- Suffragism beyond Suffrage
Too often, popular accounts of suffragism feature suffrage as the story’s happy resolution. Alice Dunbar-Nelson challenges such formulations through her example and her analysis. Her lifetime of activism and organizing reveals political cultures obscured by amendment historiography with its teleological focus on abstract democratic inclusion. Her writing warns against viewing suffrage as a prize at the end of political struggle rather than as a means of continuing that struggle.
One problem with prioritizing legislative achievements is that it elides what preceded the Nineteenth Amendment, so that suffrage stands in for suffragism in political memory. As feminist scholars like Nancy Isenberg, Martha S. Jones, and Mary Chapman have amply shown, suffrage activism generated myriad outcomes—social, political, and creative—before and after 1920. Dunbar-Nelson helps build that counter-narrative. Her introduction to suffrage through the women’s club movement was typical of Black women, especially in how it combined that cause with others—including anti-lynching and the fights for women’s education and access to the pulpit—in a synergistic web of reforms. Thus, in her June 1896 minutes, which begin “The Phyllis Wheatley Club is doing a lot of work lately,” Dunbar-Nelson (then club secretary Alice Ruth Moore) reports a lecture on suffrage—“the darkly mysterious position of woman’s legal status in the state”—alongside plans for the upcoming National Federation of Afro-American Women Convention, fundraising for a Black hospital wing, and negotiations with local hospitals to train and employ Black nurses and doctors (Moore 7, 8). In 1915, Dunbar-Nelson toured Pennsylvania as a paid lecturer arguing for a state suffrage resolution. The campaign failed. But, as Ellen Gruber Garvey argues, the scrapbook of press clippings that Dunbar-Nelson compiled suggests she considered it a professional success for her public-speaking career. Moreover, she recognized the significance of that success for other Black women (Garvey speculates the scrapbook might have been shared with the girls Dunbar-Nelson taught at Howard High School) and for the primarily white readership of the papers covering her (315–16). Dunbar-Nelson’s suffragism contributed to the broader politicization of individuals and promotion of activist networks. [End Page 292]
Memorializing the Nineteenth Amendment as the telos of suffragism also overshadows what came after. This includes the often violent measures used to disenfranchise women of color. But it also includes the ongoing electoral activism by women like Dunbar-Nelson, who, Sandra Zagarell shows, became a force in Delaware politics by organizing Black votes to oust state Republicans who failed to support the Dyer Bill, then leveraging the debt owed by newly incumbent Democrats for what Dunbar-Nelson called “the political labors of colored women” (“Delaware” 75). All of this gets eclipsed by the fetish of “women’s” arrival at the finish line in 1920—an effect reinforced by the ideal of suffrage as inclusion in equal, because unmarked, citizenship, and the paradox observed by Karl Marx and others of collectivities fighting for political recognition in their embodied particularity in order to shed these for abstract sameness under the state’s gaze. Wendy Brown frames this as the “I” of identity politics confronting the “We” of “We the People,” a “latent conflict in liberalism between universal representation and individualism” that is only sustainable as long as the constituent terms of the “I” remain unpoliticized (56). We might also imagine it as the reverse: as a narrowing from collective struggle to passive individual impersonality, what Russ Castronovo describes in Necro Citizenship as a normative nineteenth-century “fantasy of democracy” as a place “beyond the disruption, contestation, and unresolved agitation of politics” (xi). Does this fantasy still inflect our view of suffrage history?
To tell the story of how Dunbar-Nelson approached the vote, we may need a method like Derrick Spires’s in The Practice of Citizenship, where he uses Michel de Certeau to theorize Black political identification as an improvised, situated process of becoming rather than a fixed structure viewed from above (4). As a syndicated columnist, Dunbar-Nelson scoffed at those who called women like her “radical . . . meaning they believe in the inherent truths of the Declaration of Independence, and maybe don...