Both my grandmothers were born in 1899, one in April and the other in December. The older of the two, whom I called Ahmie, turned 21 in 1920 well ahead of Election Day that November. At the time of her birthday and for several months after, her ability to vote in that year's presidential election hung in the balance. As things turned out, with Tennessee's vote, the 19th Amendment passed in August and she cast her ballot that fall. Ahmie loved politics and actively engaged in them her whole adult life. Interestingly, she was a Democrat, an anomaly both in Upstate New York, where she grew up, and on Long Island, where she lived from her late 20s until she died at 91. Even her husband was a Republican. She was a very active volunteer for the local Democratic Party—so active that President Kennedy rewarded her loyalty and contributions by appointing her Postmaster of the Oyster Bay Post Office. This was a purely patronage appointment as she had never entered a post office for any reason other than to buy stamps or send a package. It's hard to imagine someone like her not being able to vote.
As we celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment, it behooves us to remember how recent that extension of the franchise was—very much in the lifetime of people many of us knew—and how hard-fought the battle to secure it was. If we learned the history of the women's suffrage movement at all, the story focused on Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. My eighth-grade history teacher did introduce us to the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention (which he referred to as Bad Day at Black Rock—I was very fond of him and he was an excellent teacher, but that surely was an expression of misogyny!) and, knowing me, I had already read about Stanton and Anthony, as well as Lucretia Mott, in the biography series I had devoured in my elementary years. Already a budding feminist, they were definitely heroes of mine. While we might have read the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments, I do not remember learning then or in my high school US history course much about the long and arduous fight that didn't conclude until 72 years later. I didn't learn about women chaining themselves to the White House fence, or about the hunger strikes, or about the beatings the protesters endured. I didn't learn about the violence associated with the 8,000-strong 1913 Parade for Women's Suffrage that led to 100 of the marchers being hospitalized. I didn't learn that women had to fight significant opposition to wrest this democratic right from the country's political leadership.
If we learned about Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, we probably also learned that the women's rights movement grew out of the 19th-century abolitionist movement. Women played significant roles in the effort to abolish slavery in the US, and when they encountered barriers to speaking in public and other forms of activism, they realized that they needed to fight for their own rights as well. Until the end of the Civil War, the two movements could and did move forward together. However, once slavery ended, most white activists split between continuing to fight for rights for the Black community or to fight for women's rights. Black women, such as Sojourner Truth, the most famous among them, had played an important part in the fight for women's rights from the outset. They faced a dilemma when this dichotomy emerged, especially since most of them already understood the intersectionality of any rights movement. For them, you couldn't separate the fight for women's rights from the fight for civil rights for Black people. Some, like Mary Church Terrell, worked both through Black organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women and predominantly white organizations such as the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Terrell and colleagues like Ida B. Wells were well-known in their day and contributed in significant ways to the suffragist movement. However, when Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others wrote the lengthy History of Woman Suffrage—which served for decades as the definitive work on the subject for decades—they largely omitted their Black activist colleagues.
Indeed, as the more recent histories of the women's rights movement are chronicling, racism reared its ugly head here as it does in so much of American history. Alice Paul, leading the next generation of women's suffragists, resisted including Black women in the 1913 parade because she was afraid delegations from the South would refuse to participate. Ultimately, she organized the parade so white women walked first, then men, then Black women. More grievous were the racist tactics some of the suffrage leaders employed. For example, in 1918, the leading suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt wrote to a North Carolina congressman trying to persuade him to support the 19th Amendment, saying:
[The] present condition in the South makes sovereigns of some negro men, while all white women are their subjects. These are sad but solemn truths. If you want white supremacy, why not have it constitutionally, honorably? The Federal Amendment offers the way.
By giving women the vote, the number of white voters will increase, and counterbalance the influence of Black men who gained the right to vote with the 15th Amendment after the Civil War—never mind that by 1918 Jim Crow laws denied most Blacks the right to vote anyway. In fact, while white women throughout the U.S. did secure the right to vote with the 19th Amendment, many other women, Blacks in the South, Native Americans, and Asian American women, to name some, would continue to struggle for that right, many not winning it until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Understanding the contributions of Black activists such as Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, as well as many other Black women, to the movement for women's suffrage along with the recognition that not all women actually could vote after August 1920, and the role that racism played in the fight for women's suffrage all create a more complete story than the one I learned. Every time we expand the franchise, and the 19th Amendment represents the largest expansion in the nation's history, we advance democracy. Without a doubt, the 19th Amendment stands out as a hugely important step—just not a simple, untarnished one. When we talk about telling a more complete story in our curriculum as part of our anti-racism work, this is exactly what we mean.
There has been more talk about voting in this presidential election than I can ever remember. It is important for all of us to treat our right to vote with the seriousness it deserves, and not to take it for granted. The centennial of the 19th Amendment gives us a reason to stop to consider how recent that extension of the franchise was; even more recent, of course, was the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, overturning the Jim Crow laws that had prevented so many of our Black citizens from voting. As Civil Rights leader and Congressman John Lewis said in his posthumously published New York Times op-ed, "The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it." Wise words from someone who, like the suffragists, had to fight to exercise his rights as a citizen. Let's every one of us remember how hard people have fought for that right, teach young people this history in all its complexity, and honor the sacrifices of voting rights activists by making our vote count.