On the Fourth of July, I sat with my discontent of this celebration. As renowned civil rights activist and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall noted, the framers of the Constitution were not all that profound. They created a document that required several amendments, a civil war and momentous social transformation to get us to a society that was beginning to recognize human rights. As the nation celebrates 233 years since the Constitution was ratified, we only celebrate 100 years since the women’s suffrage movement secured the passage of the 19th Amendment.
The weekend was also a heartbreaking reminder that we are still far from the ideal of respect for human rights. As the protests for Black Lives Matter continue, in Seattle a car sped into a protest — an incredibly violent attack that resulted in the death of Summer Taylor and critical injuries to Diaz Love, both gender-nonbinary, white activists in the fight for Black lives. The New York Times reported that there have been at least 66 car attacks nationwide since George Floyd was killed on May 25. That’s 66 attacks in 43 days.
In the early 1900s, women’s suffrage became the first social justice movement in the U.S. to engage in major marches and White House protests. In one of the first marches, men’s violence sent over 100 women to the hospital.
Discussing suffrage requires the acknowledgement that white women are not always the best allies. In 1869, when the Civil War Amendments were passing, women of all races were told their right to vote would have to wait — the 15th Amendment would affirmatively limit the right to vote to men. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an early leader in the suffrage movement and an abolitionist, responded to this with racist resentment, arguing that white women were more deserving of the vote than Black men.
In the early 1900s, women had to figure out how to get men to give them the right to vote. In the South, racist opposition to suffrage cited not wanting Black women to vote. Suffragettes used the racist language about the injustice of white women not being able to vote when Black men could. Some of this was tactical — they needed these white men to vote for suffrage — but much of it was undoubtably racism within the suffragist movement.
The reality is the fight for the vote for women was truly interracial, but it was not usually integrated. African American women and many other women of color fought hard to get access to the vote. Ida B. Wells, well known for her anti-lynching campaign, was also a powerful suffragette.
Like so many other social justice movements, history has oversimplified the movement. The reality is the tenacity and persistence of prior social movements are an inspiration and a lesson. Power fights viciously to retain power. Change is possible not because it is inevitable, but because those who fight are indomitable.
Read more in the July 15-21, 2020 issue.