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Black Women’s Long Struggle for Voting Rights

Historians in the News
tags: racism, African American history, suffrage, voting rights, womens history



On March 3, 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration, more than 5,000 women gathered in Washington, D.C. for a “suffrage parade” demanding the right to vote. But when the Black activist Mary Church Terrell proposed that African-American women join the march, its organizer, suffragist leader Alice Paul, worried about the reaction of white Southern women. So she offered a compromise: Black women could march at the back. Many, including the crusading journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, defied Paul and walked alongside their white counterparts.

The incident reflects the obstacles that Black women faced in their struggle for the right to vote—a part of history that is often neglected in accounts of the suffragist movement.

Until the Civil War, the women’s rights movement was closely aligned with the fight to end slavery. In the 1850s, Sojourner Truth, a former slave, traveled the country speaking out for equal rights for both women and African-Americans. White women such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton worked alongside Frederick Douglass and other Black abolitionists.

But those alliances frayed during the debate over the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, which gave Black men the right to vote. Anthony and Stanton opposed the historic measure because it didn’t include women. In February 1869, Stanton wrote that giving Black men the vote while neglecting women would lead to “fearful outrages on womanhood, especially in the Southern states.” As historian Faye E. Dudden writes in “Fighting Change,” her book on the suffrage movement in the Reconstruction period, Stanton “dipped her pen into a tincture of white racism and sketched a reference to a nightmarish figure, the black rapist.”

In the years that followed, Black women became more vocal advocates for their own voting rights as they watched those of Black men eroded by poll taxes, literacy tests and intimidation. Mary Ann Shadd Cary, the first woman to enroll in the Howard University School of Law, tried to register to vote in Washington, D.C., in 1871 and testified before Congress about the issue. But many white women kept Black activists at arm’s length.

“There was real tension,” said Nadia E. Brown, associate professor of political science and African-American studies at Purdue University. White leaders felt that “including you would be bad for us.’” According to Liette Gidlow, associate professor of history at Wayne State University, there was also “straight up racism on the part of some suffragists who felt that African-Americans were not worthy” of the vote.

Read entire article at Wall Street Journal

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