Nicole Browning

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The Suffragette Series: A Deeper Look Into First-Wave Feminist Causes (Part III)

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Women’s suffrage has long been the conventional icon of the early women’s rights movement in America — but suffragettes were vying for much more than the vote at the turn of the 20th century.

In celebration of 100 years since the ratification of the 19th amendment, we’re delving further into the causes these women were fighting for: the right to their own bodies, the freedom of sexual expression and the dismantling of systemic racism.

Part III: Bigotry and the Ballot

Women’s suffrage was seen as a major victory for womankind when the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. Despite what you may have learned from your history books, the American legislation did not grant all women the same freedom to vote; women of color were still disproportionately disadvantaged, and in many cases, kept from the polls altogether.

The feminist movement has been interwoven with the abolitionist movement since its earliest days. In the mid-1800s, women and people of color alike actually united toward a common goal of suffrage, recognizing their mutual oppression in a society dominated by white men.

For example, renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass was the only man and African American to sign the Declaration of Sentiments at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, the first ever women’s rights convention in the United States. He also established the American Equal Rights Association, an organization which advocated for the rights of both women and people of color, with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

While these groups initially banded together to attain universal suffrage, the sentiment white suffragists had toward their Black counterparts changed with the passage of the 15th Amendment. 

The legislation only addressed discrimination based on race, and when some Black suffragists endorsed it without also advocating for the female vote, white women felt betrayed and excluded women of color from the suffrage movement. 

The Southern Strategy

One way in which white women leveraged their privilege while fighting for suffrage was by employing the “Southern Strategy.” This meant marginalizing Black women to appeal to southern white women and their husbands and ultimately gain their vote. 

The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), founded in 1890 by Anthony, Stanton and other suffragists, used this to push their own agenda forward. Many supporters of the legislation even openly reassured opponents that if the amendment passed, they would still be able to disparage women of color through voter suppression tactics.

These tactics included literacy tests, poll taxes and voter ID requirements. At the polls, prospective voters were presented with a text they had to interpret to prove their intelligence and earn the right to vote. Oftentimes Black voters were given much more difficult tests in an effort to keep them from the polls, while their white counterparts were given simple texts. 

Another popular tactic was the “grandfather clause,” which prohibited citizens from voting if their grandfathers had not also been registered to vote. This automatically ruled out Black voters, whose grandfathers had been enslaved. 

White women also deemed non-Black women of color less threatening than Black women, sometimes appropriating these women to help their cause. One example of this was inviting Native American or Asian American women to appear at events in order to gain support in the movement because they viewed these women as “exotic.”

In fact, suffragists at Seneca Falls were actually influenced by Indigenous nations such as the Haudenosaunee or the Cherokee. Nations like these had allowed women to serve as leaders long before and ultimately inspired white women to advocate for suffrage. 

Despite this, women of color were still excluded from the vote when the 19th amendment passed.

The 19th Amendement prohibited voter discrimination based on sex, but not based on race. While white women were free to cast their votes beginning in 1920, women of color faced many more decades of advocacy before they were allowed the same basic right.

They didn’t gain passage to the polls until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, over a hundred years after enslaved African Americans were first emancipated in 1862.

As we celebrate the centennial anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2020, we must also acknowledge how sexism intersects with racism. 

White suffragists vanquished the voices of women of color in an effort to gain their own sense of power in the United States. In order to eliminate the systemic racism so deeply rooted in our country, we should first recognize the ways it has operated throughout our history.

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