The practical, victorious, but less-than-glorious fight for women’s suffrage

July 31, 2019 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism.

We are entering a period when, for the next year or so, many Americans will be celebrating the centennial of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote nationwide.

The history of the ratification fight is often presented as glorious and ultimately victorious, a great confirmation that sometimes our political system can in fact get it right.

A closer look at the details of the fight shows that while victorious, the methods and attitudes of the suffragists who participated were less than glorious by today’s standards.

Casey Cep has an article in the current New Yorker magazine that outlines and explains some of these details — particularly the attitude of most suffragists, who were white and middle-class, to the idea of including black women in their cause. They were, for the most part, against it.

. . . suffragists expressed pragmatic concerns that any federal enfranchisement would be seen by Southern states as an effort to undermine Jim Crow, the appallingly successful new strategy for preventing black men from exercising their rights. Suffs, as the women called themselves, had long disagreed about whether to pursue a national or a state-by-state strategy, in part because of the racism of some of their own white members, who opposed voting rights for African-Americans—not to mention Native Americans and, later, Asian-Americans—and so wanted individual states to determine for themselves who would, or, rather, would not, have the right to vote. Source: The Imperfect, Unfinished Work of Women’s Suffrage | The New Yorker

The suffragists of the time were being practical. To have embraced the rights of black women would have strangled their cause in its cradle, particularly in Southern states where Jim Crow laws had been carefully constructed to prevent black men from voting.

Suffragist leaders — Alice Paul, Carrie Chapman Catt, Anna Howard Shaw, and many others — gave sugared assurances that granting them the right to vote would not necessarily mean black women had those same rights if states wanted to prevent it. They were accurate in their assessments as well as practical in their politics.

A few suffragists overcame the racism of the times and argued for truly universal suffrage. Prominent among them was Inez Milholland, a New York attorney who rode a white horse as the herald of the 1913 Washington Suffrage Parade, which set the suffrage movement onto its winning national strategy. Milholland was a member of the fledgling National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Unfortunately, Milholland died in 1916 of pernicious anemia, and her influence on the movement was lost.

Cep’s article is an excellent summary of the events and issues that drove the ratification fight to its final battle in Nashville in 1920.

Pictured above: Inez Milholland about to set forth leading the 1913 Washington Suffrage Parade, which is the cover of my book on the event: Seeing Suffrage: The 1913 Washington Suffrage Parade, Its Pictures, and Its Effects on the American Political Landscape

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