Should the Centennial Anniversary of the 19th Amendment be Celebrated?
In the fall of 1919, exactly 100 years ago, the activists of the women’s suffrage movement were less than a year away from ending a 70-year fight for equal rights. Suffragists had spent years organizing, protesting, lobbying and trying to educate the public on the validity of women gaining the right to vote.
The women of the movement entered the turn of the century with pushback from politicians, who were steadfast in their unwillingness to listen to their arguments and pleas. These women wanted to reform legislation but were unable to do so because of the stubborn politicians who stood in their way. They resolved that, in order to gain the right to vote, not only would they need to grow their numbers and organize, but they would need to find a unique leg up to win over tough politicians.
Similar to many events in history, when we think about the women’s suffrage movement, we picture the event in terms of white people. This is not necessarily our fault, but it is due to the skewed method by which the event is taught.
History lessons often focus on the white figures who were at the forefront of the event. While it can be argued that this is simply because white people were the most prominent figures in a majority of the important events in history, there is no doubt that we have a way of whitewashing some of the most important events in history.
In the early 20th century, the suffrage movement turned into two different organizations: the National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Women’s Suffrage Association (AWSA) to form the National American Women’s Suffrage Association. The NWSA was the more radical group, using radical protesting to make their voices heard, and was led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The AWSA was the level-headed group, using more mellow tactics like lobbying and peaceful protests.
The suffrage movement began before the Civil War, when a women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, N. Y. Many of the women were abolitionists from the North, but slavery was still raging in the South. The abolition of slavery was an important cause to those attending the Seneca Falls Convention, but their main concern was fighting for women’s voting rights, no matter what means they had to take in order to win.
“The leaders of the suffrage movement who prioritized the needs of white women left a legacy which the feminist movement has had to live down and in fact suffers from to this day,” said Carolyn Baugh, Ph.D., director of the women’s studies program at Gannon University. “They thought that the southern white women in particular were more likely to sign on if blacks were not involved.”
The women of the suffrage movement knew that southern racists would be their biggest roadblock in their fight for voting rights, says Sally Roesch Wagner, Ph.D. Wagner is the executive director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation, the editor of Women’s Suffrage Anthology and a professor at Syracuse University.
This method of gaining the right to vote occurred when the NWSA and AWSA merged in 1890. Between the two organizations, a variety of women’s rights were being pushed for. After merging, Anthony decided to focus all of the new organization’s efforts on the vote. Members started out trying to get states to pass amendments, then worked their way up to fighting for a federal amendment. Southern racists had been working toward the suppression of African American men’s voting rights. This seemed like the perfect leg up for suffragists.
“Their reasoning was that there were more white women than African American men, so giving them the right to vote would keep white supremacy in power,” Wagner said.
The suffragists prioritized voting rights of white women, rather than people of color. In a way, they set their abolitionist views aside in order to win the right to vote. Organization members used the argument that granting white women the right to vote would help them suppress African American men’s right to vote. They pushed that allowing women to vote would simultaneously maintain white supremacy.
According to Baugh, excluding women of color and prioritizing white women’s right to vote was an ironic moment in history. This, she says, is because their need to put down women of color was influenced by their abolitionist views.
“The suffrage movement and women’s rights movement were really born out of the abolition movement — white women witnessing the injustices of slavery looked inward and realized that they themselves were not fully free,” Baugh said.
Though many of the suffragists were abolitionists and did not identify as racists, they did not practice what they preached. It appears as though they put white women’s voting rights above any rights of people of color in the U.S. Which, in the bluntest form of the matter, they did.
“It’s complicated,” Wagner said.
In her anthology, she writes about Ida B. Wells’ description of her relationship with Anthony. In her personal life, Anthony fights against racism. In one particular instance, Anthony fires her secretary for telling her she couldn’t work for Wells because she was black. However, outside of her personal life, Anthony did little to continue her anti-racism philosophies.
“I think that the distinction is that the movement, and specifically the National Women’s Suffrage Association, practiced racism as a policy,” Wagner said.
Suffragists didn’t completely exclude women of color from the movement, though. They would allow light-skinned women of color into their conventions but exclude dark-skinned women. In a way, this was their way of trying to please both the North and the South. They wanted to include women of color, but they also wanted to prove that they were a white supremacist organization in the eyes of the South. Suffragists were so desperate for the support of the South that they were willing to tarnish their reputation for decades to come.
Wagner also added that, years later, suffragists argued that they outnumbered immigrants, too, in an attempt to appease the powers that were anti-immigrant. At its core, the suffragist movement proved to be unapologetically white supremacist.
With this alarming history of the suffrage movement, there comes the question of whether the upcoming centennial anniversary should be celebrated. Some say it should, because it was a victory for women, no matter the means they took to achieve that victory. However, others say it shouldn’t be because the suffragists stepped on the backs of women of color in order to win the right.
For women’s studies minor Lillian McKinley, the answer lies somewhere in between.
“I think the achievement of some women earning their rights should still be celebrated because of the fact that it was a huge milestone for women,” McKinley said. “I see it as a stepping stone to gaining rights for all women.
“I believe that, at any events celebrating the suffrage movement and the 19th Amendment, it is important to teach everyone about how many women of color were excluded from the movement and not given the right to vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a 45-year gap until all women in the U.S. were able to vote.”
McKinley is not alone in that sentiment.
Caitlin Ostrowski, who will be teaching the Introduction to Women’s Studies course at Gannon, thinks that the centennial should be celebrated, but we should also recognize the women who were pushed out of the spotlight, so to speak, in order for the right to be won.
“We should continue to celebrate the centennial anniversary because we are celebrating the right for all women to vote, which is a great social reform in history,” Ostrowski said.
Wagner also agrees that, while the anniversary should be celebrated, we should also recognize the exclusion of women of color.
Doing so will allow us to celebrate the anniversary without blindly glorifying the work that white women of the suffrage movement did while knowingly excluding women of color.
“These women knew what they were doing,” Wagner said.
“They were throwing their African American sisters under the bus, and I think they absolutely need to be held accountable for that.”
So, what can be done so that we both celebrate the anniversary of the 19th Amendment and recognize the women who were stepped on for the rights of white women?
According to Wagner, we need to take accountability for the actions of our ancestors.
We need to bring awareness to the fact that they willingly stepped on the backs of their African American sisters in order to earn the right to vote.
While we can celebrate the centennial, we also need to make a strong effort to not be like them.
“We need to strive for accuracy based on what is known and bring light to the information about critically influential figures that history books have explicitly ignored,” Ostrowski said.
“Our celebration must include historically accurate information that includes black contributions to the movement.”