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I was 23 the first time I heard the name Susan B. Anthony—23. I’d gone through elementary school, junior high, high school, a GED program, college, and the first semester of graduate school without ever learning the long and fraught struggle to secure women the right to vote in the U.S. By the time I’d arrived in my first graduate course dedicated exclusively to women’s and gender studies, I knew very little about women’s suffrage; I am sure I realized women weren’t granted this hallmark of citizenship in the original constitution, and I knew there was an arduous battle to achieve an amendment in 1920. The details themselves were hazy, though, and as we parsed through them in that women’s and gender studies class, it raised more questions than answers for me.
Where were the Black women? Though many Black women were enslaved before the Civil War, there were innumerable free Black families throughout the Northeast, especially in cities like Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Why weren’t they a central part of this history, which is always said to have begun at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, better known as the first women’s rights convention in the U.S.? Whose legacy is erased—buried in the grave with their body—when history is told in wide frames that don’t account for the messiness that often accompanies social movements? Who gets forgotten when history decides to make one person—or in this case, a small group of people—the face of a historical event?
Those questions guided me a little more than three years later as I began researching the Teen Vogue article that became the linchpin for Lifting As We Climb, my forthcoming middle-grade nonfiction book that centers on the generations of Black women suffragists who’ve been fighting since abolition to give us all the vote. In that research process, I learned about the life, work, and sacrifices of a number of Black women, including Sarah Mapps Douglass, Fannie Barrier Williams, Ida B. Wells, and Mary Church Terrell, who dedicated themselves not only to suffrage but to an array of issues facing Black communities, including lynching, segregated schools without resources, and housing discrimination.
While these women recognized the value of being granted access to voting, they saw suffrage as a singular part of a bigger battle for freedom. Their white counterparts, including Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Anna Howard Shaw saw it differently; voting, for them, was the goal, not a tool used to gain civil rights in other areas of their lives. These different worldviews—about the nature of suffrage itself and its overall importance—informed their approach to suffrage. While these white women did everything to secure suffrage, including maligning Black women within their own movement and embracing white Southern suffragists who were invested in segregation, Black women created organizations that included suffrage as a part of a larger mission to grant civil rights.
These organizations, including the National Association of Colored Women, focused on a number of different issues, including creating hospitals with Black doctors and nurses to care for Black patients; forming schools specifically designed to educate Black children; and advocating for a federal anti-lynching bill that would end the practice in the U.S. For these women and their organizations, suffrage was one hallmark of citizenship, but it wouldn’t guarantee them full access to the guarantees promised to all citizens of the U.S. That is a fight that continued through the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, through the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and through the election of the first Black American president. It is a fight that carries on, as the U.S. continues erecting barriers that make it difficult to vote.
The history of women’s suffrage is intertwined with many histories in the U.S.: the movement to end legalized slavery; reconstruction and the inevitable fallout of the Fifteenth Amendment; the shameful stain of lynching; the Civil Rights Movement; and the ongoing fight to end voter suppression. But some of its problems, specifically around the sidelining of Black women suffragists, are unique in their cruelty. When I realized, at the age of 25, that the narrative I’d learned in an intro to Women’s and Gender Studies class was incomplete and therefore inaccurate because it excluded an entire segment of suffragists, I decided to correct that record so that generations of Black girls will know this history, know how hard so many of their ancestors fought to make it possible for them to vote, and know how many obstacles still stand in our way.
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