The Women’s Suffrage Movement Has Excluded Women of Color

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

August 18, 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, which we might remember as a monumental day for women of all backgrounds. However, the passage of the 19th amendment in 1919 only granted white women voting rights. Voting rights for women of color were finally granted a year later in 1920 when the amendment was ratified, but voter disenfranchisement nonetheless left many women of color unable to vote long after the amendment was passed.

In suffrage movements, Black women often found themselves advocating solely for the rights of white women. In racial justice organizations, they advocated solely for Black men. In neither were they the priority, and in both, they were the first to be dropped or ignored in the face of conflict.

“Black women learned early on, from first-hand experience, that a true fight for freedom had to mean freedom for everyone,” Congresswoman Val Demings told ABC News.

In schools, a white suffragette was the default image for the words “women’s suffrage”. Black women didn’t advocate for themselves in suffrage movements. Instead, they supported white women’s fight for the right to vote.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary became the first Black woman in North America to edit and publish a newspaper. She also filed and won a discrimination lawsuit to become one of the first Black female lawyers in America. She argued for universal suffrage before Congress in 1874. When it came down to advocating for her own national rights, not only was she expected to support the 19th amendment but when she did support the amendment, she knew she personally wouldn’t be benefiting from it.

However, when the amendment was ratified, it didn’t ensure that there wouldn’t be obstacles in the future. Many women remained unable to vote long into the 20th century because of discriminatory state voting laws. Some of these laws required identification, discriminatory literacy tests, and other barriers to voting across the country, particularly in those Southern states. Many women continued to face voter intimidation and suppression.

As the New York Times noted in an editorial on their evaluation of the 19th Amendment’s centennial, “millions of other women — particularly African-Americans in the Jim Crow South — remained shut out of the polls for decades” after the amendment’s ratification. That includes many Native American and Asian American women who were not granted citizenship.

“The primary beneficiaries of the 19th Amendment at first were white women and the small minority of African American women who lived in northern and western states, where there were no racial restrictions on voting. The vast majority of African Americans still lived in the South, where men and women were kept from voting by Jim Crow laws put in place in the late 19th century,” Susan Ware, a historian who specializes in women’s suffrage, told Teen Vogue.”

Minorities faced several obstacles from state laws while working for the right to vote. Some examples include literacy tests and poll taxes. Certain practices like gerrymandering and voter identification laws also disenfranchised people of color by making it harder for them to vote or diluting the effect of their votes.

It wasn’t until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that Black women in the South were able to exercise this right without the previously mentioned restrictions. Some Latin, Native, and Asian American women had to wait even longer. Finally, in 1975, the federal government passed voting rights amendments that prohibited discrimination against “language minority” citizens.

While women of color were forced to wait nearly 50 extra years after the passage of the 19th Amendment to gain proper access to the ballot box, their contributions to the protests and demonstrations were critical to the amendment’s passage. White women earned the right to vote, in part, due to women of color, and these contributions have since been largely erased from history.

For decades, historians have honored Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony for challenging gender norms and pushing for a women’s right to vote. However, these same women were found to have supported racist ideals, fighting for white women’s right to vote and ignoring the discrimination faced by women of color. Women of color were forced to march separately from their white counterparts and were excluded from suffragette conventions. Now, 100 years after legislation first granting women the right to vote, women of color deserve recognition from when they fought for equal rights.

Through Teen Lenses: Do you know anything about the Women’s Suffrage Movement? Do you have any opinions on what you know about it? Do you have any opinions on how women of color were affected by the establishment of the 19th amendment?

“The fight for women’s suffrage was one that not only took physical strength, but also mental. Strong political women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and more popularly known Susan B Anothony were constantly put down, and not given the respect they deserve for the struggle they were fighting for. Thus, I believe one of the main reasons why the suffrage was successful in the end was the role men played in the publicity and support of the cause. As this fight for women’s suffrage took place in a more traditional time, men who took a stand against regular social norms in giving only men privilege in voting, were pivotal in leading the crusade in overturning this stigma around gender equality. They were able to show other patriarchal men the equality women should be receiving. However, women of color had it even tougher, as gender equality wasn’t the only issue for them but also racial inequality. Although it was not explicitly stated, the 19th amendment really only benefitted white women in majority. It still took years to finally give women of color the justifiable right they deserve.” Richa Misra, 15, Rising sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Chantilly, VA
“I know that women’s suffrage in the US began around 1850 and lasted over 70 years until the 19th amendment was ratified. The main proponents of women’s suffrage here were Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton, among many others who would join later. I think that the way I learned it in school was pretty good but I think they could have put more emphasis on how only white women were guaranteed the right to vote in all states and just how long it took them to get that right, since the movement lasted through the civil war and world war I. I think they could have also focused on how women’s suffrage affected the world too, since many nations gave women the right to vote around this time.” Akshay Vellore, 15, Rising sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Chantilly, VA
“I’ve definitely done some research about women’s suffrage on my own, but i’m not sure I know every aspect of it. In my opinion, I greatly regard the women’s suffrage movement because it was leading something that was against the norm of society. While I think the women’s suffrage movement took a lot of courage, it wasn’t fair to black women and women of color because it didn’t elevate them to the level of white women. All in all, I think the women’s suffrage in the 19th century paved the way for voting rights for women of color and it is an essential structure to our government.” Archi Patel, 14, Rising sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Brambleton, VA

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