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The Racist History Of The US Suffragist Movement & Why Black Women’s Vote Is More Significant

“If colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before”.

It’s been over 100 years since women in the United States won the right to vote. The genesis of the women’s rights movement can be traced back to the progressive ideas that evolve in France and spread throughout Europe and North America. Feminist writings of 18th century like and Olympe de Gouges’s The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen in 1791 and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Womenin 1792. These revolutionary writings introduced new ideas in western thought which claimed that women have equal political and legal rights as men and led to the beginning of women’s rights movement in America and Europe.

Though the movement talked about equality on the basis of sexes, it did at the expense of African-American women & men.

Position of Black and White women suffragists

Initially women were actively engaged in the abolitionist movement. The earliest women in US to speak publicly for the abolition of slavery were Sarah Grimke and Angelina Grimke. However, the position of the movement changed after the Civil war in America and the proposal of the 15th amendment in 1869, which stated that no one could be denied the right to vote on the basis of “race, colour, or previous condition of servitude.” Suffragists fought against the 15th Amendment because it did not seek to remedy the denial of voting rights based on gender.

Prominent suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton with other White suffragists responded to the adoption of 15th amendment with anti-Black and racist arguments for women’s suffrage, even courting the support of racists who opposed Black men’s right to vote.

Arguing that White women should be granted the vote in order to counteract the votes of newly enfranchised Black men and the growing number of immigrants to ensure and protect the White culture of America. Susan B. Anthony famously said, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National Women Suffrage Association said “You have put the ballot in the hands of your Black men, thus making them political superiors of White women. Never before in the history of the world have men made former slaves the political masters of their former mistresses!”

White women’s demand came from racism, Black women fought for true women’s rights

Black suffragists like Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who started their activism by fighting against the lynching of the Black community, were puzzled by this new narrative. Though Black suffragists were against the racist undertone adopted by suffragists like Anthony and Stanton, they also felt it was imperative that, if Black men were to be granted the right to vote, women must be given that right as well. Black abolitionist and suffragist Sojourner Truth addressed these concerns specifically when she spoke in New York City at an 1867 convention of the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), the suffrage organization presided over by Lucretia Mott. She said “If colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before”.

As a result, in 1869, more than 20 years after its first meeting in Seneca Falls, the women’s suffrage movement finally split into multiple factions. The National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), created by Anthony and Stanton, actively opposed the 15th Amendment because it excluded women. Although Mott supported suffrage for all regardless of color or sex as president of the American Equal Rights Association, she was also an active member of the NWSA.

In 1920, United States adopted the 19th amendment, an amendment that prohibits the states from using sex as a criterion for voting. So, for a White woman, it was the end of a long fight. But for many Black women, it was just the beginning of an uphill battle to exercise those rights. African American women were aware that nothing in the 19th amendment is going to prohibit individual states (particularly the southern states in the form of Jim Crow laws) from continuing to disenfranchise Black voters. The 19th amendment didn’t guarantee the right to vote to Chinese immigrants or Native and Latinx women.

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For Black women, the right to vote is symbolic.  Black women along with Black men faced lynching, harassment and brutal deaths in order to registered their votes. It was only after the 1965 Voting Rights Act that Black men and women got the right to vote in true sense, a century later the 15th amendment and 50 years later the 19th amendment.

Image source: womenshistory.org

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About the Author

Harshit Agrawal

Harshit Agrawal is a postgraduate in Women’s Studies. He is an independent researcher and Junior Research Fellow who works in the field of gender and sexuality to highlight their intersections in the society. He read more...

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