On Aug. 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, thus extending the right to vote to American women and marking a triumphant end to the long battle that began July 19, 1848, at the Seneca Falls Convention.
At least, this is the vague outline most young Americans encounter when they read about the women’s suffrage movement in their history books. But something about this timeline isn’t quite right.
On the centennial of the 19th Amendment’s passage, how can we celebrate the accomplishments of the bold women who dedicated their lives to women’s enfranchisement, like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, while also remaining cognizant of the fact that the steep battle for suffrage was far from over for a large portion of American women?
These books, in their examination of primary documents, their portraits of lesser-known suffragists and their detailed explanations of how the country’s knotty racial dynamics affected the fight for the vote, provide a rich social context absent from childhood history books.
In “The Women’s Suffrage Movement,” Sally Roesch Wagner’s smartly curated anthology, she writes, “History is defined less by what happened than by who tells the story. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton sat down with her colleagues Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage to tell the story of the movement in their three-volume, three-thousand-page ‘History of Woman Suffrage,’ they dammed up the history of their movement from their personal perspective.”
Through her collection of letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, essays and speeches, Roesch Wagner systematically pokes holes in this history, starting with Gage, whose own anthropological findings make clear the profound influence that the Haudenosaunee nations had on the the shape of American democracy long before 1848.
Roesch Wagner takes readers into the rooms where the American Equal Rights Association met, formed by Anthony, Stanton, Lucy Stone and Frederick Douglass in an aim to establish universal adult suffrage. AERA was “a miracle of shared purpose … and later, a tragedy of division.”
Although partners in the abolitionist movement, Anthony and Stanton’s alliance with Douglass soured in 1869, when Douglass expressed support for the 15th Amendment, which extended voting rights to African American men, but not to women. Anthony and Stanton opposed the 15th Amendment because they felt it foreclosed on women’s potential enfranchisement, and they defended their opposition with a volley of racist sentiments about Black men. Whether these sentiments truly reflected the contents of their hearts or were Machiavellian fodder in a bitter debate is unknowable. Roesch Wagner’s anthology showsreaders a fuller picture of the oft-praised heroes of the movement, including parts that compromise their status as cultural icons.
In “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All,” historian Martha S. Jones makes clear that the option of choosing between women’s rights and basic civil rights was a luxury not afforded to Black women. “Living at a crossroads, Black women developed their own perspective on politics and power. Their view was always intersectional. They could not support any movement that separated out matters of racism and sexism,” Jones contends.
Although Black men were legally granted the right to vote in 1869, poll taxes, literacy tests and violence made the act of voting an impossibility in many states. Black women were ostensibly extended these same legal rights in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment, but were subject to the same barriers Black men had experienced for decades. Jones’ history of women’s suffrage does not conclude in 1920, or even with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “Vanguard” follows Black women leaders starting with Jarena Lee and Maria Stewart, all the way to Stacey Abrams, whose Georgia gubernatorial loss in 2018 amid voter suppression makes clear that the fight for enfranchisement is still ongoing.
Despite their exclusion from many suffragist societies, Jones details the ways in which Black women organized within churches and communities. Even in the face of sharp contradiction, as when the Black members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority were asked to march at the back of the 1913 Washington, D.C., suffrage parade, Black women still participated on their own terms. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, member of the sorority and founder of the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago refused to march in the back of the parade, while her sorority sister, Mary Church Terrell, compromised in order to ensure her representation at the parade.
“Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence,” curated by Kate Clarke Lemay for the National Portrait Gallery exhibition of the same name, gives a compelling visual biography of the suffrage movement through artifacts and rare photographs. Tracing the movement through time, Clarke Lemay brings readers on a cinematic journey through the many chapters of the movement, marked by its various alliances with abolitionists, Native American land-rights activists, and even advocates for the temperance movement.
Perhaps most importantly, “Votes for Women” removes suffragists like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Zitkala-Sa, Sarah Parker Remond and Fannie Lou Hamer from the cold pages of archives, underscoring to readers that women activists have always come from diverse backgrounds.