The Truth about 2020 and Suffrage for Black and White Women

Lies versus truth. I keep learning about lies I was taught in school and in my family that whitewashed history to hide the truth of what my country and ancestors did to other people. One thing I have learned from my own life is that if we do not face the truth of what happened in the past, the lie lives within us as a society, family, and individual and becomes toxic. It poisons both our relationship to ourselves and others and prevents growth and healing. For example, while I was growing up as a white person, I was never told these truths in school or at home:

  • Europeans invaded North and South America and enslaved, brutalized, murdered, and stole land from the indigenous people already there. I heard only tales of brave European pioneers.
  • Africans were kidnapped, brutalized, enslaved, and transported to the Americas to provide free labor to enrich European settlers. I heard only that slavery was in the past and had nothing do with us as present-day white people. I did not learn to see the present-day institutions that continue to uphold structural racism today.
  • My grandfather beat my grandmother and his children in brutal rage attacks. He died when I was a baby, and while I was growing up, I heard only that he was a hero to be admired.

In each of these cases, I was told a story that made white people (my grandfather included) sound benevolent and admirable — which was not the truth or the whole story.

Neither my schoolbooks nor my family ever mentioned the suffrage movement at all or the passage of the nineteenth amendment. I was well into my twenties when I learned that women had been able to vote for only a few decades. When I learned about the suffrage movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I heard the names of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, both middle-class white women, but I had no idea that black women were also fighting for both the abolition of slavery and the vote and were largely sidelined and marginalized by white middle-class women leaders like Stanton and Anthony. And I had no idea, as explained by Brent Staples of the New York Times, that, in the end, the white middle-class women who had often started out as abolitionists sold out the black women and men also trying to get the right to vote. Staples notes that in order to get the vote, white women, “compromising with white supremacy,” decoupled gender and race and promoted suffrage for only white women — leaving African American women and men shut out of the polls for decades, especially in the Jim Crow South.

I am only now learning the names of some amazing African American women who were at the forefront of a struggle for human rights that included the right to vote for African Americans. These women were left almost completely out of History of Woman Suffrage, written by Stanton and Anthony, but here are some of their names:

  • Frances Ellen Watkins Harper insisted that white women in the suffrage movement treat black women as equals and deal with their racism. She was ahead of her time in describing intersectionality.
  • Harriet Forten Purvis and Margaretta Forten, sisters, were central players in the staging of the Fifth National Woman’s Rights Convention in 1854.
  • Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin was a leader in the Massachusetts suffrage movement.
  • Sarah Parker Remond was a popular speaker on the abolitionist speaker circuit who successfully sued two men in Boston in 1853 for ejecting her from an opera because of her race.
  • Charlotte Rollin was the first black South Carolinian to speak at a national suffrage convention.
  • Ida B. Wells was an influential black activist in the suffrage movement and a successful businesswoman.
  • And many more, including Fannie Barrier Williams, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Susie W. Fountain, and Coralie Franklin Cook to name a few.

I urge you to read about these amazing women.

In the meantime, 2020 is going to be celebrated as the one hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage. We need to face the truth that not all women in the United States got the right to vote in 1920. Even a statue commissioned by the City of New York to honor women’s suffrage for the one hundredth anniversary includes only two figures — two white women — Stanton and Anthony. We continue to make black women invisible, and many people of color in this country continue to struggle to get access to the voting booth because of voter suppression efforts aimed at people of color.

Let’s tell the truth about 1920 — some women did get the right to vote but not everyone. And in the process, white women turned their backs on black women. We need to face this truth, among others, if we are ever going to heal our relationships across the racial divide in this country.

Anne Litwin, Ph.D. is an Organizational Development and Human Resources Consultant, Keynote Speaker, and Author of ‘New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together.’

Originally published at www.annelitwin.com on March 18, 2019.

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