- “An Army of Organized Women”: Race, Place, and the Politics of Suffrage in America
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.United States Constitution, Nineteenth Amendment
By her peculiar position the colored woman has gained clear powers of observation and judgment—exactly the sort of powers which are today peculiarly necessary to the building of an ideal country.Mary B. Talbert, “Women and Colored Women,” 1915
Centennial commemorations of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment have drawn attention to the facts and fictions of the women’s suffrage movement. A century after the adoption of the amendment on 26 August 1920, issues of race and of place continue to determine and, to some degree, over-determine how the history of women and the vote in America are imagined, documented, and celebrated. Whiteness is still the primary lens through which many look as they recount the gains made by nineteenth-century women, note the challenges overcome as women sought to realize their voting rights, and consider the still elusive political goals that women in America have yet to realize.
What, then, is required if we are to build a more inclusive and multi-racial history of American women writers and voting rights? One of the most essential interventions that we can make, model, and teach is rooted in whom we seek out as women writers and where we look for them and their perspectives. We have rich resources at hand, for example, if we consider the conventions organized by African American women and the robust periodical press. Women in these realms not only achieved authorship. They also bore witness to their sophisticated and urgent debates about the politics of suffrage and how entrenched and broadly institutionalized racism shaped the effort to acquire voting rights for women. Women writers of color founded, shaped, and featured in important publishing ventures such as The Woman’s Era, pioneering [End Page 296] literary magazines such as the Colored American Magazine, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s official publication, The Crisis. Publications such as these and the national and global forums that they created enable us to deepen our understanding of how African American women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries not only viewed but also grappled with the prospect of women’s enfranchisement.
African American public and periodical literature of the early twentieth century reveals a key principle informing African American women’s perspectives on the effort to secure the vote for women. African American women regarded the work to achieve voting rights for women, at its heart, as a referendum on inclusion, women’s morality, the ideals of Black womanhood, and the very nature of democracy. African American women’s public writing about suffrage and voting matters includes published transcripts of speeches, letters to editors of newspapers and journals, editorials, and works of fiction and non-fiction. These materials reveal a prevailing concern with suffrage as an enterprise that could not and should not be separated from the unrelenting histories and evidence of sociocultural and political tensions between white and Black women in America. Writing by women of color across class and region not only constitutes a robust and enduring critique of the suffrage movement; it also articulates Black women’s commitments to suffrage as part of their effort to achieve true, honorable, and inclusive democracy in America.
Voting rights for women were inextricably linked to citizenship rights; indeed, the language of the Nineteenth Amendment, like that of the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted African American men the vote, addresses this essential condition. The Nineteenth Amendment does not reference gender first but citizenship: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” While citizenship for African Americans was affirmed in the Fifteenth Amendment in the wake of the Civil War, it was, as we know all too well, qualified at best. Citizenship rights were not recognized for other minority groups either: Native Americans were not granted...