Ten Things About Black Women Suffragists Through A Black Feminist Lens

Irma McClaurin is a Black feminist anthropologist and consultant who conducts research on the social construction of inequality and its impact on African diaspora communities through an intersectional lens. She is founder of the “Irma McClaurin Black Feminist Archive” at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and was co-chair of the 2018 Seneca Falls Revisited Conference and keynote speaker for the 199th Susan B. Anthony Birthday Luncheon in 2019.

Painting of a Black woman with long silver-gray braidsImage description: A Black woman rests her chin on her hand and smiles. She has long silver-gray braids, wears a green scarf with a pink flower on her head, and is wearing a blue shirt.
Caption: Irma McClaurin. Charlotte Hollands-Illustrator
  1. In August, we celebrated the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 and the success of the women’s suffrage movement in gaining women the right to vote at an unprecedented moment; the COVID-19 pandemic and the national and global uprisings over the police killings of Black men like George Floyd and Black women like Breonna Taylor and so many others, remind us of how pervasive and rampant racial inequality and anti-Blackness still are in the United States.
  1. The symbols, histories, and interpretations of the suffrage movement and women’s activism to gain the right to vote are highly racialized and contain the very kinds of partial truths, contradictions, symbols, and social tensions that cultural anthropologists like to study. We should feel compelled to follow Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s guidance when she responded to the question, “What can I do?”; like her, we must “tell the world the facts.
  1. White women such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are routinely foregrounded as the “notable” figures of the suffrage movement and hailed as heroines. However, in the midst of advocating for the freedom to votes, many white women suffragists upheld racial segregation and eugenics policies of their time, even asking Black women to march behind white women—a request met with defiance by some Black women suffragists such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who refused to be segregated in the parade, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, who confronted white women with whom she had worked alongside in the 1866 National Women’s Rights Convention. Her words resonate with critiques today of many white women’s lack of solidarity with Black women’s struggles: “You white women here speak of rights. I speak of wrongs.”

    Bethnal Green We must lift up Black women suffragists like Mary Church Terrell, Harriet Tubman, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Sojourner Truth, and many others who defied racism and sexism to win the right to vote.

  1. Susan B. Anthony was a notable exception to these racial practices of exclusion; with an abolitionist brother who supported John Brown, Anthony sometimes hosted Black women suffragists like Ida B. Wells-Barnett in her home, and is known to have fired a white secretary who refused to type Wells-Barnett’s speech.
  1. Black women suffragists well understood “intersectional” approaches to their struggle decades before the concept, as we use it today, was invented. They vigorously supported the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) that gave Black men the right to vote, but excluded them, and aggressively championed the Nineteenth Amendment, despite being treated as outsiders by some white women suffragists, and being at greater risk because of both their race and gender. They lived under the weight of double discrimination and possibly triple discrimination, especially if we considered the opposition some of them may have encountered for any nonconforming sexual orientation. Given the gender beliefs of the time, Black women’s social station in life was even more subordinate than that of white women, leaving them vulnerable to unjustified acts of physical violation, lynching, and rape solely based on race, and with no legal recourse. Today, all women, but especially Black women, Black queer women, and Black trans women still walk in the trailblazing shoes of those Black women suffragists who sometimes faced insurmountable odds, yet pressed forward to support what they deemed a righteous struggle.
  1. Black women are “hidden figures” in the history of the suffrage movement in the United States and sometimes presented as an absent presence. In fact, they almost missed being represented in the most significant monument of “real women,” celebrating 100 years of women’s rights, which was unveiled in New York City’s Central Park on August 26, 2020. After formidable pushback, the monument was redesigned to include Sojourner Truth, whose role in the suffragist efforts is often misrepresented by the lens of white women retelling a white “Mistress” historical narrative of the origins of the women’s equality movement. Indeed, Sojourner Truth was an abolitionist and public advocate of women’s rights and women’s equality, well before Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It is said that in 1843, five years before the Seneca Falls Convention where Stanton delivered her “Declaration of Sentiments, that Sojourner “…had a revelation and began to travel the country spreading her gospel of equality between the races and sexes.” However, the traditional (white) histories of the suffragist movement  describe Truth as “one of the only black women of the time who spoke for women’s rights” (my emphasis). That simply is not true! Not only was Sojourner Truth a foremother, albeit a black one, of the suffragist movement in the United States, but she was not alone in supporting equality for all women. Numerous Black women declared themselves suffragists and participated in rallies and other forms of activism to achieve the right for all women to vote, despite battling “an ugly mix of racism and sexism.” While they voiced criticism of white-only women’s organizations, Black women were proactive in their fight for political power and the ballot, and formed some of the most historic clubs and organizations for themselves, or worked through their sororities. Many of these Black women’s groups, organizations, and sororities are still operational today. As Martha S. Jones asserts in the promotion for her forthcoming bookVanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All, “this overwhelmingly white women’s [suffragist] movement did not win the vote for most Black women. Securing their right required a movement of their own.” And Black women suffragists are not the only ones rendered invisible. Native/Indigenous women and Asian women are rarely mentioned as well.

    Joinville Without question, there is an inextricable link between Black women suffragists’ historic activism and determination and the political activism of Black women today.

  1. In the wake of post-Reconstruction and the 1865 Black Codes of some southern states, the voting rights of Black men were constrained. As whites attempted to regulate the newly-found freedom, segregationist beliefs and discrimination became enshrined in the South and shaped Jim Crow laws and informal practices of everyday life. These practices made Black women’s right to vote a very short-lived victory, as both Black women and Black men lost the right to vote through overt and subtle voter suppression practices, including literacy tests and poll taxes. As a result, full voting rights for Black men and women would not be restored until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. In 2020, exactly 56 years later, and over 150 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1866, there are still deliberate assaults on democracy in the United States as Black voting rights are once again under attack through modern-day tactics of voter suppression not unlike those of the past.
  1. As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States that legalized women’s voting rights, we must lift up Black women suffragists like Mary Church TerrellHarriet TubmanFrances Ellen Watkins HarperMary Ann Shadd CarySojourner Truth, and many others who defied racism and sexism to win the right to vote. Their stories have not always been documented or recorded in mainstream histories about the women’s suffrage movement, even those written by white women historians and feminists. Though Black women suffragists are now memorialized by the National Park Service, this was not always the case. We as anthropologists have a responsibility to reach beyond the dominant cultural narratives and lift up the veil of social inequality and exclusion. Our discipline must commit to making visible hidden cultural truths, practices, and dynamics of power and resistance navigated by Black womenfolk and Black women political actors, past and present, who fight for equality, social justice, and voting rights for us all.
  1. Without question, there is an inextricable link between Black women suffragists’ historic activism and determination and the political activism of Black women today. It is reflected in the late Shirley Chisholm’s election in 1968 as the first Black women in Congress and campaign in 1972 as the first woman and first Black candidate to run for the Democratic presidential nomination; in Michelle Obama’s historic role as the only Black FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States) for two terms; in the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement founded by three Black women radical organizers, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi; to the #SayHerName campaign launched by intersectionist and critical race theorist and law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, co-founder of the African American Policy Forum, to draw attention to Black women also killed by police; and to the monumental and historic selection of Kamala Harris as the first African American and South Asian American to be selected as the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2020. And there are so many more who remain unnamed.
  1. Black women, as public figures and as ordinary citizens, share a common experience of social invisibility in a white supremacist world and a cultural worldview shaped by anti-Blackness, implicit bias, and strongly-held beliefs in racial hierarchies. They connect through a legacy of Black women’s powerful self-determination and a political praxis of Black women’s activism in the face of seemingly insurmountable barriers that can be traced back to the moment the first enslaved woman rebelled and was punished, the miraculous escapes of Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth’s successful litigation, and continue through the efforts of the many Black women suffragists named above, as well as those who remain unnamed. Because of them, we can… VOTE for Black women as elected officials at every conceivable level, including vice president of the United States. Who knows what the future holds? Whatever it is, Black women today, like their Black suffragist sisters of yesterday, are prepared.

Contact  Irma McClaurin at irmamcclaurin.com. Hear her speak about Black women suffragists on WAYO Radio show, “Up Close and Cultural,” hosted by arts and social justice activist, Rachel Y. DeGuzman.

Cite as: McClaurin, Irma. 2020. “Ten Things about Black Women Suffragists through a Black Feminist Lens.” Anthropology News website, September 14, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1495