You can’t just say ‘we have the vote’. True equality comes when it’s not challenged.
RICHMOND-One hundred years ago, the Nineteenth Amendment granted women the right to vote. But in those 100 years, a narrative about equality formed. You heard about Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul and Elizabeth Stanton. The efforts of Black suffragists, however, didn’t make it into most history books.
“On the eve of the Civil War, there were still at least 500,000 enslaved people, many of them women and children,” said Dr. Lauranett Lee, a visiting lecturer at the University of Richmond. “What do we know about their lives and how politics impacted them? They are often always on the margins. How do you bring them into the body politic? We like to think 1920 does that, but in actuality, Black women still had to press hard for any semblance of equality and even now still have to press on.”
Lee said that motivation for Black women to seek equality led them to organize. While historic figures such as Maggie Walker stand out, Lee was careful to point out other Black women also fought. That included women like Mary Church Terrell, Nannie Helen Burroughs and Ida B. Wells, among others.
“With most movements, it is not usually just one person,” Lee said. “Black women were on the ground doing grassroots level work registering people, getting them to vote and making sure the needs of the people were known and addressed.”
Change is hard work
Speaking Thursday as part of a panel at the Library of Virginia, Lee and Dr. Megan Taylor Shockley broke down how people left Black women out of the suffragist narrative despite their extensive involvement. State senator and gubernatorial primary candidate Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) moderated the panel.
Shockley added that Black women had to fight for equal voting rights even after 1920 due to racism. That included systems like poll taxes, where voters had to pay a fee before casting a ballot. Also there were writing tests and general voter intimidation in some areas. Black women are still relentlessly fighting against racist and misogynistic systems, the Clemson University history professor said.
“Change is hard work and it is exhausting and it involves a lot of people in all levels of society – in their neighborhoods all the way through the federal government,” Shockley said. “You can’t just say, ‘we have the vote let’s sit back.’”
McClellan asked the panelists why Black suffragists aren’t mentioned in history textbooks or taught in general history courses. Lee and Shockley explained that the main causes were intentional and racist, but also that Black women did most of their suffrage work behind the scenes while white women were more front and center.
“On the surface, it would appear only white women were working to bring the passage forward,” Lee said. “Black women were working behind the scenes getting members of the community ready. They were leading registration drives and education drives, even in the schools. There’s that groundswell throughout the communities you don’t see in institutional records.”
Was there true equality?
Shockley said while the white and Black suffragist movements happened concurrently, they didn’t happen together. Oftentimes, because of segregation and racism, the two sections worked towards the same goal completely, but separate from each other. When they did collaborate, such as the first women’s march on Washington in 1913, white suffragists told Black suffragists to march in the back.
“The sector of race and Black voting power was used to stop the suffrage movement in the South,” Shockley said. “White women sold out and answered the race-baiting. That weakened the suffrage movement when they weren’t working together. Because segregation was so powerful, there were few opportunities for them to interact.”
The panelists and McClellan emphasized that while the history of Black suffragists has been overshadowed, it is still important to learn about. McClellan said that the struggle of women and especially women of color’s right to vote goes beyond just voting itself, but also serving in public office and changing public policy.
“We are a government by and for the people,” McClellan said. “It’s voting, but it’s also running for office. It’s only when you have the voices of women and women of color and other marginalized groups entering into the body politic we’re able to make changes.”
We have to be honest
McClellan said that when she was in the House of Delegates, she was the first delegate to be pregnant while in office. That gave her a unique perspective on pregnancy, nursing and lactation policies, she said. She said that the history of women of color and other marginalized groups also helped explain issues currently plaguing our communities today, such as food deserts and the Black maternity death rate.
In the end, Shockley reminded everyone that history is more complicated than what only textbooks can provide and that people need to start viewing it as such.
“Yes, there were amazingly racist white women who did amazing things to advance the suffrage movement but we have to be honest about their political beliefs and motivations,” Shockley said. “Historians have been trying to advance the narrative that it’s all complicated for a long time.”
After the panel ended, McClellan and the panelists encouraged viewers to go to the Library of Virginia to view the suffrage exhibits and to also purchase the accompanying book, “The Campaign for Woman Suffrage in Virginia” by Brent Tarter, Marianne E. Julienne and Barbara Batson. The Library of Virginia’s exhibits are currently open to the public Tuesday through Friday and will be available until May 2021.
Julia Raimondi is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected].