2020. What a year. In February, I submitted a piece for this paper about the 100th birthday of the League of Women Voters, noting that 2020 also would mark the centennial of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting American women the right to vote. In fact, the league was formed at that time to support and encourage newly enfranchised American women.
I had no idea that this important historical event would be overshadowed this summer by a worldwide pandemic and a social justice reckoning of such magnitude rarely seen in this country. For many of us, this reckoning about race has included a deep dive into traditional historical narratives that have distorted most facts surrounding the exploitation of enslaved Black people and their continued systematic oppression following emancipation in 1863.
I am not speaking “revisionist history” as some may charge; this is truth telling of just how pervasive racial bigotry in the U.S. is and has always been.
This time I am writing to commemorate Aug. 18 as the anniversary of the day that Tennessee became the 36th and deciding state in the 19th Amendment ratification process in 1920. The context of recent events, however, compels me to offer a different and usually overlooked perspective on the 70-year battle by American women to gain the vote.
In the 1820s and ’30s, unprecedented political activism had appeared among American women around the key issues of temperance, abolition, education and women’s rights. In 1848, the first convention of American women was held in Seneca Falls, New York, where about 300 women and a few men, including Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, met to discuss the lack of legal and social rights for women.
Fundamentally, this group of mostly affluent, educated white women believed that the founding documents of the U.S. applied to women as well as men, rephrased the Constitution to read “that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In other words, women were autonomous beings who deserved the right to vote, and the suffrage movement was launched. Abolitionists like Douglass hoped that the suffrage and abolitionist movements would effectively coalesce, as they in fact did for some time.
However, white suffragists found themselves in a moral dilemma 15 years later when President Abraham Lincoln followed up his Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 by moving quickly to secure the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments. These three amendments, in turn, freed slaves, granted Black people citizenship, and gave Black males the right to vote, leaving white women with the uncomfortable realization that Black men would be enfranchised to vote before they would.
It was infuriating to many of our suffrage grandmothers like Susan B. Anthony and Elisabeth Cady Stanton, who both spoke and wrote horrendously racist things about the specter of being beaten to the polls by Black men. Even Alice Paul, my personal favorite suffragist, declined to allow Black women to march in her famous 1913 Women’s March on Washington, relegating Black groups to a separate gathering.
It is said that democracy demands compromise, which is true and works unless you happen to be a member of a group that is not at the table in the first place. That is precisely what happened to African American women during the suffrage movement. White activists believed that the “race issue” would divide and destroy their “votes for women” movement, and so they stepped back from any association with antiracist activities, abandoning the abolitionist/suffragist coalition and their Black sisters.
As the strategy for suffrage morphed into state-by-state ratification of the proposed constitutional amendment, the West ratified first, then the North, while the Jim Crow South, consistently rejecting federal interference, lagged far behind. Strategists believed that only Tennessee (last out of the Union and first back in) had any real potential to approve ratification and secure the amendment.
In the hot summer weeks of 1920, lobbyists on both sides of the issue converged on Nashville, and the Hermitage Hotel became the sight of hard drinking, high pressure lobbying, and not a small amount of vote-buying to turn back the suffrage wave. And so it was, on the morning of Aug. 18, that Harry Burn from McMinn County, the youngest ever Tennessee state legislator, was all set to cast his nay vote when he read a letter from his mom, Febb, urging him to “be a good boy” and support votes for women. Clutching the letter, Harry voted aye, breaking a tie, and making Tennessee the 36th and last state required for ratification. It was a great moment for Tennessee and America, but it would take another half century before the 1965 Voting Rights Act struck down remaining barriers to African American men and women voting.
Certainly, we should celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment, but we should be fully aware that even that great cause was riddled by the insidious evil of systemic racism. Embracing that reality provides all American women with a remarkable opportunity today to reimagine the outcome of 19th century suffrage; to include, this time, all women marginalized by their race, ethnicity, sexual identity and orientation, age, disability, poverty and religion in our mutual effort to secure unfettered access to the ballot box.
We do this by challenging the effects of recent Supreme Court and legislative actions to curb citizen access to voter registration and to fair elections. We do this by visibly and vocally upholding the intent of the Constitution, its amendments, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act to expand voting rights. And we do this by saluting those brave women, white and Black, who were beaten, jailed, starved and, yet, persevered 100 years ago so that my daughter and I can vote.