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Black History Month Blog Series: Black Women and the Suffrage Movement

Updated: Feb 7, 2022

By: Madeline León

While the women’s suffrage movement throughout the 1800’s and 1900’s is regarded as a celebratory historical mark for women’s rights, its dichotomic motives were actually a set back in Civil Rights, particularly for Black Americans and more specifically for Black women.

The Women’s Suffrage Movement was cemented at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, in which 300 white women (and men on the second day) gathered to discuss women’s rights and the need to grant women the right to vote. At the Convention, organizers and speakers Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martha C. Wright, and Mary Ann McClintock presented and asked for support of the Declaration of Sentiments, which was modeled after the Declaration of Independence. The convention attendees signed twelve resolutions, one of them focused on the right to vote. Abolitionist Frederick Douglas was among the signers of the Declaration of Sentiments.

While many women and men present at this convention were also staunch abolitionists, many were still inherently racist and didn’t believe in racial equity. When the 15th amendment granted the right to vote to all African American men, it angered white women, as many of them argued that white women should have been granted the legal right before Black men. In order to gain support for the right to vote and push for the 19th amendment, white suffragettes used the argument of white supremacy to bolster their efforts, claiming that white women will be loyal to the white man’s agenda through their voting abilities.

Despite Frederick Douglass’ support for the Declaration of Sentiments and the work of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other women's suffragettes, Stanton did not reciprocate efforts towards the right to vote regardless of race. Instead, she supported literacy tests and other discriminatory voting practices. In 1869, Stanton told Douglas, “[The 15th amendment] creates an antagonism everywhere between educated, refined women and the lower orders of men, especially in the South.”

The National American Women’s Suffrage Movement and the National Women’s Party excluded Black women and other women of color. Black women like Hallie Quinn Brown, an educator and activist for the suffrage of all women and head of the National Association of Colored Women, fought for women’s suffrage before the mainstream exclusionary movement in the early 1900’s. In 1893, Brown and several other Black women - Anna Julia Cooper, Fannie Barrier Williams, Fanny Jackson Coppin, and Sarah Jane Woodson Early – attended the World’s Congress of Representative Women as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition to give speeches on women’s issues and listen to other women from 27 different countries.

Long before the World’s Columbian Exposition, Black women did not work exclusively together to fight for women’s issues as many of these issues were tied to Black issues as well. After the Civil War, leaders like Sojourner Truth, Maria W. Stewart, Henrietta Purvis, Harriet Forten Purvis, Sarah Remond, Mary Ann Shad Cary, and Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman organized for the freedom of enslaved and formerly enslaved people.

As they were excluded from the mainstream women’s suffrage movement, Black women organized to dismantle both the patriarchy and racism, two intertwined systems that work together to systematically oppress the Black community. Journalist and activist Ida B. Wells is notable for organizing the Black community through her co-founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and for organizing Black women in voting rights with her founding of the Alpha Suffrage Club. The Alpha Suffrage Club also worked to place Black leaders in local positions of power. The goal of the Club was to “champion causes for the race and inspire a reconceptualization of the role of African American women in America,” wrote author, professor and historian Wanda A. Hendricks. The Club mobilized the registration of over 7,000 female voters and eventually elected Chicago’s first Black alderman Oscar DePriest in 1915.

Despite the passing of the 19th Amendment, Black people and other communities of color would face legal discriminatory practices and threats to their livelihood from White supremacists if they were to engage in voting. In her memoir Coming of Age in Mississippi, author and voting rights activist Anne Moody recalls the low number of registered Black voters due to fear and ridiculous literacy tests and other requirements.

Civil rights leader Marie Foster also fought against these voting requirements in Selma, Alabama after she was denied registration on multiple occasions due to tests she could not pass, one of them requiring her to state the number of words in the US Constitution. She worked to educate the Selma community so that they can bypass these requirements, and she co-founded the Dallas County Voters League, which diligently worked with other voting rights groups to pass voting rights laws and register Black voters, as well as contribute to the birthing of Selma as an epicenter for civil rights in the 1960’s.

The work of Black suffragettes in the early 1900s and other civil rights leaders facilitated the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed literacy tests, poll taxes, and other discriminatory requirements. While laws have since been passed to legally protect the right to vote, many states have recently passed restrictive voting laws that continue to make it difficult for people of color and other marginalized communities to vote.

While we have made strides towards ensuring that all communities have access to voting, we must also think about how we can safeguard these rights today and in the future, which begins with passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Discriminatory voting practices still exist through redlining and gerrymandering, lack of access to voter registration, and voter intimidation and violence. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, along with the Freedom to Vote Act, would make states’ discriminatory voting practices and make voting more accessible.

When it comes to the Women’s Suffrage Movement, while White women’s voices were centered during this time, without the dedication of Black women and men, we wouldn’t be where we are today. As we move forward as a society and reflect on Black History Month, we must educate ourselves about the work of Black men and women who have fought for voting rights since the beginning and let it serve as a reminder about all the work that is to come in order to protect the right to vote

Even to this day, we must think to ourselves, How am I being negatively or positively impacted by the Suffrage Movement of the early 1900’s, where are the inequities in our political system, and what can I do to ensure safe and fair voting rights for our Black neighbors?

Ida B. Wells ca. 1920. The clearness of this image enforces the thought that her historical work was not that long ago.

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