Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony seized control of the feminist narrative in the 19th century. Tensions escalated with the proposal of the 15th amendment, which would prevent states from denying Black men the right to vote. The two women became angry at the prospect of Black men gaining the right to vote before white women.
Stanton embarked on a Klan’s like tirade against the amendment. She stated that white women would be degraded if Negro men preceded them into the franchise. According to historians Kori Ginsberg and Faye Duden, racism and elitism were enduring features of the women suffrage make-up and philosophy.
The 15th amendment was ratified, and women would have to wait another 50-years for the right to vote. Anti-lynching advocate Ida B. Wells and Civil Rights leader Mary Church Terrell became more deeply and publicly engaged in the Women’s Suffrage Movement.
There was distrust from many of the Black suffragist, who believed that the white suffragist would try to exclude Black women from being included in the 19th amendment.
White Northern suffragists refused to allow Black suffragist clubs to affiliate with them. In one particular suffragist-lead parade in Washington D.C. in 1913, Black participants were forced to march in an all-Black assembly in the back of the parade, instead of with their state’s delegation. Wells refused to march in the rear, but Church Terrell marched with the all-Black delegation.
It was these types of episodes that fueled the lasting suspicion of the white suffragist for the Black community. That suspicion spilled over to the doubt of political participation for African Americans that still exists+ today.
Although the 19th amendment covered the needs of middle-class white women quite nicely, for Black women in the South, where most African Americans resided, it did very little. Election officials all over the South obstructed the access to the ballot box for their Black citizenry. Those former white suffragists, who fought against gender discrimination, no longer had any interest to fight for women who were suffering from racial discrimination.
Unlike Black men who won the right to vote with the 15th amendment and were not disenfranchised for about 20-years, Black women lost the right to the franchise in less than a decade.
It would take another 50-years and a new suffrage campaign, with Black women in a leading role, before Black citizens of the United States were fully enfranchised with the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Today, we find ourselves still fighting for human rights and gender equality. All around the world young girls are still being forced into marriages. Women and girls are being trafficked into forced labor and sex slavery. Access to education and political participation are denied to women in many countries. In the United States, choice over our own bodies is being stripped away by state legislators, who are mainly elderly white men.
There is still tension between Black and white women in this fight for equality. However, Black women are at the forefront of this new Women’s Movement. With the intersectionality of race, class and gender, African American women bring a wider perspective to the struggle for equality and equity. We cannot separate race from gender and our voices are necessary for any lasting change.