ColumnsThe Suffragist

No More Whitewashing the Women’s Suffrage Movement

It's time for all of us to question what we think we know

The most difficult, but unfortunately not surprising, part about writing this column is facing the reality that even the history of the women’s suffrage movement is whitewashed, a reality forcing me to face my own truths.

When I pitched the idea for The Suffragist as a year-long celebration of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment I thought I knew a lot about the subject, despite it only being a blip in history classes. Since the first column was published, much of what I thought I knew has been upended. I am, however, glad to learn the truth, glad to share it with you and even more glad that anyone willing to embrace truth can find it if they seek it.

Now, more than ever, many of us need to question what we think we know. It’s also important to bear in mind that voting rights are still under threat as we see when the North Carolina General Assembly gerrymanders the state and passes Voter ID laws. We see it in our president’s tweets as he spreads lies about mail-in voting. We saw it during this year’s primaries in places like Georgia where voters stood for hours in precincts with fewer voting booths in minority communities than before, only for new voting systems to crash.

When I saw Lucretia Mott’s name at the top of the “Declaration of Sentiments,” a manifesto for the early women’s rights movement that was read at the 1848 meeting of the Seneca Falls Convention in New York, it was a point of pride because she’s a distant relative. Then I dug deeper and realized the convention only came about because women were excluded from abolitionist meetings.

As I dug deeper still, I’ve learned the suffrage movement didn’t begin with Mott and her cohorts, it began a couple decades earlier and Black women deserve the credit. Not only do they deserve the credit, but white women actively excluded them and worked against the 15th Amendment, the one that enfranchised Black males.

Mott was a Quaker, a group that espoused the virtues of truth, equality, peace, and other fine qualities since its founding in the mid-1650s in England, with many members making their way to this continent in search of religious freedom. This has also been a point of pride in my life. However, knowing this much about my family tree is a type of privilege, I realize, because too many of our brothers and sisters in the United States were taken from their homes and brought to this shore to build this country and its economy as slaves and can’t trace their family tree back as far as I can.

While it hurts my heart to realize someone I venerated was a hypocrite, it’s important to face reality and learn from it. My research led me to “The Myth of Seneca Falls,” by Lisa Tetrault. From her I’ve learned that while women like Mott and Susan B. Anthony may be credited with sparking the U.S. suffrage movement at Seneca Falls, that is indeed a myth. For one thing, Anthony wasn’t even present at the convention.

For another, she and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, another white woman heralded for her suffrage efforts, actively honed our collective history to make themselves seem like the leaders of the movement with speeches like the “History of Women’s Suffrage.” Today we would call that speech what it was: a power play with talking points for frontline protesters.

The truth is Black women like Maria Stewart, who wrote for the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator and bravely gave ill-received anti-slavery and women’s rights speeches in the 1830s, deserve the credit that Mott, Anthony and Stanton stole. Stewart was the first woman to lecture about women’s rights and the first to speak to mixed-race audiences in the United States.

Today, as we are well aware, speaking truth to power can be deadly. (Even jogging, driving, sleeping in your own bed and other activities of daily living are threatening to some if you’re doing them while Black.) Now, imagine being a Black woman in the 1820s giving fiery speeches in the time of slavery and few women’s rights. Educated women were not appreciated then, and much less so educated Black women — especially when they weren’t afraid to be outspoken in the streets.

Stewart was not the only Black woman speaking her mind long before it was considered safe or proper to do so. As I’ve written before: “Southern women, Black and white, lagged behind northern women” when it came to suffrage, and those who did speak up were considered ‘radical.’” But that didn’t stop Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.

Liberator masthead circa 1850. (Wikimedia Commons)

In Harper’s famous speech “We are all bound up together,” she actively pushed back against white suffragists in the 1850s, at a time when doing so could conceivably get her killed, saying things like, “Talk of giving women the ballot-box? Go on. It is a normal school, and the white women of this country need it. While there exists this brutal element in society which tramples upon the feeble and treads down the weak, I tell you that if there is any class of people who need to be lifted out of their airy nothings and selfishness, it is the white women of America.”

We still do, all of us — men and women. Too many of us don’t question the little bit we learn in history class or from our families. We often don’t question or even recognize our privilege. We don’t question the authorities or the status quo. We don’t stand up for justice and equality. But we can.

I humbly submit this column while noting the throngs in the streets since George Floyd’s death. My hope is we are all facing ourselves and being conscientious of not only the truth, but our truths, that we are learning, that we are sharing what we learn and all vowing to be better. (And to vote!)

I’ll leave you with a few of the words from Maria Stewart that she submitted to The Liberator in 1831: “I am sensible of former prejudices; but it is high time for prejudices and animosities to cease from among us.”

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3 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this important and timely article. You are bringing to light the contributions of women who have been erased or overlooked in the history of the suffrage movement and beyond. This attitude of exclusion did not end with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, it transferred into the suffrage legacy organization, the League of Women Voters, which is also celebrating the 100th year of its founding. I agree with you completely. Those celebrating these centennials cannot continue to “whitewash” history. We were there too, from the beginning! It is TIME that women of color are given their rightful place in the mainstream narrative of history. There are hundreds of unsung heroes who endured the racism of the times and are being overlooked in the commemorations. Let’s celebrate their passion, purpose and perseverance. We are MORE THAN A FOOTNOTE!

    Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins, PhD
    Author, The Untold Story of Women of Color in the League of Women Voters (February, 2020)

  2. Wonderful article Rhi. I love that you have shared such a poignant and brave history will all of us. It has been enlightening. Thank you

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