The Suffrage Movement Did Not End 100 Years Ago
Being a history nerd and a feminist, I dressed as a suffragette for Halloween in 2018. Though August 26, 2020 will mark 100 years since the 19th Amendment was officially added to the Constitution, granting American women the right to vote, I don’t plan on breaking out that costume again. This is not to say that I am no longer a history nerd or a feminist, but rather that I now have a much more critical view of the past and an eye on the future.
It should not come as a surprise that many First Wave Feminists did not hold the same progressive values that one would expect of a modern day feminist: The early Suffrage Movement was largely void of working-class women, as the time and resources to organize were only truly accessible to middle- and upper-class women. (It should also be noted that the Suffrage Movement gained the most momentum when working-class women were included and started to implement their labor union activism tactics to fight for the vote.) Additionally, Susan B. Anthony’s stance on abortion is still up for debate, though the fact that she never spoke up about the issue publicly should reveal a lot.
These shortcomings all pale in comparison to how the Suffrage Movement failed to include and fight for the rights of Black women and men. Even though they were also abolitionists, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton did not extend their voting rights activism to Black people. The historic duo left the American Equal Rights Association to form the American Woman Suffrage Association over the fact that the 15th Amendment granted the right to vote to Black men but not white women. They went so far as to argue that “white women were more qualified to vote than Black men.”
Even more radical later feminists like Alice Paul put the gains of white women over Black women’s. In 1913, she allowed Black women to march in the suffrage march on Washington, DC with the stipulation that the parade would remain “a purely suffrage demonstration entirely uncomplicated by any other problems such as racial ones.” She ultimately relegated the Black marchers to the back of the parade. The actions and strategies of these First Wave Feminists ultimately denied full suffrage to Black women, Indigenous women, and other women of color for decades, setting a precedent for future feminist movements to primarily focus on the issues of white women. Additionally, these actions wrote the activism of women of color and those who dissented from the main movement out of history books, a trend only beginning to be rectified today.
With all of this said, we have to ask ourselves who we are really celebrating on the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Who are we thanking for their hard work and why? Whose gravestones will be decorated in purple and green? Who are we going to be posting pictures of on our Instagram stories?
We cannot celebrate 100 years of women’s suffrage without acknowledging the women that the Suffrage Movement left behind, just as we cannot celebrate it without calling attention to the voter suppression that still plagues the United States. “Suffrage,” by definition, has no gender: it is not exclusively a woman’s right to vote but rather the right of any person. If the original Suffrage Movement were to have organized under that more expansive understanding, then it would be alive and well today. The Coronavirus Pandemic and recent elections have showcased just how much we need a reinvigorated movement for voting rights. Trump’s recent attacks on mail-in voting are nothing new for him, but his threat to deny funding to the US Postal Service is one of the largest attempts at voter suppression in recent years. Defunding the USPS and limiting access to vote from home will not only decrease the number of people voting in upcoming elections, but also increase the number of people going to polling places in person, creating a greater risk of COVID-19 outbreaks.
Trump’s strategy to stay in office is simple: make the American people choose between life or liberty.
These attacks join a continuing streak of incidents of voter suppression, which was brought to light most clearly (pre-pandemic) in the 2018 Georgia governor race, when then-candidate Secretary of State Brian Kemp put tens of thousands of voter registrations on hold and blocked hundreds of thousands of registered voters from casting their ballots in his own election. Kemp’s actions disproportionately targeted Black communities and other communities of color. These denials of the people of Georgia’s voting rights, combined with wide-spread precinct closures (also affecting communities of color the worst), would lead to Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams losing the race.
If these practices can be done at such a large scale and be successful, then we can only imagine the total number of votes by Black and Brown people that have gone uncounted over the years. These attacks only add to the case for expanding voting rights in the US, from lowering the voting age to 16 to allowing incarcerated people to vote. There simply are not enough people who are able and allowed to vote for the needs of all people to be heard. To understand the reason why many Republicans and some Democrats oppose expanding the electorate, we need to look back at the immediate results of the 19th Amendment.
According to the Washington Post, women’s suffrage created a more progressive government, at least by early 20th century standards. When women finally had a say, spending increased for public health, education, and social programs, leading to a decline in child mortality and children staying in school. When women gained the right to vote, they voted for the things that mattered to them, leading to a government that addressed the needs of its citizens. The same would happen if young people, incarcerated people, and Black and Brown people had the same access to the polls as older, free, white people do. The fight for universal suffrage needs to continue to today, though in a much different form. The question being asked is no longer “How long must women wait for liberty?” but rather “How long must we all wait for liberty?”
If you are going to celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment, then do so in a productive way, and do not limit yourself to August 26th. Make sure your friends and family know the names of Ida B. Well-Barnett, Mary Church Terrell, and others. Learn about how climate change, racial justice, healthcare, childcare, education, and immigration are all women’s issues. Use your power at the polls to advocate for the safety, happiness, and fulfillment of all womxn. Do your part to make sure that all Americans, no matter their gender or race, have equal access to voting.
Celebrate protest with protest.
And, if you are going to post something on your Instagram story, please use the term “suffragist” and not “suffragette.” “Suffragette” was coined to belittle British suffragists and was later embraced by the movement there, but not in the US. Happy posting!