The Conflicted Celebration of Women's Suffrage

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The Conflicted Celebration of Women's Suffrage

On Election Day in 2016, visitors covered Susan B. Anthony’s Rochester, New York grave in “I Voted” stickers, a tribute to the woman whose name has been most associated with the cause of women’s suffrage in America. It was in keeping with the Clinton campaign’s repeated use of suffragist imagery and history, like her opting for all-white outfits as a callback. It was all supposed to build to the election of the first woman president of the United States, a landmark victory.

Now that sticker-covered gravestone looks less like a tribute than a grim foreshadowing of what was to come—not simply the election of Donald Trump, but riding to victory with a staggering percentage of votes from white women. On the hundredth anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, I feel nothing so much as a profound ambivalence about the piece of paper that theoretically gave American women the right to vote. Because it did no such thing: the amendment was a significant but qualified accomplishment that left behind many of the women who’d fought so hard for the cause of voting rights. It looks less like a triumph than another moment where white women got theirs and moved on, leaving Black women to fight on until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The centenary of the 19th Amendment doesn’t warrant an uncritical celebration—it demands reflection and offers an opportunity to foster a broader, more inclusive understanding of the voting rights struggle.

Over the last century, the suffrage movement has often been portrayed as something almost cutesy in popular culture—a bunch of stern maiden aunts in sashes, glaring out from sepia-toned photographs. Think the “Sister Suffragette” song from the 1964 Mary Poppins, performed by an inattentive mother who ultimately gives her sash to the children to use for their kite after Mary Poppins has fixed their family through her attentions. It’s just one big blur of bloomers and bicycles and incredible hats, the violence in response to their demands—the beatings and the forced feedings—cropped out of the picture.

Even when the movement has been treated with more respect, the story of the fight has been centered on the end-all, be-all victory of the 19th Amendment and rendered as almost entirely white. It’s been reduced to just a few names, collapsing a diverse movement that stretched over generations to a handful of individuals like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and, above all else, Susan B. Anthony. In the initial announcement of a statue commemorating the suffrage movement for Central Park, for instance, it would be just Anthony and Stanton to represent the entire movement (though Sojourner Truth was ultimately added). They determined much of the framing for how we still think about the topic, having written the defining work The History of Women’s Suffrage, which unsurprisingly centered their own activities.

Anthony has been essentially coronated as the safe suffragist, the American consensus pick. She’s the one the Treasury put on the dollar coin in the 1970s, under pressure from women’s organizations to include a real woman rather than an allegorical figure like “Lady Liberty.” Trump felt comfortable using her for political points on the anniversary of the 19th Amendment, pardoning her arrest for illegal voting as he attempts to shore up women’s votes. But Anthony was elevated over numerous other figures, like the fiery abolitionist Quaker Lucretia Mott, who bailed out of the National Women’s Suffrage Association because Stanton was such a racist, and Lucy Stone, who influenced Anthony and famously kept her own name when she married in 1855—and ultimately supported the 15th Amendment that enfranchised Black men on paper, to the dismay of Anthony and Stanton. And while Anthony got the anniversary pardon—despite the fact that she was, in fact, proud of her arrest—it was Alice Paul who really engineered the radical, disruptive, in-your-face campaign to get the 19th Amendment passed. She and the National Women’s Party picketed the White House even as World War I began and were accused of near sedition and frequently harassed and arrested.

And while many of the leaders and activists of the suffrage movement were white and middle class at the very least—one prominent backer was Alva Belmont, who built perhaps America’s greatest encapsulation of robber baron aesthetics in the Breakers at Newport, Rhode Island, and whose daughter was the Duchess of Marlborough—to paint an all-white picture of the suffrage movement erases the fact that Black women were an integral part of the struggle for suffrage, with their own highly effective organizing apparatus with a broad vision, as recounted in Professor Martha P. Jones’s important new work Vanguard. They were all too often marginalized and sold out by their white counterparts, and the 19th Amendment didn’t address their problems.

Our current political environment makes particularly clear just how untenable the oversimplified traditional story of women’s suffrage is, one that doesn’t delve into the complexities of that fight.

At its inception, the American movement for women’s rights was intimately intertwined with the abolitionist struggle; Stanton and Anthony worked alongside Frederick Douglass and other activists in Rochester, New York, before the Civil War. But the alliance soured in the wake of the 15th Amendment, which theoretically gave Black men the right to vote, after a debate over whether activists should instead push for a comprehensive suffrage amendment that included women, as well. Of course, organizations like the Ku Klux Klan quickly sprang up to put a stop to that, along with bureaucratic trickery like grandfather laws and onerous poll taxes. But Stanton and Anthony were infuriated by the fact that Black men had gotten the vote and white women hadn’t, and Stanton, in particular, would become outright racist in her advocacy for the vote. “I think that Stanton helped create a rhetoric or a political ideology where when we say women—and often when the media says women—in terms of feminist goals, we think middle-class, white women,” biographer Lori Ginzberg told NPR in 2011.

That certainly didn’t die with Stanton in 1902. The Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913 was a landmark public event for the cause. As Professor Jones explained in a recent interview with WYNC, organizers worried that if they included Black suffragists, they would alienate white Southern women, who would refuse to participate. And so, Alice Paul tried to make Black women march separately. Some white suffragists deployed outright white supremacist arguments to advocate for their own rights, arguing that white women were necessary as a bulwark against “lesser” men.

Even the most generous reading of white suffragists’ actions in the wake of the 19th Amendment suggests they were out for number one—once they had the amendment, the National Women’s Party and other organizations pivoted to other projects rather than tackle the reality that Black women were still locked out of the vote. Focusing on the amendment erases the agency and the work of women like Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell and Mary McLeod Bethune and Fannie Lou Hamer and so many others; it reinscribes a narrative that focuses on white women and cheats us all out of valuable organizing models.

Our current political environment makes particularly clear just how untenable the oversimplified traditional story of women’s suffrage is, one that doesn’t delve into the complexities of that fight. It’s not an accident that many Republican women want to claim the language of women’s empowerment for their own, asserting their own brand of “girl power” with Lara Trump barnstorming around the country as the face of Women for Trump and her father-in-law making a play for “suburban housewives.” Republicans like to claim Susan B. Anthony, too, between Trump’s pardon and putting her name on their anti-abortion organization. The National Federation for Republican Women currently has a happy shot on its homepage of women dressed in suffrage sashes holding signs that say “Votes for Women,” even as the GOP guts voter protections that have actually protected the rights of a broad cross-section of American women. Melania Trump commissioned an exhibition of children’s art to mark the anniversary at the White House.

A triumphalist vision of the 19th Amendment plays directly into the hands of conservatives who are more than happy for women to assert themselves and to proudly cast their votes—as long as they’re doing so on behalf of traditional power structures. Kimberly Guilfoyle can yell as loudly and as disruptively as she wants, as long as it’s about how the radical Democrats will destroy the suburbs. The vote matters, but what matters even more is what women choose to do with that vote. In 2020, the most fitting way to celebrate the 19th Amendment is to consider its failures and its compromises and to do better.

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