In this circa 1911 photo made available by the Library of Congress, men look at materials posted in the window of the National Anti-Suffrage Association headquarters in the United States.
( Harris & Ewing/Library of Congress via AP
Brigid Bergin: I'm Brigid Bergin in for Tanzina Vega. You're listening to The Takeaway. Today marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote in the US, but it really only applied to white women. Black women and other women of color continue to face voter discrimination long after its ratification. Still, the 19th Amendment was a milestone for the decades-long movement for women's suffrage.
Veronica Chambers: We actually aren't taught a lot about women's history overall. If we're getting snippets along the way, then Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton became a short-hand for a movement that was much longer than the 1920 moment, but it was also much, much more diverse.
Brigid: Veronica Chambers is the editor of Narrative Projects at The New York Times and co-author of the children's book Finish the Fight. She says the suffrage movement has become whitewashed in our history books. While the names of Anthony and Stanton are well known today, that's not the case with countless women of color that were key to making women suffrage a reality. I asked Veronica all about this, starting with how we should reconcile the work of white suffragists like Anthony and Stanton with their complicated history on issues like race.
Veronica: The moment that everything breaks down is the 15th amendment. When Black men get the vote before white women, it's infuriating to some suffragettes and they break apart and the movement doesn't really come together again until the early 20th century. There was that moment and I think echoes a lot of what we've seen, not to be flipped, but a lot of the Karen moments that we talk about. In this year where there are some white separatists who were like, "How dare a formerly Black man who was enslaved, go before me in this raid?" And yet, for people like Frederick Douglass, the idea was that, in order for slavery not to come back, Black men needed the vote.
Brigid: I think some of what is phenomenal about this work is you highlight the different racial, socio-economic, and ethnic backgrounds of the women who made suffrage a reality. Who were some of the other prominent Black women at the forefront of this movement?
Veronica: Oh, there's many. I mean Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Famously in 1913, Alice Paul organizes this parade and Ida B. Wells comes with a contingent from Chicago. She starts the Alpha Suffrage Club. She wants to march in the parade with the Chicago contingent and Alice Paul was afraid to anger the southern white women that she feels she needs the support to get suffrage across and she asked Ida B. Wells to March at the back. Ida B. Wells refuses and when the Chicago contingent passes her, she marches alongside them.
They're women like that Mary Church Terrell whose parents were enslaved, but she goes on to become one of the first Black women to graduate from Oberlin. She's a linguist. She's fluent in French and German, travels throughout Europe, does a suffrage speech in Europe in the late 1800s.
Brigid: Another name you just mentioned, Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, a Chinese American suffragist who led one of the biggest suffrage parades in US history. How do Mabel and her efforts fit into the larger suffrage movement?
Veronica: Mabel Ping-Hua Lee is one of our favorites. She was a Chinese immigrant who grew up in Chinatown. When Chinatown was still just coming of age. Her father spoke English and he was the unofficial mayor of Chinatown. At the age of 16, she started attending suffrage meetings, and she marched in the parade. She sat on a white horse and helped to lead this parade knowing that the Chinese Exclusion Act meant that when the 19th Amendment passed, she herself would not get the vote.
I think that to me is one of the consistent things that we learn about suffrage is that it took three generations of women to get the vote. That means people lived, they died, their daughters fought for, they died and then their daughters got to vote and only one woman who attended Seneca Falls was alive to vote in 1920. I like to say that suffrages were futurists. These were women who fought for something that they knew they might not get in their lifetime, but they believe that for the future of the democracy, they needed to fight for future women to have a political voice.
Brigid: You also note that the suffragists drew a lot of inspiration from indigenous communities, right?
Veronica: Yes. Seneca Falls is located in what was the heart in the Shawnee territory, also known as one of the tribes of the Iroquois nation. Early suffragists like Matilda Joslyn Gage, they took a lot of inspiration for the fact that Native American women had a political voice in choosing the chief, in choosing the laws of the nation.
There was this feeling that the Seneca Falls and the movement that followed, it was rooted in the outspoken abolitionist activism, but also scholars like Sally Wagner have begun to write about the importance of realizing how inspirational Native American women were to the suffragist movement and how Native Americans suffragists themselves like Zitkala-Sa and Marie Bottineau Baldwin were to the movement. They were fighting for both citizen rewrites for Native Americans as well as for the women's right to vote. In 1920, when the 19th Amendment passes, Native American women can actually vote because they're not citizens of the US. The native people don't get to vote till 1924 and the Snyder Act.
Brigid: I love your description of the suffragists as futurists because as you make clear the 19th Amendment was not the end, but really just the beginning of women's suffrage in the US. Can you talk some more about that?
Veronica: Sure. When we started talking to historians, scholars, curators who've made suffrage their life work, there is one thing that they said consistently is that 1920 was the big win. It is the biggest enfranchisement of people in American history at once, but because of the Jim Crow tendencies that turned Black Americans away from the polls because of the exclusion of Native American and Asian Americans from the polls, we also see on the borders really Jim Crow tactics among next citizens, that they much more point to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as the real end of the suffrage movement.
Brigid: Women of color continued to face barriers when it came to voting. Did you discover things that surprised you? Things that were beyond anything that you had learned in history books?
Veronica: What was interesting to me is having really known and written about and studied the whole history of Black women in electoral politics, and how vital Black women have been as the backbone of the Democratic Party, as Kimberly [unintelligible 00:07:32] said, we show up and show out at the polls. What you really look at when you look at the club movement of the 19th century, you realize that this has been going on for more than 100 years.
These are women who organized and they took on every cause. They never said as I think some suffragists then, "We have to focus on one thing because we'll distill our power." They focused on child labor laws, they focused on domestic violence, they focused on human rights and equality and it was constant anti-lynching. The multiplicity of tasks of the Black Women Club Movement and these Black suffragists took on, was just staggering. I think that in some ways, it really led the best of the movement.
Brigid: How much of what suffragists were fighting for then is still relevant today?
Veronica: It's incredible that the centennial is coming about in an election year. The fact is that you realize that up until the very moment that it passes, there's this idea that suffrage is a ridiculous thing. There's a quote from The New York Times, which was quite conservative in that moment. In 1913 in an editorial, The New York Times said, "The benefits of women's suffrage are almost wholly imaginary. Its penalties are real and hard to bear."
The fact is that people did not want women to have the vote because the vote is powerful and we are seeing levels of barriers to voting continue. I think even just to remind everyday citizens that three generations of women fought for the vote because they knew that it made a difference. I just would hope that this anniversary really inspires some people to get to the polls and to exercise this hard-fought-for right.
Brigid: Veronica Chambers is the editor of Narrative Projects at The New York Times. Veronica, thanks for joining us.
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