Foreign Affairs Essay – The Long Road to Suffrage: How Women Won the Right to Vote

Foreign Affairs Essay – The Long Road to Suffrage: How Women Won the Right to Vote

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How Women Won the Right to Vote

As Hillary Clinton proclaimed near the end of a fiery speech delivered to an international audience in Beijing in 1995, “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.” Some officials at the U.S. State Department were nervous about her address, believing that even such a seemingly benign mention of human rights would irritate the Chinese hosts of the UN-sponsored Fourth World Conference on Women. But in the United States and elsewhere, the phrase resonated—and still does.

Yet the fact that it was necessary to make explicit such an anodyne sentiment spoke to the troubling reality that for decades, the conventional wisdom held that women’s rights had nothing to do with human rights. They were instead relegated to what was known in the nineteenth century as “the woman question,” which was really a bundle of questions, the answers to which were generally no. Should women receive more than a primary education? Should they control their own wages? Should they enjoy guardianship rights with respect to their children? And of increasing concern, should they have the right to vote? Nearly two centuries later, a version of this discourse still exists in the United States, where Americans often speak of “women’s issues.” There is no corollary for men’s matters.

From the republic’s earliest days, women were constrained by a British inheritance: the common law, which dictated that women were essentially the charges of their husbands or, if unmarried, of their fathers or brothers. Women were “civilly dead,” in the words of the Declaration of Sentiments, the document that emerged from the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, the first women’s rights convention in the United States. In a society that privileged religion, women were also casualties of biblical interpretations that emphasized their original sin: Eve over Deborah, Jezebel over Sarah. Meanwhile, powerful social norms and cultural traditions relegated women to the home and demanded that they be pious, subservient, and obedient, further removing them from the public sphere.

But women had voices and pens, and so they began a long crusade that ultimately focused on the right to vote. This year marks the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which extended that right to women—or to most of them, at least. Two new books by first-rate scholars of the women’s rights movement explore this complex history, revealing the ways in which progress rarely proceeds in a linear manner. They serve as timely reminders of the fact that freedoms as fundamental as the right to vote are hard won and remain under constant threat from antidemocratic, repressive forces.


Black women in the United States have long faced a kind of triple jeopardy, suffering on account of not only their gender and their race but also their invisibility in the historical record. Before 1863, they were mostly enslaved, a dehumanizing condition that deprived them of liberty and also subjected them to constant sexual violence. “You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs,” the Black poet, educator, and antislavery activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper tartly informed her colleagues in the American Equal Rights Association in 1866. The voices of Black women such as Harper have mostly been overlooked by historians in accounts of the battles over suffrage. As a result, one of the central developments in U.S. history has been rendered as a tale of persistent, courageous white women.

Thanks to Martha Jones’s Vanguard, Black women’s rightful place in this history has been restored. Jones, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, places Black women front, center, and in many instances ahead of white women in the fight for civil rights in the United States. “Black women built their own many-faceted and two-centuries-long women’s movement,” she writes. What this work amounted to, Jones explains, was “a shared mission: winning women’s power that would serve all humanity.” Simply put, she writes, “Black women led American women, showing the way forward.”

Although Jones is careful to credit her scholarly forebears, such as Paula Giddings and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, Vanguard is unique: there is nothing like it in the historical literature. Jones reaches back to the period immediately following the American Revolution to unearth the stories of Black women who entered the public arena. Among those active in the early nineteenth century were Jarena Lee, a traveling minister, teacher, and abolitionist, and Maria Miller Stewart, who addressed so-called promiscuous audiences (those that included men and women) and wrote in newspapers encouraging “the daughters of Africa” to take on public roles. Sarah Mapps Douglass, the Black founder of Philadelphia’s Female Literary Association in 1831, was lecturing on the sins of slavery well before two white sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimké, took up the cause and became two of the earliest nationally known female abolitionists. In investigating a period for which limited historical sources exist to shed light on the thoughts and activities of such Black women, Jones is adept at using letters to the editors of newspapers, including the abolitionist weekly The Liberator, as one means of ferreting out their views on a wide range of issues. For example, Douglass, writing to The Liberator under the pen name Zillah, opposed efforts to persuade American Blacks to emigrate to Haiti; in another letter, she expressed her encouragement at the sight of Black and white Americans in Philadelphia “mingling together . . . without a shadow of disgust.”

The voices of Black women have mostly been overlooked by historians in accounts of the battles over suffrage.

By the time of the Civil War, Black women had become a controversial presence at antislavery conventions, where their race and gender disqualified them from leadership positions. But many took another route to public life: through Black churches, where they persistently fought for and won the right to preach. Then, beginning in the late 1860s and early 1870s, after the 14th and 15th Amendments had opened some doors for African Americans, Black women joined the American Equal Rights Association, attended the Colored National Labor Union, and were present at meetings of the newly formed National Woman Suffrage Association—although the last proved a hostile environment, given the co-founder Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s blunt assertions of Black inferiority.

Characteristic of the fascinating but lesser-known figures from this era of Black female activism is Mary Ann Shadd Cary, a schoolteacher in Washington, D.C., who took direct action by joining white women in attempting to register to vote in 1871. Rebuffed, she sent messages to congressional committees about the need to revise the texts of existing laws by removing the word “male.” Shadd Cary, born in Delaware in 1823 to free parents, was “an upstart,” Jones writes. She emigrated to Canada, founded the weekly Provincial Freeman, and returned to the United States during the Civil War to help recruit Black soldiers for the Union. A more celebrated activist of this era is Mary Church Terrell, who was born in 1863 to freed slaves in Tennessee and went on to graduate from Oberlin College, serve as the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, and travel to Berlin in 1904 to lecture (in German) on African American history. Terrell was a committed suffragist who saw the vote as an essential instrument to end lynching and the segregation of public accommodation and who deftly navigated the undercurrents of racism within the suffrage movement. In 1913, many white members of the movement’s most influential organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (which succeeded the National Woman Suffrage Association), objected to the participation of Black women in a parade that the group was planning to hold in Washington, D.C. The leader of the local NAWSA chapter, Alice Paul, considered excluding them, and some Black activists were also uneasy with the idea of marching. But Terrell, undaunted, joined a contingent of dozens of Black women who took part in the parade, which nearly devolved into a riot when, Jones writes, counterprotesters showed up and “jeered at, spit upon, and assaulted the women” while police officers looked on and let the marchers “fend for themselves.”


As Jones makes clear, for Black female activists of this generation, suffrage was only one of a number of goals. Their causes were, as the Black activist Anna Julia Cooper wrote in her 1892 manifesto, A Voice From the South, “the rights of humanity.” And for them, the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 was hardly a watershed, since for decades after its passage, the vast majority of Black women (and men) in the South continued to be denied the right to vote owing to disenfranchising tactics such as poll taxes and grandfather clauses.

For Black Americans, genuine democracy arrived only with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But just as histories of the women’s suffrage movement have tended to overlook Black women, so, too, have many histories of the push for civil rights, in which men almost always appear as the main protagonists. Jones seeks to redress this lack of attention, as well, by focusing on four female leaders in the movement: Diane Nash, who organized efforts to integrate lunch counters and interstate buses; Pauli Murray, a trailblazing attorney; Rosa Parks, who became famous for her role in the 1955–56 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama; and Fannie Lou Hamer, the celebrated voting-rights activist.

These Black women paved the way for others who would, in the decades that followed, gain political power through elective and appointive offices. Some of these women are familiar, such as Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to win election to the U.S. Congress, in 1968, and Barbara Jordan, the first Black woman from Texas to do so, in 1972. Others are less well known, including the lawyer Lani Guinier, who had earned a great deal of respect as an official in the Justice Department but whose nomination for a higher position was withdrawn in 1993 by President Bill Clinton after critics attacked her for espousing views they considered radical. And finally, there is Stacey Abrams, the bold Black woman who nearly won the gubernatorial race in Georgia in 2018 and who this past spring refused to hide her ambitions for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination—in marked contrast to the eventual nominee, Kamala Harris.

Jarena Lee, Mary Church Terrell, and Stacey Abrams
Lee and Terrell: Wikimedia Commons; Abrams; John Bazemore / Pool / Reuters

Jones makes a vigorous case that Black women’s roles as political actors have shaped events far more than most Americans realize. As she writes, “The story of the Vanguard is still being written. Black women continue to innovate, challenge, and lead American politics to its best ideals in our own moment.” Sometimes, however, she veers into hagiography. And on occasion, one or two figures become “they,” standing in for all Black women. For example, the assertion that “when they gathered, Black women did so to serve the needs of everyone” is overly broad; indeed, many of the figures Jones profiles neglected to press hard for the rights of working-class women of any race. And the evidence in Jones’s book does not always back her contention that, collectively, female Black activists built a movement of their own. Some were soloists, and although Jones convincingly demonstrates the intergenerational and familial legacies among them, many operated within organizations run by men. These, however, are minor flaws in a book that takes a critical step forward in understanding U.S. history and that is a welcome corrective to the conventional narrative of women’s rights.


Jones’s work stands out as particularly valuable because other, less nuanced attempts to correct the record in this centennial year have often missed the mark. The anniversary, in fact, has sparked something of a backlash, driven by complaints that celebrating the passage of the 19th Amendment and its best-known champions—all of whom are white—contributes to the erasure of nonwhite voices from the suffrage story. In the most reductive examples of this revisionism, the traditional heroes of the story—women such as Stanton and Susan B. Anthony—are cast as something closer to villains, worthy not of celebration for their work on suffrage but of condemnation for their white supremacy. In August, an editorial in The New York Times decried the mythologizing of the movement led by Stanton and Anthony, who “got a stranglehold on the historical record . . . [and] established an enduring, self-serving legacy.”

It is certainly true that most white suffragists held views on race that are anathema today. But should their failure to live up to contemporary standards overshadow their contribution to civil rights? As Ellen Carol DuBois points out in Suffrage, her impressive new history of the movement, other white-dominated political movements of that era, including the labor movement and the Progressive movement, also “accommodated to insurgent white supremacy.” Yet compared with those movements, the push for women’s suffrage seems to take far more criticism for the racism in its ranks. Few other centennial celebrations of undeniable advances in human rights have elicited such fierce criticism.

It is, then, a considerable blessing that DuBois’s book provides an informed, balanced history of the movement. DuBois, a professor emerita at the University of California, Los Angeles, is considered the dean of suffrage studies in the United States. Few scholars bothered with the subject before DuBois published Feminism and Suffrage in 1978, a trailblazing study in which she explained how allowing women to vote undermined the traditional American family system by giving women an independent voice. Her most recent contribution to the field is a readable narrative of the 72-year campaign for the enfranchisement of women. It is intended for a general audience, and scholars will not find much new material in it. But all will find a thoughtful history full of striking details.

DuBois begins with the Seneca Falls Convention, the iconic event in most origin stories of the movement. Like Jones, DuBois relies on capsule biographies to propel the story forward, and she narrates this phase of the movement through the lives of Stanton and Anthony, as well as those of some less familiar figures, such as Lucretia Mott and Lucy Stone. These activists believed that as long as women were denied the right to vote, the United States would fail to live up to its founding ideals, and they hoped for an alliance with like-minded men. DuBois quotes Harper, the poet, educator, and activist, who said in a speech in 1866, “Justice is not fulfilled as long as woman is unequal to man. We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity.”

Today, as during the suffrage battles, powerful forces seek to divide groups that might otherwise find common ground.

That generation’s attempts failed, however, and the post-Reconstruction years represented something of a nadir for the movement; not until the twentieth century did its fortunes improve. As few others have, DuBois credits Frances Willard, who served as president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, with helping revive the suffrage movement. The central mission of the WCTU, which specifically appealed to Christian women, was to promote temperance in drinking habits by challenging the liquor interests. Willard argued that temperance would provide protection for women by loosening the grip of alcohol on their family members, and she saw the right to vote as a crucial tool in spurring such change. Ballots in the hands of women would, in Willard’s words, “converge on the rum shop” and destroy it. That message, DuBois shows, resonated more strongly with women in small towns and rural areas than did more abstract arguments about individual rights.

DuBois also pays close attention to Black women suffragists, especially Terrell and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, whose anti-lynching work should not obscure her contributions to the women’s rights movement. DuBois also makes visible the contributions of working-class women, such as those who in 1917 stationed themselves on subway platforms in New York City carrying placards urging a yes vote on New York State’s referendum on women’s suffrage. She credits Harriot Stanton Blatch, the subject of her previous biography (and Stanton’s daughter), with developing a strategy for political action that moved beyond petitioning and lecturing and that encouraged suffragists to engage in retail politics.

DuBois argues, however, that it was ultimately Paul, the NAWSA leader, trained in the radicalism of British suffragettes, who rejected such moderate measures and who helped push President Woodrow Wilson to support a national amendment. Paul backed confrontational strategies of civil disobedience that had been rejected by the more conservative women of NAWSA. In 1917, members of Paul’s National Woman’s Party picketed the White House carrying signs challenging Wilson; others burned Wilson’s effigy in nearby Lafayette Park. Arrested and jailed, Paul and her followers engaged in hunger strikes. The authorities retaliated by brutally force-feeding them—treatment that, when publicized, shocked the nation.

DuBois credits Paul with invigorating the movement but rejects the idea that her tactics alone produced the congressional victories in 1918 and 1919 that led to the passage of the 19th Amendment. Suffrage covers in dramatic detail the showdown that culminated in the amendment’s adoption and the subsequent fight for ratification in the states. DuBois quotes a prominent suffragist, Maud Wood Park, who concluded that it was not the social change produced by World War I that led to the “simple justice of votes for women,” or even the president’s grudging support. Success came, rather, as the result of a “campaign carried on by two generations of suffrage workers.”


Both these books illuminate the legacies of women who struggled, as Clinton put it in Beijing, “to participate fully in the social and political lives of their countries.” Their stories bear remembering as the United States finds itself in an election year in which voter suppression has become a Republican Party strategy. Today, as during the suffrage battles, powerful forces seek to divide groups that might otherwise find common ground. Today, as then, a useful tactic in that effort is to limit voting. The present strongly echoes the past as President Donald Trump rails against mail-in ballots, uses Twitter to address “the Suburban Housewives of America” with barely veiled racist warnings about an invasion of “low income housing,” and suggests that the only fair election is one that he wins.

Yet in a testament to the success of the suffragists, more women vote in the United States today than do men, a Black woman is the vice-presidential candidate of the Democratic Party, and more women than ever, especially Black women, are either in elected office or running for it. Like all social movements, the fight for women’s suffrage was flawed and imperfect. But its history is mostly a tale of triumph.