slavery Society, founded in 1831 by William Lloyd Garrison, barred women from joining, Lucretia Mott, a white radical abolitionist and Quaker preacher, and other women formed the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. Among them were Black women such as Charlotte Forten and her daughters, Margaretta Forten, Sarah Purvis and Harriet Purvis; Grace Bustill Douglass; and Sarah McCrummell.

Mott recalled the first national Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, held May 9, 1837, in New York City. When a second convention was held in 1838 in Philadelphia, a mob opposed to “race mixing” broke up a meeting and later burned down the building, Pennsylvania Hall, about three days after it opened.

Mott considered those conventions the start of the women’s movement. Other suffrage leaders generally set the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in New York as the beginning of the movement. Mott was one of the conveners of that meeting, but to her the movement was already 10 years old by then, according to The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898, by Lisa Tetrault.

The organizers of the Seneca Falls Convention asked famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass to publish a notice in his newspaper and urged him to attend. They also advertised it in other local newspapers. It was a hastily called meeting organized within about 10 days’ time from idea to execution by a handful of mostly Quaker women, but it attracted 300 women and men from nearby villages and the countryside of upstate New York. That meeting did not focus on suffrage but rather on all the freedoms that women lacked – the rights to receive an education, own property, divorce husbands, maintain custody of children or pursue professions. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton offered a resolution seeking the vote, attendees, women and men, greeted it with great derision and resistance. Stanton’s husband, Henry Brewster Stanton, a prominent abolitionist orator, had warned her that if she included the demand for the vote, he would not attend, as other organizers’ husbands did. Only Douglass spoke in favor of the resolution. Without his eloquent defense, it probably would not have carried.

Douglass was among the 32 men, along with 68 women, who signed the Declaration of Sentiments.

Sojourner Truth emancipated herself and her baby before slavery was abolished in New York in 1827.

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Before that time, women were largely barred from speaking before audiences of men and women together. The first American woman to do so was a free Black woman, Maria W. Stewart of Boston, who spoke on abolition and women’s rights from about 1831 to 1833.

Other Black women who followed in her footsteps as abolitionist lecturers in the 1850s were Frances E.W. Harper, also a free Black woman and poet, and Sojourner Truth, who emancipated herself and her baby before slavery was abolished in New York in 1827. Both attended and addressed national women’s rights conventions for a decade before, and again after, the Civil War. Truth attended for the first time in 1850 and addressed several conventions. Harriet Purvis and her sister Margaretta Forten also attended some women’s conventions. Harriet Purvis’ husband, Robert Purvis, often attended as well, as did other prominent Black men, such as Charles Lenox Remond, an abolitionist lecturer, and William Still, the Underground Railroad leader.

(Douglass would continue attending women’s conventions until the day he died in 1895.)

The conventions were suspended during the Civil War, and Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, an abolitionist lecturer who had emerged as a leader in the women’s movement, set up an office in New York City to gather petitions demanding passage of the 13th Amendment to make emancipation permanent.

After the war, as voting was about to be extended to Black men, women realized they too could obtain the vote through a federal amendment and believed they had earned it by their sacrifices during the war. Men pushing for the 14th Amendment and later the 15th Amendment, to establish Black men’s rights, told the women they would have to wait.

“This hour belongs to the Negro,” declared Wendell Phillips, a white Bostonian who headed the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1865. “As Abraham Lincoln said, ‘One war at a time,’ so I say, ‘One cause at a time.’ This is the Negro’s hour.”

Stanton began writing virulently racist editorials in a newspaper she had started with Anthony, railing against giving the vote to uneducated Black men and immigrants. “Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung who do not know the difference between a Monarchy and a Republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling book,” Stanton wrote. She was advocating for “educated suffrage.”

She had stormed out of a meeting of the American Equal Rights Association in 1869 after a white abolitionist man told her that her position conflicted with the group’s purpose. Within days, she and Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) to work for the women’s cause only.

Some women, white and Black, including Harper, agreed with Phillips’ position, and so did Douglass.

A look at the women’s suffrage brochure and stamp from 1915.

David J. & Janice L. Frent/Corbis via Getty Images

Truth did not: “I am glad to see that men are getting their rights, but I want women to get theirs, and while the water is stirring, I will step into the pool,” she said. “Now that there is a great stir about colored men getting their rights is the time for women to step in and have theirs.”

Lucy Stone, a white abolitionist and prominent lecturer, and others (men and women) formed the American Woman Suffrage Association to support the 15th Amendment and seek women’s suffrage at the same time. Each association had African American members. The two groups remained separate until 1890 when they merged to become the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

After the adoption of the 14th and 15th amendments, some women began to argue that those two measures already gave women the right to vote because they were “citizens.” A Black woman, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, a law student at Howard University, petitioned the House Judiciary Committee making that argument. She had attended an NWSA convention in 1871. Cary registered to vote that year but was not allowed to cast a ballot. In 1876, she gave the NWSA the names of 94 Black women to be included as signers of a women’s Declaration of Rights for the nation’s centennial.

In the new NAWSA, Anthony began pushing a “Southern strategy” to broaden support for suffrage in a region where women had shied away from the movement or were against it. Southern lawmakers would have denied all women the right to vote just to keep Black women from having it, even though they had largely disenfranchised Black men anyway. They would certainly be appalled by an integrated convention, Anthony reasoned. She asked African Americans, including her longtime friend Douglass, to stay away from conventions in the South.

Adella Hunt Logan, an educator at Tuskegee Institute, attended the association’s convention in Atlanta in 1895 anyway, passing for white, according to her granddaughter and biographer, Adele Logan Alexander.

While courting Southern supporters, Anthony was willing to offend Black women at a time when they were increasingly interested in the movement. She turned down a request from Black women to form their own chapter of NAWSA. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the crusading journalist, criticized her for it, saying, “She might have made gains for suffrage, but she confirmed white women in their attitude of segregation.”

Undeterred, Black women all over the country were becoming a powerful force through their churches and clubs that were springing up all over. Increasingly, African American women were interested in organizing to support the suffrage movement. They formed the National Association of Colored Women with Mary Church Terrell, a Washington activist, as president. Terrell also addressed several NWSA conventions and an international women’s conference, where she addressed the body in English, French and German.

By 1913, Anthony, who died in 1906, and Stanton, in 1902, were out of the way but racial division was not. The Black suffragists heard about plans for a huge suffrage parade in Washington to be held the day before the presidential inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. Alice Paul, a suffragist from New Jersey, was the main organizer of the parade. She was under pressure to exclude Black marchers to avoid offense to Southerners. NAWSA leaders also pressed her to include them, and she relented.

In the confusion, one of the organizers told Wells-Barnett she could not march with the white Illinois delegates she came with but should march with Black delegates. She pretended to comply, left her delegation and hid on the sidelines. When her delegation passed, she fell into step with the white women from her state.

Among those marching were Delta Sigma Theta sorority’s founders from Howard University, accompanied by Terrell.

A few years later, Terrell, along with her daughter, sometimes joined Paul’s followers in picketing the White House, Terrell recalled in her autobiography. Many of Paul’s picketers went to jail and suffered horrific conditions, beatings and forced feedings to secure passage of the 19th Amendment. Terrell said she narrowly missed going to jail because she was unavailable to picket one day.

The fact that racism often marred the good efforts of suffragists should not dampen the enthusiasm for celebrating this milestone for women. After the adoption of the 19th Amendment, Black women in the South were still largely disenfranchised, as were other racial or ethnic groups. Black women outside the region organized and voted enthusiastically, and if white women had not gotten the vote, Black women certainly would not have.

The women’s rights movement of the 19th and 20th centuries also secured other important rights, notably opportunities for education and employment — though the struggle for pay equity, economic justice and other rights continues for all women.

Angela P. Dodson is a veteran journalist and the author of “Remember the Ladies: Celebrating Those Who Fought for Freedom at the Ballot Box.” She also wrote the introduction to the 100th anniversary edition of “Jailed for Freedom: A First-Person Account of the Militant Fight for Women’s Rights.”