On Women’s Equality Day, Which Women Do We Mean?

Today is Women’s Equality Day in the United States, celebrated yearly since 1971 on August 26th to mark the certification of the 19th amendment to the Constitution that extended the right to vote to women.

While this is an occasion to celebrate, there are a few myths, lies, and blatant rewrites of history that pop up every year that should be addressed. This is by no means an exhaustive list or a full, intersectional history of the battle for suffrage, but rather an attempt to muddy the conversation about which women we’re really talking about when we speak of “women’s equality.”

Myth: The 19th Amendment “gave” women the right to vote.

Fact: No one “gave” or “granted” women anything. Suffrage is a right one is born with in a free democracy, a right that was denied to women by the founders of our nation who did not see white women and all folks of color as human enough to deserve it. Organizers endured heckling, ostracization, beatings, force feedings and, in some cases, even death to get the 19th amendment passed — it was a fight for justice too long denied, not a polite request finally granted.

Lie: The 19th Amendment extended the right to vote to women.

Truth: This is only true if your definition of “women” is “white, cisgender, documented women.” Women and men of color, especially in the South, continued to face barriers to voting in the form of literacy tests, “grandfather” clauses, and Jim Crow laws until the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. The Voting Rights Act was recently gutted by the Supreme Court, which means that many folks of color will again be disenfranchised under the same ideology that assumes elected white people get to decide who “deserves” the right of suffrage. (See: North Carolina and Texas.) Additionally, undocumented women and men, who contribute to the nation as a whole and their communities specifically, are still denied the right to vote on the policies that impact their lives and those of their families. Women who have been convicted of felonies are also barred from voting. Voter ID laws, which require the gender one was assigned at birth to match the gender one actually is, prohibit many trans* folks from accessing the polls as well.

Historical Rewrite: White women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul thought up, led, and won the battle for suffrage.

Historical Truth: While those names are the ones most often mentioned in history books, those same texts both fail to recognize the women and men of color who fought for suffrage and cover up the fact that many of the white women leaders of the suffrage movement were pretty damn racist. They also fail to mention that early white suffragists like Stanton and Anthony were radicalized by interacting with Iroquois women, who were voting members on tribal councils and had the final say on the appointment of village chiefs. The suffragists who actually credited Native women’s influence on their organizing did so only to position indigenous cultures as “savage” in order shame white men into being more “enlightened” than Native peoples. The same white women who were spurred to action by Native women’s roles later aligned themselves with organizations that fought for the disenfranchisement of “blanketed Indians.”

Many of the staunchest advocates for universal suffrage were abolitionists. Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Mary Church Terrell, Margaretta Forten, Harriet Forten Purvis, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, all Black women, were leaders in the suffrage movement who faced discrimination from their white “sisters” in the fight. The National Women’s Suffrage Association’s official position was that suffrage for white women should come first, at the expense of voting rights for women and men of color. During the famed 1913 march, Alice Paul ordered Black women to march at the back in order to avoid offending racist white Southern women — Ida B. Wells refused and slipped out of the line to take her rightful place in the Illinois delegation at the front of the parade. Susan B. Anthony, in just one of her many racist oppressions, was instrumental in the exclusion of ardent women’s rights supporter Frederick Douglass from a suffrage conference in Atlanta.

Myth, Lie, and Historical Rewrite: “Women’s Equality” and the continued fight for women’s rights in 2013 is inclusive of all women.

Sad but important truth: It’s not.

The “mainstream” feminist movement of today — meaning the writing, organizing, and other work that gets the most attention, resources, and privilege — remains centered on the rights, lives, and experiences of white, non-Native, cisgender, documented, straight, able-bodied women. Women whose identities match these privilege sets, women like me, actively appropriate the work of women whose do not, erase their histories, assail their identities and set up fiscal, political, social, and cultural barriers in order to interrupt and negate the organizing of women of color, trans* folks, disabled people, undocumented people, and those who live their lives at the intersections of those identities. Just check out #solidarityisforwhitewomen, started by Mikki Kendall and explained here, and #dearcispeople. Google Cece McDonald and #girlslikeus. See women’s groups that claim to be fighting for all women who endorse candidates who voted for Stop and Frisk and refuse to support comprehensive immigration reform or go to the mat for Native women’s inclusion in the Violence Against Women Act. The list goes on and on.

Women’s Equality Day has a noble goal: uplift the history of the struggle for women’s rights and highlight the continued work toward gender justice. But if we aren’t committed to problematizing the history we’ve been taught, to centering the work of marginalized folks and learning the histories that have been erased from textbooks, and to coming to terms with the fact that when many feminists say they work for women’s equality but really just mean some women, then we’re just celebrating and continuing oppression.

I don’t have the answer to ending that continued oppression but I do know that it’s not the feminist movement that I want or that anyone needs. As a counterpoint to the unexamined celebratory links going around today, I’ve begun to compile a list of resources that celebrate the heroines who’ve been erased from history and examine the history of oppression within the suffrage movement that continues today. If you have other links, please put them in the comments and I’ll add them to the list.

Woman Suffrage at the Turn of the Century: The Rising Influence of Racism — Angela Davis

How Racism Tainted Women’s Fight to Vote — Monée Fields-White

How Native Americans Influenced the Women’s Suffrage Movement — Jessica Diemer-Eaton

Not All Women Won the Right to Vote Today — Renee Martin

Homespun Heroines And Other Women of Distinction — compiled and edited by Hallie Quinn

African American Women and the Vote, 1837-1965 — (book) Cynthia Neverdon-Morton (Author), Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham (Author), Martha Prescod Norman (Author), Bettina Aptheker (Author), Ann D. Gordon (Editor), Bettye Collier-Thomas (Editor)

African American Women In The Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920 — (book) Rosalyn Terborg-Penn



Filed under Herstory

13 responses to “On Women’s Equality Day, Which Women Do We Mean?

  1. Pingback: On Women’s Equality Day, Which Women Do We Mean? | Abortion Gang

  2. I really liked the doc about you, as I admired your fortitude. But I’m so disappointed with this blog post. You, like everyone else who writes history, have composed a pre-conceived narrative in your head and are listing purported “truths” to support it. You leave out a whole lot. I don’t know what organizations you consider the “mainstream” feminist movement,” but NOW and the Feminist Majority Foundation are inclusive organizations. I know because I made two films about NOW. The second national NOW president, Aileen Hernandez, is African American. The leadership has remained very diverse, and the members are very active in trying to reach out to people who are not straight, white women to join their ranks. But the sad fact is that writers like you keep perpetuating the notion that the movement was or is racist at its core. Simply not true. From the get-go of the second wave, NOW has been actively embracing and recruiting women and allies of all races, all orientations, all abilities, and actively pursuing legislative victories for them, including LGBTQ individuals. In the early movement, you fail to mention Matilda J. Gage, the third suffragist leader, who was adopted into the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk Nation and wrote a series of articles about the superior rights of Iroquois women for the NY papers. She, btw, was written out of history for being too radical, which is why you may not know of her. Anthony and Stanton parted ways and Stanton formed her own suffrage association because Stanton was willing to get in bed with Southern racists to get the amendment passed, foresaking black women. That is actually a sad truth and an example of a racist tactic that no one disputes. Stanton was desperate by the time this happened, after 30 some years of testifying before every session of Congress since 1868, fighting a losing battle. She was wrong, of course, but she also had worked for universal suffrage, was a staunch and dedicated abolitionist, and only parted ways with Douglass when he refused to lobby that the 14th and 15th Amendments should grant the vote to women. “It is the hour of the Negro,” he famously told Stanton and Anthony in 1869. HE ABANDONED THE WOMEN’S MOVEMENT, not the other way around. His support would have saved us 50 years of political fighting, and largely because of his not supporting women’s voting rights, the Supreme Court ruled that only males were citizens (the first time this is mentioned in the Constitution), and that the new voting rights did not extend to them. All I’m saying to you is that you are not an historian, that you are playing the old divisive hand of painting feminists as racists with a very broad and incomplete brush, and by doing this, you are dividing women, not uniting them. Are you aware that Stanton was such a dedicated abolitionist that she spent her honeymoon sailing to London for the World Anti-slavery Conference? There, she met Quaker minister Lucretia Mott who had sailed from Philadelphia. The two women were told to sit behind a curtain and shut up, which is when they decided to meet about their own lack of rights. Eight years later they organized the protest at Seneca Falls. There are many, many examples of the multiculturalism of the early movement, as well as in the other waves of feminism. And yes, there some alliances were made with vile Southern racists that make our skin crawl. That does NOT mean the movement itself was racist. Big difference.

    • Correction to above: It was Anthony, not Stanton, who aligned herself with Southern racist women as a political tactic.

    • Thank you for this reply! It is right on. You should write a book about the discrepancies between the inaccurate “facts” black (females) are taught and the actual facts and reality. There is so much misinformation and continued racism and yes, there are racist (women) of all colors but NO they are not the majority. For that matter- if the majority of whites were racist- we would still have racial slavery. That is pretty simple to deduce. Every 2 minutes a child is transported for sex (to be raped) : http://humantraffickingusa.org/. Instead of continual finger-pointing- can’t we do something about that? Please.

    • Thank you for the comment, LV. These nuances need to be part of the story. White suffrage leaders could sometimes be both racist and supportive of women of color, depending on the situation. History is not simple.

      • Thanks to you Ocelot and Heather for your comments, too. History (life, really) is certainly not simple! Wanted to mention, too, that Lucretia Mott was a Quaker minister and was such a dedicated abolitionist that she refused to serve table sugar or wear cotton because they were slave crops. She took abolition SERIOUSLY. BTW, there’s a great doc that American Experience Films made last year called “The Abolitionists” that profiles five key figures. She’s not among them, but others who have essentially been passed over, are. So worth a rental. As for the movement being largely white women, there are a lot of complex reasons for that having to do with preconceived notions, old wounds and multiple oppressions. I went to South Central to film a story about an African American woman who started a chapter of NOW called Now Playin’ in the Hood. She was amazing. She got that we have so much in common as women, and that lifting us all, in all our glorious diversity, is the task at hand.

  3. Marie

    “Today is Women’s Equality Day in the United States, celebrated yearly since 1971 on August 26th . . . ” I hate to burst your bubble, but Women’s Equality Day is ignored by the media. Even progressive zines like The Nation ignore it. And that is very male chauvinistic. The women’s suffrage movement wasn’t perfect (and the abolitionist movement had its share of issues too). But we still need to celebrate Women’s Equality Day as much as we celebrate Martin Luther King Day and Earth Day. It is very male chauvinistic to ignore the sacrifices that the suffragists and feminists of all races made so that we could exercise our inherent right to vote.

    • Couldn’t agree more, Marie. I spent a decade fundraising and making my independent documentary film, Seneca Falls, because essentially all of women’s history is ignored. It’s intentional, too. I managed to get the film on PBS nationally (though I had to pay for transmission costs), and it has been shown in many community, school and university settings. But what an awful struggle. Have a look at our site: senecafallsfilm.org.

  4. Pingback: solidarity really is for white women and i want to be part of changing that

  5. Let me recommend a great book about the suffrage movement, “Century of Struggle” by Eleanor Flexner. Published in 1959, it was “multicultural” before that word was even coined.

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