About a year from now, on Aug. 26, the United States will observe the 100th anniversary of women achieving the right to vote.
Well, white women of means, that is.
Women of color and low-income women got the vote in theory. But in practice, most of them continued to be barred from the polls because they could not pay state-enacted poll taxes, or pass literacy tests, or correctly answer ridiculous questions like “How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?” Not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would they be fully, federally enfranchised.
As we approach 2020 - the anniversary year of the 19th Amendment – the League of Women Voters is “woke” to this failure of the 19th Amendment, and to the racism that existed in the women’s suffrage movement. The League grew out of this movement and also formed in 1920.
So just what are we celebrating? The amendment “transformed American democracy by vastly enlarging the electorate and forcing a fundamental recognition of women as political actors,” writes historian Susan Schulten for the New York Times.
As women vote, run for office and win elections, our democracy is becoming more diverse -- as it should be. Ratification of women’s suffrage in 1920 was a big step toward a more inclusive democracy and it should not be minimized.
But as we plan our local, state and national celebrations, we are fully aware that many women of color were betrayed by the suffrage movement. White suffrage leaders worked in segregated suffrage associations, excluded women of color from key leadership positions, and employed racist rhetoric in advocating for white women’s right to vote.
Women of color worked hard for suffrage, but were often ignored or rebuffed. They were sold out, for expediency, when white leaders feared that the only way to pass the 19th amendment was to focus on white women’s suffrage. Imagine the courage it took for black civil rights activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett to insist that she walk with her Illinois delegation in the first national women’s suffrage parade in Washington D.C., in 1913. She had been told to go to the back of the parade -- so that white southern participants would not get upset.
And how is it that The History of Woman Suffrage, the traditional go-to text co-authored by Susan B. Anthony, fails to mention the names of so many black suffragists such as Margaret Murray Washington, Sylvanie Williams or Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin?
Granted, white women suffragists believed that if they led the way, universal suffrage would soon follow. But it didn’t happen until many decades later. Perhaps we can forgive their shortcomings, believing that racism was “of their era” and they didn’t know any better. And we have the marvelous advantage of hindsight. But they were also in a position to act on eternal values, out of a sense of right and wrong.
Anniversaries “offer an opportunity for greater accountability, a chance to create a fuller, more detailed accounting,” writes Sally Roesch Wagner, editor of The Women’s Suffrage Movement, a more modern account of the movement. Anniversaries are also a chance to set the record straight.
As the League of Women Voters of the South Bend Area plans its celebrations for 2020, we will strive to be inclusive and truth-telling. We are sorry that racism played such a big part in the suffrage movement. While we cannot change the past, we can learn from it, and our local League is working to become more diverse and inclusive.
We will strive to acknowledge the contributions of black and brown women in the movement -- which historians say actually was inspired by equality within Native American communities.
We will try to make every vote count. We will fight to strengthen voting rights, and we will continue to oppose measures that dismantle or weaken the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
We seek to mobilize all voters regardless of demographic background or party affiliation. We will try to get everyone to the polls. We may not have done it in 1920, but we can, and will, do better in 2020 and beyond.