The New Suffragettes
A quaint term, for sure, Suffragettes, used to describe women seeking the right to vote for females, especially British women who mounted militant protests in the United Kingdom in the early 20th century.
That old-fashioned word somehow came up for me this past week as we remembered the anniversary of the ratification of the 19th constitutional amendment granting the right to vote to American women in 1920. A victory that was long in coming and not without marginalizing many African Americans.
We are reminded by suffrage historians that the right to vote movement in this country began with strong African American women like Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, and Sojourner Truth. However, by 1890, when two rival organizations, the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association, merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), the issue of race emerged and divided the movement.
For NAWSA, excluding black women was being seen as a winning tactic and the group concentrated on gaining the vote only for white women. Instead of being viewed as powerful allies, Colored Women’s Clubs in the North were seen as liabilities, that gaining suffrage for African Americans would accord them more power, something that Southern whites – male and female – often saw as a threat.
One tactic of the white-focused NAWSA movement was to put forth the idea of the “educated suffragist,” with the notion that being educated was a de facto pre-requisite for being allowed the right to vote. The hope was that since access to quality and higher education was more difficult for African American women in some situations not of their own making, this would lead to their exclusion from the ranks of voters should an amendment ever pass.
Once women’s right to vote was passed and ratified , African American women found themselves at the receiving end of many disenfranchisement methods, were are reminded: long waiting times, head taxes, and preposterous new tests.
This dismaying history – and at the same time the determination of African American women (and men) to gain and exercise their franchises – certainly has resonated in recent days as the town of Ferguson, Missouri mourned the shooting death of one of its own, 18 year old Michael Brown. The nation has watched the outrage and the calls for action that have followed. Including pleas, as one reporter noted, to change protest chants into humane legislation and just law. Beginning with showing up at the voting booth.
“Let your voices be heard( by voting) and let everyone know that we have had enough of all this,” said Eric Davis, Michael Brown’s cousin.
Last April only 6 percent of eligible black voters in Ferguson went to the polls for a primary. One of the town’s residents, Shirley Scale, admitted that she had moved from another town and had not registered to vote. She said she was ashamed.
Overall, only 12 percent of all the voters in the town had shown up for that election, a pattern that has been repeated all over the country, in non-Presidential contests especially.
As women, our legal ability to vote was secured 84 years ago this month, with many obstacles along the way for sisters of color to actually enter those polling booths and cast those ballots. We need to call ourselves into a New Suffrage movement in the upcoming weeks before November to register and get out our votes. In Michael’s name and the in the name of all those other young people whose deaths we grieve.