How History Classes on the Women’s Suffrage Movement Leave Out the Work of Black Voting Rights ActivistsHistorians in the News
tags: racism, feminism, African American history, suffrage, womens history
As soon as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were projected to win the 2020 presidential election on Nov. 8, women headed to Susan B. Anthony’s grave in Rochester, N.Y., to pay homage to the most famous American advocate for women receiving the right to vote. The suffragist is buried about an hour away from Seneca Falls, N.Y., the site of a women’s rights convention on July 19-20, 1848. It’s a meeting that American schoolchildren often learn is the birthplace of feminism and the start of the women’s suffrage movement.
But what many American schoolchildren don’t learn is that Susan B. Anthony was also fighting to ensure Black men didn’t get the right to vote before white women, that many suffragists excluded Black women from their events and that the fight for voting rights began much earlier.
Anthony promoted a predominantly-white history of voting rights activism, which is often believed to have ended in 1920 when the 19th Amendment was ratified, prohibiting states from restricting who can vote based on sex. In fact, Seneca Falls didn’t become known as the origins of the women’s rights movement until the 25th anniversary of the meeting in 1873, suggesting that crafting an origin story for the movement was not a priority before then, argues Lisa Tetrault, historian and author of The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898. Though Anthony is often reported as being at the 1848 Seneca Falls meeting, she was not. It was a local affair, organized in a few days by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and attended by around 200-300 white men and women. The only African American in attendance was abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
By beginning to tell the history of the suffrage movement as starting at Seneca Falls, Anthony and Stanton tried to show that the movement had a long and distinguished history, according to Tetrault, as damage control for the jailing of provocative suffragist Victoria Woodhull, while she tried to run for President in 1872.