The Women Left Behind
Black women were fully aware that their needs were not being prioritized in the women’s suffrage organizations led by white women. In fact, they were often intentionally excluded. The NAWSA campaigned for the rights of white women to vote based on their status as “educated suffragists”. They proposed the idea that education was a pre-requisite for being a good voter, leveraging their educational privilege over free blacks and former slaves to demand they be granted voting rights first (and possibly instead) of black people. Movement leader Susan B. Anthony went so far as to say “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.”
Black women formed their own suffrage societies, the National Association of Colored Women in 1892 and the National Federation of African American Women. The two groups would merge together in 1896 as the National Association of Colored Women under the leadership of Mary Church Terrell, one of the first black women in the United States to earn a college degree, and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin. Founders of the organization included Harriet Tubman and Margaret Murray Washington. The NACW worked to combat several issues important to black women such as lynching and Jim Crow laws, not merely suffrage.
Even after the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920, black women remained disenfranchised due to a number of lawful and unlawful tactics such poll taxes, voting tests, physical intimidation and threats, violence, false charges and arrest, and unreasonably long lines at polling stations. Many black women in the United States were not freely able to vote prior to the 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act. Unofficially, many of these practices continue up into the present day and black voters still face disproportionate barriers to voting access.
Moving Forward Together
In the past two hundred years of struggle for women’s rights, white women have shown that we are incomplete leaders, incapable of centering the struggles of other women, of valuing their womanhood as being as authentic as our own, and of being truly fair in our dealings as leaders of the feminist movement. I think we need to stop leading and start listening – to black women, trans women, homeless women, disabled women, poor women, sex workers. We need to let feminism get a little less “respectable” and a lot more revolutionary. We need to let go, and trust these other women to be at least as good at leading feminism as the upper class white women of a century ago. It’s time to amplify the voices of black women and other women white feminism hasn’t been there for. It’s time to remember that the pay gap doesn’t translate to a whole 77 cents on the white man’s dollar for all women, or for men of color.
If Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony had taken their cues from Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, if they’d fought for every single right of the most disenfranchised with the understanding that they’d be included as well, who knows how much more feminism might have accomplished since that meeting in Seneca Falls in 1848. If suffrage for black men had been seen as progress and not a threat, “white feminism” as a distinct and separate, racism-riddled branch of feminism might not exist. That division and the suspicion it bred between white feminists and the black community have reverberating consequences for black women’s rights activists today.