From the Left: Women’s vote and race share complex history

By Andrea Libresco

It’s not easy to get women’s suffrage right.  Its history is a lot messier and a lot more nuanced than many of us might have learned in our own schooling.

The 19th Amendment provided that “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.”  From statues to picture books, in this, the centennial year of its ratification, the depictions of suffragists do not always do justice to the complexity of the issues and activists.  The revisions to the bronze and granite suffrage statue, dedicated at Central Park’s Literary Walk on Aug. 26,  the 100th anniversary of the actual date that the 19th Amendment was ratified, remind us of these complexities.

The New York City Public Design Commission had sculptor Meredith Bergmann revise her proposal for the monument twice — initially because it depicted only white suffragists, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, while other suffragists, including some African-Americans, were listed in name only, on a long scroll unfolding from Stanton’s desk.  A second design added Sojourner Truth at the table, working with Anthony and Stanton at Stanton’s home.  However, historians raised questions about its accuracy, given that the three women did not always see the issues the same way.  A third and final model was designed to reflect differences of opinion between Truth and Anthony and Stanton, wherein Bergmann altered Stanton’s expression and Truth’s hand position to change the power dynamic between the women.

The deeper one looks into race and suffrage, the messier it gets.  Stanton certainly used racist tropes to appeal to white Southerners to include “sex” alongside “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” in the 15th Amendment (which gave Black men the right to vote) as characteristics by which the vote could not be denied.  She warned that “Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung who do not know the difference between a monarchy and republic, never read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s Spelling Book” would be making decisions for white women, if women’s suffrage were not included in the amendment.

Anthony began with this assumption:  “The question of precedence has no place on an equal rights platform.”  Thus, when Frederick Douglass placed his oppressed group and its cause above all others, Anthony did the same with her own group: “I would sooner cut off my right hand than ask the ballot for the black man and not for woman.”  Was she being racist?  Choosing radicalism over gradualism?  Both?

In “The Woman’s Hour,” Elaine Weiss details the trade-offs that white women suffragist leaders were willing to make with respect to Black voting rights in order to achieve their ends for a women’s suffrage amendment.  Weiss points out that 50 years after Stanton and Anthony’s strategies for including “sex” in the 15th Amendment, Alice Paul (head of the National Woman’s Party) made the same kinds of calculations with respect to the 19th Amendment. She told Ida B. Wells (African-American journalist and chronicler of lynchings) to march at the back of the suffrage parade, instead of with her Illinois state delegation (an order that Wells defied) to avoid upsetting potential white allies.  In addition, Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt (head of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association) wooed white Southern women with the promise that “negro men cannot vote in South Carolina and therefore negro women could not if women were to vote in the nation.”

Happily, Weiss adapted her book for young readers and it was published this June, just in time for the women’s suffrage centennial.  At 224 pages, it is pitched at intermediate and middle-school readers and does justice to the complexities of suffrage.

How well do picture books on women’s suffrage do when it comes to addressing the complex issues of race and suffrage and the imperfect white leaders of the movement?  The short answer is, unfortunately, not well enough.

Picture book biographies about Stanton and Anthony are mostly silent about race, except with respect to the women’s earlier abolitionist activities.  The biographies avoid the nuanced story of Anthony’s position on the 15th Amendment, as well as Stanton’s more overtly racist language about Black men getting the vote prior to white women.

Biographies of African-American suffragists often provide the information about race, missing from many biographies of white leaders of the movement.  Walter Dean Myers’ biography of Ida B. Wells, “Let the Truth Be Told,” includes a two-page spread of Wells’ joining the 1913 march with the Illinois delegation rather than at the back; the accompanying text includes the fact that Wells “created the Alpha Suffrage Club…the first voting organization for Black women in the state of Illinois” and goes on to say, “When white suffragists asked Ida to march in the separate colored section, Ida sternly refused.”  Interestingly, no names are provided for these “white suffragists,” and no reason is given for their strategy.  And, unless you, your child, your child’s teacher, or your librarian know to look for a biography of Wells, you could easily miss her important contributions to suffrage, as well as how race complicates our understanding of this and other rights movements.

This anniversary year for women’s suffrage will bring more books, celebrations, exhibits, lessons, and articles, all of which provide us with opportunities to present our children and grandchildren with the messiness of history and complexity of the women’s suffrage movement. If race is one of the lenses through which we want our kids to examine suffragists, we can provide them with multiple biographies so they can compare what the different sources said – and omitted – about the variety of suffragists in the movement.

James Baldwin was not speaking about women’s suffrage when he said, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it,” but his words still apply.  Our children can handle a more beautiful and more terrible story about women’s suffragists.  Can we?

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