As everyone prepares for next year’s 100th anniversary of the women’s vote, we should recognize more than the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement. While it’s exciting to read about the women and events that took place, at some point you get the idea that the Women’s Suffrage Movement was made up of privileged white women. And the leaders were largely privileged white women.
Although privileged 100 years ago meant that a few women had the resources that allowed time and energy for the movement instead of working in a factory for less than a living wage. It meant they could read and write, and that there were at least some avenues of education open to them. African American women and immigrant women rarely had these opportunities.
While it’s important to remember and honor women like Alice Paul and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, we should also remember other women who fought for the right to vote. The suffrage movement was largely born out of the abolition movement. Yet for the right to vote, some suffragists were willing to limit voting to white women if it meant gaining support from politicians or women in the South. And in some of the largest Women’s Rights marches, African American women were expected to walk in the back. Yet even with these indignities, women of color lent their voice and support to women’s suffrage. Here are a few of the many:
Sojourner Truth is credited with being the first African American suffragist. She was a former slave with a gift with words. She captivated audiences with her speeches, most notably the one known as “Ain’t I a Woman?” at a women’s convention in Akron, Ohio. She was a frequent fixture at abolition events and women’s rights conventions, including the first National Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. She spoke of freedom, equality, and the right to vote for all.
Mary Church Terrell was an educator, writer, and activist. Educated at Oberlin College, she taught in Washington, D.C. and later the first African American woman appointed to the school board in the District of Columbia. A member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, she used many of the same strategies when she became the first president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Terrell spoke often to women’s suffrage groups, reminding the white suffragists that exclusion based on race was the same as exclusion based on gender. Terrell was one of the founding members of the NAACP, and later in her life, she successfully fought segregation in public facilities.
Ida B. Wells was a well-known journalist who also graduated from Oberlin College, mostly likely because it was the first college in America to admit African American students and the first co-educational school to allow women to earn bachelors degrees. She was also a founding member of the NAACP. Wells founded a suffrage group for African American women, the Alpha Suffrage Club, in 1913. Later that year, she participated in the first suffrage parade in Washington, DC. She was told to march in the back with other women of color, so as not to offend women from the South. She refused, marching with other women from her home state of Illinois. Wells encouraged African American women to vote and become involved in politics, long after the 19th amendment became law.
Mary Ann Shadd Cary was also a journalist and the first woman of color in North America to establish a newspaper and become its editor. She later decided to study law and was the first woman to attend Howard University Law School, although she had to wait until Washington, D.C. laws changed before she could be admitted to the bar. She spoke at National Woman Suffrage Association conventions, stating that the 14th and 15th Amendment should also apply to women and suggesting that “male” should be removed from the Constitution. In speeches given in both the United States and Canada, she showed how voting rights connected to labor rights.
Learn more about these and other African American women in the suffrage movement at Turning Point Suffragist Memorial.