This week America celebrated the 99th anniversary of the 19th Amendment’s passage, which granted women the right to vote. However, like much of American history, the words in our Constitution don’t reflect the reality of what actually happened.
As a Black womanist, I will not celebrate the passing of the 19th Amendment or the White women suffragists. The truth is that the suffragettes were racist, opportunistic and they sold out the Black Civil Rights movement to partner with Southern, racist White women who supported and participated in domestic terrorism with the lynching of Black Americans.
If the adage is true, “those who forget about history are doomed to repeat it,” it is my duty as a parent to teach my children the truth about American history. And it’s our collective duty to teach the truth about the fight for women’s suffrage to the children in our schools—warts and all.
As luck would have it, I’m a truth-telling tea spiller—so here it is.
Women’s Suffrage Was a Political Compromise
We teach our students that the idea of political compromise is part of what makes American democracy “great.” But for those of us who are not White men, “compromise” isn’t great at all. In fact, it’s horrible. The political compromises made by our government are almost always made at the expense of the most marginalized groups in America. And the 19th Amendment is a prime example of how American democracy’s compromises work against Blacks folks.
The truth about the 19th Amendment is that it was a political win for White women at the expense of Black women.
Political Coalitions: Black Folks and White Women
Black people and Northern White women realized they were disenfranchised and formed coalitions to advance the civil rights of both groups. This is the part of history that is often highlighted in our history books—both Black folks and White women, working hand in hand to fight for the right to be included in American democracy.
Here’s the part we don’t teach:
Black folks and Northern White women were political allies. However, in the conservative South, there were no coalitions between Black folks and White men, and especially White women. Southern White women were active participants in the enslavement, disenfranchisement and dehumanizing of Black folks. Some records show that up to 30% of slave owners were White women. Additionally, after the Civil War, White women were full participants in the KKK, lynching Black men.
After the Civil War, the Northern coalition between Black folks and White women was strong. With the win and a majority in the House and Senate, they quickly went to work on changing government policies to allow new participants. However, when the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were passed, White women were left behind.
From the moment Black men gained suffrage rights and White women were denied, the coalition was fractured. The suffragettes were furious. It was clear to Black folks that White women were not their allies and many had no real belief in equality. In fact, it became clear to Black folks that although White suffragettes may not have believed in slavery, they were White Supremacists all the same.
You have put the ballot in the hands of your Black men, thus making them political superiors of White women. Never before in the history of the world have men made former slaves the political masters of their former mistresses!—Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National Women Suffrage Association.
A New Coalition
The suffragettes realized they needed to change their alliances from Black folks to Southern White women. Southern White women are a lot of things, but inconsistent in their hatred for Black people is not one of those things (ShaRhonda tea…). And if the suffragettes wanted to partner with Southern White women, there could be no “racial equality” stuff.
During the Reconstruction, Southern White women were participating in one of the darkest periods of American history for Black folks that some have called, “worse than slavery.” Mass incarceration, brutal beatings, dire poverty and the barbaric act of lynching were running rampant in the South. For Black people, stopping lynching was the priority, and they hoped their “suffragette allies” would publicly join the cause.
That is not what happened.
What had happened was White suffragettes decided that the right for White women to vote was more important than lynching. From then on, Northern and Southern White Women decided to side with “Whiteness” and argue that the inclusion of White women in democracy was more important than any racial inclusiveness at all.
Black Suffrage Leaders
Our children rarely, if ever, hear about Black suffrage leaders in their history classes. Yet, Black women were out there doing the work—even when no one wanted them on their team. Black women refused to accept their exclusion from White suffrage organizations or the racist tactics they employed. In fact, some Black women pushed back—hard.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a Black woman journalist, newspaper editor, suffragist and Civil Rights leader, planned a boss move—a strategic, savage takedown of the phony White suffragettes.
She called out White suffragettes who were working with racist, Southern White women, while pretending in the North to be anti-racist to their major funders, the British Anti-Racist societies.
When she realized the game the White suffragettes were playing, she decided to fight. Wells got on a boat and went to London, met with the funders for the suffragettes and spilled all the tea about how the suffragettes were compliant and forming coalitions with White folks who were still doing barbaric shit, like burning and lynching a pregnant woman and cutting her stomach and letting the baby hang by the umbilical cord over the fire pit.
The British were outraged and immediately pulled funding from the American suffragettes. Because their funding was in jeopardy, the White suffragettes made more public attempts to seem anti-lynching, while simultaneously coalition-building with Southern White women.
Feminism Was Never for Black Women
Feminism, even and especially the feminism of the beloved suffragettes we remember when we mark the anniversary of the 19th Amendment, has never been for all women. Feminism has been for White women, usually upper-middle-class, White women.
Plenty of White women’s suffrage leaders held racist, White supremacist views and worked against the freedom of Black women. Black women understand this betrayal. In the same way we are clear that Black people were not part of the “independence of America,” we are also clear that Black women were not part of “women’s suffrage.”
The suffragettes were focused and even formidable at times. They organized effectively, they marched and they picketed. They were beaten and wrongfully imprisoned. They went on a hunger strike and were forcibly fed. They were strategic and used the public sentiment to win “Votes for Women.” They deserve some recognition for this. But we must also recognize that they played a powerful role in maintaining White supremacy.
But Black feminists have been fighting for equality—both racial and gender equity—since the founding of the United States and not only have their struggles been ignored by White feminists and suffragettes historically, but the issues that are priorities for Black women are attacked by White women acting from racial bias today, who, ironically, claim to be feminist.
Different Time, Same Story
This is the complex and complete history we need to teach our children about the women’s suffrage movement because the impacts of these political bargains are still alive and well today. Black people are still disenfranchised, especially in the Southern states. And, just like the suffragettes who worked so hard to pass the 19th Amendment, White feminists are quiet about racism, White supremacy and voter suppression. Luckily, Black folks realize that White feminists are not allies. They are about advancing the rights of White women—no matter the cost.
So, as a Black woman, I roll my eyes when I hear praise for the suffragettes. I understand that none of that was for or about me. In fact, Black folks were used as “political pawns” to get White women the right to vote.
As far as political organizing goes, I say to White feminists: “great job organizing to get the 19th Amendment.” But, please don’t pretend that you didn’t sell Black folks out in order to secure your own rights.
Let’s keep it real.