Suffrage Centennials: A New Viewpoint
by Rebecca Now
Why do so many reporters and bloggers seem intent on throwing Great-Grandma under the bus?
It is Suffrage Centennial celebration season and a nasty and divisive cliché has entered the social media discourse. A young woman friend on social media interpreted it this way: “The 19th Amendment only really applied to white women.”
In June of this year, news stories started to appear marking the passage of the 19th amendment by Congress 100 years ago. More news stories about women’s suffrage are sure to follow as we approach the centennial next August, when the 19th amendment was made part of the U.S. Constitution on August 26, 1920. This amendment finally gave American women nationwide the right to vote, codified in our U.S. Constitution. This milestone expanded voting rights to 20 million women in the U. S. in 1920.
It is concerning that some critics relish taking the angle that the suffrage struggle from 1848-1920 was one of white women only, and that women of color were excluded from the struggle, pushed aside and diminished in the history of this 72-year-long battle. This point of view is deleterious to continuing to expand women’s rights and hinders current women’s solidarity.
Here is a disturbing comment recently made by a feminist millennial friend on social media, “NEWS FLASH – the suffragette [sic] movement was not an inclusive movement.” This “let’s bash Great-Grandma” cliché has flown across social media, and the comment is indicative of the knee-jerk reaction of some whose only frame of reference is our 2019 culture of diversity.
Here is my news flash – the period of 1848-1920 was not an era where diversity and inclusion were anywhere evident, much less celebrated as it is today.
The subtext seems to be that this massive expansion of democracy is somehow blemished, and therefore not worthy of celebration.
Another news flash, the amendment gave voting rights to all women, and did not mention race, nationality, or ethnic groups. Let’s review the actual language of the 19th amendment:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Until the 1960’s, there were areas of the country that illegally denied voting rights to certain citizens, by nefarious schemes such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and outright lynching and terrorism. Little action took place in the early 20th century to ensure that all women could exercise their newfound legal right to vote, and that was deplorable. However, the amendment is clear that they did have the legal right to vote, and therefore, the passage of this amendment is worthy of celebrating.
The desire to cry “white privilege” and to castigate white women for not having enough sensibilities of diversity runs strong in some quarters. In 2016, I was part of a team planning and executing a celebration of a historic suffrage demonstration in St. Louis in 1916, called “The Golden Lane.” This event commemorated a 1916 protest of St Louis women, who lined the streets for four blocks during the Democratic convention re-nominating Woodrow Wilson for his second term in office. The women wore white dresses with gold sashes emblazoned with the message, “Votes for Women.” They did not speak or parade, but silently lined the streets, their sashes speaking for them.
Our planning committee for this centennial celebration had a woman of color involved in planning the event, and we had support at the event from the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, a black women’s sorority, who enthusiastically engaged in the celebration. We honored four women, including one of color, with awards at the event. The three white women had exemplary records of diversity and inclusion.
Certain women of color, on the internet, took exception with the celebration and called it “the white woman’s march,” dubbing it a celebration of only white women in the 1916 suffrage movement. No matter what our committee posted to show that the 2016 celebration was diverse, or how we tried to push back against the social media line about this being only a white women’s party to celebrate, certain minds were made up. We were privileged white women.
Then I discovered a certain fact in re-reading the history book, “The Golden Lane” by Margot McMillen, about this historic Missouri event. There, nestled on page 93, was the proof that the march in 1916 was not a white women’s march at all, but there were “colored” women in that march. McMillen uncovered this in reviewing newspaper microfilm records from 1916. Even with evidence that it was not a white-only event in 1916, and combined with the fact that we celebrated inclusion in 2016, the belief that this was a “white women’s march” continued.
The subtext, again, seems to be that this massive expansion of democracy is somehow blemished, and not worthy of celebration.
When can we accept that our great-grandmothers in the suffrage movement were operating outside of the power structures of the day? We also need to realize that they protested in an era of entrenched segregation. The suffrage movement women were outsiders pushing against oppressive patriarchal control, when white Anglo-Saxon men controlled all the levers of power.
Why do the critics continue to sow divisions in the current day women’s movement by throwing shade at our great-grandmothers?
All women, white, black, and all shades in between are impacted by continued white male hegemony. We should be together, fighting centuries of patriarchal rule that is still alive today. As Elizabeth Moss, executive director and star of “The Handmaid’s Tale” recently said, “We are stronger together.”
Rebecca Now is a speaker and event planner who is passionate about American Women's History and healing the gender divide. More information can be found at http://www.rebeccanowandthen.com