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By Javacia Harris Bowser
This month marked the 100th anniversary of the ratification and certification of the 19th Amendment, the amendment that declared “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
I’ve wanted to commemorate this special occasion, but I wasn’t sure how. Even though I’m a woman and a feminist, I’m also a Black person living in the South.
Should a Black southern woman celebrate the 19th Amendment?
I first asked myself this question four years ago. It all started with a T-shirt. Leading up to the 2016 presidential election, a publication I write for was hosting a “Women’s Votes Matter” campaign to encourage women to get out to the polls. The media company created a T-shirt with a simple slogan – “Since 1920.” As a contributing writer, I was given one of these shirts.
But I never planned to wear it. Yes, the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, but for decades women (and men) of color would continue to be disenfranchised, especially in the South. The threat of lynching and other intimidation tactics kept Black men and women from casting their ballots, as did poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses. It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that measures designed to disenfranchise racial minorities were outlawed.
An educator at the time, I decided to make this a teaching moment. I took a picture wearing the shirt and posted it to social media but with the reminder that I needed a shirt that read “Since 1965.”
I’ve posted the picture a few times since 2016 when on my way to vote in local elections as a reminder that those elections are just as important as presidential races. Sometimes I get messages from people who didn’t see my initial post who feel the need to “explain” to me that Black women didn’t get the right to vote in 1920. (Side note: Many Black women did vote in 1920. Some had been voting for several years in states like California, Illinois, and New York where women’s suffrage became law before the 19th Amendment was ratified.)
Meanwhile, others send me messages declaring that I shouldn’t celebrate the 19th Amendment because the suffrage movement was not a Black woman’s movement.
It’s true, Black women were grossly marginalized in the suffrage movement. Famous white suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were outspoken in their belief that white women should vote before Black men. Many suffrage organizations shut out Black women to appease racist potential supporters. When women gathered in Washington in 1913 for the historic women’s suffrage parade, Black women were discouraged from attending or asked to march in the back.
But I can’t disregard the suffrage movement altogether. I can’t ignore the fact that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 applied to Black women because of the 19th Amendment. Moreover, to dismiss the suffrage movement feels like a dismissal of all the work done by Black suffragists.
Sojourner Truth spoke boldly on the issue of women’s suffrage stating that if Black men got rights and Black women didn’t, “the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before.”
As some white suffragists and their organizations refused to include issues of race in their campaigns, Black women began forming groups of their own, groups like the National Association of Colored Women, founded in 1880. The group’s first president Mary Church Terrell toured the country lecturing on women’s voting rights and spoke out about the hypocrisy of white suffragists who fought for women’s rights yet ignored the injustices endured by Black people.
Francis E.W. Harper, a founding member of the American Woman Suffrage Association, spoke at the Women’s Convention of 1866 and also called out white suffragist organizations for racial discrimination.
Nannie Helen Burroughs helped found the Women’s Auxiliary of the National Baptist Convention, an organization of more than 1 million women that she led in support of women’s suffrage.
Journalist and activist Ida B. Wells worked with white suffragists in Illinois but also founded the Alpha Suffrage Club for Black women. Wells also participated in the 1913 women’s suffrage parade and refused to march in the back.
And after the 19th Amendment was passed, Black suffragists continued the fight. Mary McLeod Bethune founded many organizations, led voter registration drives and even worked with presidents of the United States in support of rights for Black women and men. Black women were instrumental in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, too.
Division within in the women’s movement persists today as some white feminists refuse to acknowledge that issues of race and gender are intertwined. And, unfortunately, the battle for voting rights continues today, too. A resurgence of voter ID laws, the purging of voter rolls, and the closing of particular polling places all threaten to disenfranchise marginalized groups even in 2020. Women who are juggling jobs with the demands of family and worried about exposure to COVID-19 are especially affected by attempts to limit and restrict voting by mail.
So, my T-shirt is a reminder that “Since 1920” Black women have been fighting for the 19th Amendment to do what it claims.
And I, a Black woman from the South, will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment by acknowledging Black suffragists of the past and by supporting the work of young women – of all races — who are continuing this fight today. And I know that one of the best ways I can honor them all is to VOTE.
Javacia Harris Bowser is a freelance writer and blogger and the founder of See Jane Write, a website and community for women who write and blog. You can find her online at seejanewritebham.com and on Instagram @seejavaciawrite.