Today's Reading

Because the woman suffrage movement was of such long duration, because it went through so many iterations, categorical claims about what suffragism was—and wasn't—are suspect. This book confronts two of those claims in particular. The first is that suffragism was a "single issue" movement, that as its advocates determined to win political equality for women, they ignored other claims for social justice.

This characterization may have been true of the suffrage militancy of the final decade—the picketers and jailed hunger strikers whose heroic actions have lodged in historical memory as the essence of suffrage activism. But even in the 1910s, this insular suffragism was more characteristic of a few leaders than it was many of their followers, suffragists who were also dedicated peace activists, birth control advocates, and trade unionists. For the most part and in every suffrage era, as the foremothers who called the first national convention in 1850 put it, suffrage passions and beliefs were always of a piece with "the upward tending spirit of the age."

Nor was it true that the woman suffrage movement was voiced exclusively by and in the name of white women and that deep-seated racism was its fatal flaw. For much of its history, the demands for woman suffrage and black suffrage were bound together, but that statement must be carefully parsed. Women's right to the vote would not have been demanded and not have entered into the political discourse in the first place if its initial leaders had not been deeply involved with the abolitionist and black suffrage movements. But in the post-Reconstruction years, this bond was broken as the mainstream woman suffrage movement excluded black women. This development was of a piece with the larger social and political reaction to Reconstruction. We have to recognize and examine that white racial exclusivity and its consequences for suffragism. The grand conclusion of the suffrage movement was tainted by the ironic fate of its coinciding with the very nadir of post-slavery racial

Still it must be said that every other white-dominated popular political movement of that era similarly accommodated to insurgent white supremacy. And yet only the woman suffrage movement—not the Gilded Age labor movement or the People's Party or even Progressivism itself—has been so fiercely criticized for the fatal flaw of racism. Historical memory recognizes the cautious gains of other reform movements of that era, even as they, like woman suffrage, turned away from the rights of black people. Without minimizing the seriousness of that shift in racial politics, we must restore the historical context of the suffrage movement's decisive turn away from equal rights for African Americans in those years.

Throughout the entire seventy-five years of the woman suffrage movement, and continuing into the post-suffrage era, African American women remained stalwart defenders of women's political rights, their numbers growing over time. Some of these women were well-known national figures—Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary Church Terrell—but most were not. I recognize less well known activists who were part of the larger current of suffrage history. They understood what W. E. B. Du Bois preached in the pages of The Crisis in 1912: "Every argument for woman suffrage is an argument for negro suffrage. Both are great movements in democracy."

This history cannot stop at 1920 because it is important to examine the evolution of equality and empowerment for women in the electoral and political arenas. That full story must be the subject of another book—or several. As New York suffragist Crystal Eastman observed in 1920: While "men are saying thank goodness that everlasting women's fight is over!" women are saying "now at last we can begin." Winning the vote, as Carrie Chapman Catt told her followers in 1920, had come at unbelievable cost. They must therefore prize it and use it "intelligently, conscientiously, prayerfully.... Progress is calling to you to make no pause. Act!" Greater work even than winning the right to vote was getting men to let women into the circles of political power and influence, changing the way American politics was done. That surely is a second lesson of this history: The conclusion of woman suffrage efforts, if there ever is one, depends on the continuing struggle of women.

As the triumph of woman suffrage is celebrated and remembered, as the heroism of these many devoted activists is fully incorporated into our national history, Americans should also remember the long, troubled, embattled history of woman suffrage and see it as evidence of the fragility of democracy. To this day there are forces that oppose its full realization. Today's voter suppression is the contemporary manifestation of the opposition to extending the franchise to African Americans and women. Women's right to vote was consistently resisted for three-quarters of a century, with every political tool and specious argument known to man, in state and federal constitutions, legislative debates and voter referenda. Men's active opposition lay at the root of that long history of anti-suffrage.

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