Think you know everything about women’s suffrage? Here’s the history to unlearn

Lauren Young and Caitlyn Kelleher, MetroWest Daily News
·7 mins read

Time can often twist the real story, turning rumor into legend. There's plenty of "history" surrounding the 19th Amendment and the suffragists that needs to be unlearned.

Votes for all women?

The idea that all women wanted the right to vote and supported the suffragist movement is not true. There were men and women who opposed the effort.

A pennant from the 1915 Pennsylvania campaign for women's suffrage.
A pennant from the 1915 Pennsylvania campaign for women's suffrage.

The anti-suffragists “didn’t even need to organize. … It was ingrained in America since its founding,” said Allison K. Lange, an assistant professor of history at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston and author of “Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women's Suffrage Movement.”

It wasn’t until the Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage to Women was founded in May 1895 by five women that a formal opposition group was established.

The group later changed its name to the Women's Anti-Suffrage Association of Massachusetts.

By 1915, the association had nearly 37,000 members, according to the Massachusetts Historical Society. Headquartered in Boston, the group furnished material to the press, published leaflets against suffrage and coordinated with the Men's Anti-Suffrage Committee to organize rallies and maintain anti-suffrage shops in Boston.

Women's suffrage march on New York's Fifth Avenue
Women's suffrage march on New York's Fifth Avenue

Dignified lady or aggressive cartoon?

Lange said when Americans today think of suffragist leaders like Susan B. Anthony, they envision the formal portrait that might have been featured in history books. But most Americans in the 1800s and 1900s didn’t have that picture of her.

“Most people encountered her as a cartoon. Even though she is celebrated today, she was not 100 years ago," Lange said.

Susan B. Anthony
Susan B. Anthony
"The Woman Who Dared," a cartoon by Thomas Wust published in 1873.
"The Woman Who Dared," a cartoon by Thomas Wust published in 1873.

The most famous cartoon is the “Woman Who Dared,” which depicts Anthony wearing a top hat and spurs, standing in front of a policewoman, a man holding a baby, a man holding a basket of food and a crowd of women parading and campaigning for equality.

The women were portrayed as if they were ignoring their children, aggressive, masculine and ugly.

“We are still dealing with the legacy of these images today,” Lange said.

The suffragists themselves worked to carefully cultivate an image of a well-dressed, well-to-do, pretty white woman, Lange said, much like how the collective envisions them today.

“We saw a lot of what they wanted us to see,” Lange said.

The symbolism of color

American suffragists used purple, white and gold in their sashes, buttons and other pro-suffrage materials.

Two of those colors were borrowed from the suffragists who fought for the right to vote in England. Created by Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence in 1908, the British movement used purple to symbolize loyalty and dignity, white for purity and green for hope.

National Woman's Party members picket the 1917 Republican Party Convention in Chicago.
National Woman's Party members picket the 1917 Republican Party Convention in Chicago.

The American suffragists are remembered for wearing all white as they led marches and gave speeches across the United States advocating for suffrage. It was a way to unite the group, but Lange said there is also a much more practical reason: White dresses and white sashes "would stand out in black-and-white newspapers.”

Of course, the symbol is still a powerful one, as displayed by the many Democratic female legislators who wore all white to the 2019 State of the Union address.

The movement wasn’t inclusive

Many suffragists did not want to give everyone the right to vote. Some opposed the 15th Amendment, which was ratified in 1870 and prohibits any state from denying someone the right to vote based on the color of their skin.

Though Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were both pioneers in the women’s suffrage movement during the 19th and early 20th centuries, they argued that if it took abandoning the post-Civil War effort to secure the vote for Black men to get women the right to vote, then so be it.

“And hear me swear, that I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work for or demand the ballot for the negro and not the woman,” Anthony famously declared about the 15th Amendment.

‘Brilliant and politically savvy’: The roles of African American women in the fight to vote 100 years ago

Frankie Pierce, Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell
Frankie Pierce, Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell

Divided support of the 15th Amendment was an overwhelming reason why the early women’s suffrage movement split in 1869, and that divisiveness continued into 1890 when suffragists reorganized, said Katie Woods, a public history intern with the National Parks of Boston.

“It seems to me that the exclusion of African American women in the voting rights movement is due to racist attitudes, i.e., people were afraid of the Black women's vote,” Woods said.

That fear included embracing African American women in the movement, as many worried men and women in Southern states wouldn’t support it. Many national leaders believed it was the South that would determine whether the 19th Amendment would pass.

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Woods, who has been researching the suffrage movement in Boston, particularly the involvement — and exclusion — of African Americans, said many New England-based suffragists like Lucy Stone supported the 15th Amendment first while working gradually toward women's suffrage.

Others, however, like Anthony and Stanton, were willing to sell out Black men if it meant white women would get the right to vote.

The question of racial equity and granting Black women the right to vote did not end with the 15th Amendment.

When the Northeastern Federation of Colored Women, a group of about 6,000 women from the New England states, asked to become a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1919, high-level members of the national association asked the federation to remove its membership request because they “didn't want to upset Southern women/groups over the ‘race question,’ ” Woods said.

Some of the leading Black activists were Sojourner Truth and Mary Eliza Church Terrell, but they are rarely seen in the leading photos of the day and were not part of the images Anthony used in her materials.

“She doesn’t see their images,” Lange said.

These 20 Black women fought for voting rights

In 1913, during the Women’s Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C., Black participants were even told to walk at the end of the parade, segregated from the white participants.

After the ratification of the 19th Amendment, Woods said she’s discovered at least one example of anonymous members of the public trying to scare African American women from voting by sending Black households in Boston a fake letter about their registration status, Woods said.

While the national organization was “not blatantly racist,” Woods said it wasn't inclusive, and instituted policies that excluded African American women.

One of those examples harks back to state organizations having the legal right to decide whether to include Black women as members.

That exclusion continued after the 19th Amendment, as African American women — with the help of the NAACP — tried to voice their grievances about racist policies directed toward Black female voters in 1920 to the National League of Women Voters, Woods said. The league listened to their concerns, but “largely did nothing to help African American women voters,” she said.

Despite this, many Black women, including in Boston, still bulldozed past those racial barriers — even if it meant not being supported by white women for doing so, Woods said. Some worked within African American organizations; others, like Ida B. Wells Barnett, helped integrate organizations to include them.

“Despite not always being included or welcomed in the national movement, African American women deserve a lot of credit for the fight for women's rights and political representation,” Woods said.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 19th Amendment: Suffrage history you need to unlearn