Unlearn What Your Racist History Teacher Taught You: Suffragette Edition

By Sarah Storms



Refresher


What is a suffragette?

A suffragette is a woman who advocates for suffrage, or the right to vote.


When did the suffrage movement begin?

It began in the United States in the 1820s, but it didn’t end in 1920 when the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote. In fact, suffrage continues to be a pressing issue today (“Women’s Suffrage”).


Who are some famous historical suffragettes?

Actually, I’ll let you think about that one for a moment.


Who did you come up with? Susan B. Anthony? Elizabeth Cady Stanton? Alice Paul?


Do you notice something they have in common, something aside from being suffragettes?


They’re all white.


Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with them being white, but what is wrong is that the suffragettes we’re taught to remember are only half of the picture, and even the information we’re given about them isn’t all we should know.


Growing up, I recall doing a full report on Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s suffragette work in the second grade but only first learning about black suffragettes, like Sojourner Truth, through one measly sentence in my eleventh grade history textbook. And I didn’t find out until much later (twelve years later, to be exact) that my second grade hero would only fight for your rights if you met certain conditions based on two factors you can’t control: gender and race.

It could just be my bias, seeing as I’m from the South, but I don’t think my experience is an uncommon one, so let’s fill the educational gap.



Susan B. Anthony


What you may know: The Massachusetts-born suffragette traveled the country to give speeches, gather signatures for petitions, and lobby congress. She became close with Stanton, and they formed the National Woman Suffrage Association together (Hayward). She was also arrested for trying to vote in 1872. Baddie, right?

Nah.

What you probably didn’t know : Anthony wanted equality, just not for everyone. She once said, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman” (Wilson and Russell).

The Takeaway: Anthony saw people as different subgroups based on their race or sex. But as someone fighting for equality, you need to see people as human beings, regardless of how they were born.




Elizabeth Cady Stanton


What you may know: Stanton hosted the first Women’s Rights convention at Seneca Falls in 1848, where fellow attendees signed “The Declaration of Sentiments,” Stanton’s version of The Declaration of Independence which added “woman” to laws permitting men rights (Michals “Elizabeth Cady Stanton”).

What you probably didn’t know: Stanton spewed racist rhetoric along the lines of “Why are these lowly black men allowed to vote before the virtuous, educated white woman is?” (Ginzberg).

The Takeaway: Don’t oppress others while you’re fighting for rights from the white men who oppress you. It goes back to kindergarten rules, really. Treat others how you want to be treated.




Alice Paul


What you may know: Paul led the Washington D.C chapter of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and helped write the Equal Rights Amendment (Michals “Alice Paul”).

What you probably didn’t know: When Paul was organizing the Women’s Suffrage Parade of 1913 with the NAWSA, the Women’s Journal asked the editor of the NAWSA about black participation at the parade. Paul told the editor, “the participation of negros would have a most disastrous effect [on the suffragette movement by upsetting the South]” (“Vote For Women”). Additionally, one of Paul’s fellow organizers, Helen Gardner, told the editor to “refrain from publishing anything which can possibly start that [negro] topic at this time.”

The Takeaway: Paul feared that bringing race into the conversation would make people uncomfortable when feminists protested. What she didn’t see was that the point of protesting is to make people uncomfortable. Silencing the voices of intersectionally oppressed women is not strategic, and it goes against the fundamental feminist value of equality for all. If you aren’t fighting for the rights of all women, you aren’t fighting for the rights of any women.



Now that you know the faults of historical feminists you were familiar with, here are some intersectional suffragettes you might not have learned about in school.



Mary Church Terrell


Terrell founded and served as president of the National Association of Colored Women, an organization that worked to uplift African-Americans and fight for equal rights. By speaking at NAWSA conferences, she also raised awareness for the compounded oppression that BIPOC women face to white suffragettes (Brown).




Sojourner Truth


You’ve probably heard of her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech given in 1851 at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. She gave this speech to address the problem of white-focused feminism, which completely ignored intersectional oppression and put BIPOC women on the back burner (Michals “Sojourner Truth”).




Anna Julia Cooper


Cooper saw and explained the value in representation by speaking on how black women need the vote “to counter the belief that black men’s experiences… [are] the same as theirs” (Wilson and Russell). She was a true intellectual with a strong understanding of compounded oppressions. Cooper delved into the intersectionality of race, gender, and class oppression as well as sexualization of races in her book, A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South (Gines).




When did you first learn about intersectionalities of oppression? Were you in school? College? On the internet?


I first learned about intersectional oppression when I was procrastinating my high school homework, reading Refinery29 on Snapchat, and I can’t recall a single time intersectionality was mentioned during my formal education. What do you think that says about the American education system?


This article has only scratched the surface of intersectionality, focusing primarily on the oppression of black women during the suffragette era. I urge you to look into different intersectionalities that haven’t been discussed in this article.


https://www.nccj.org/intersectionality is a great starting point (though I would also look into the compounded oppression that LGBTQ women face, which the site does not address), and from there, a reading list like https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/ein-hymchwil/reading-lists/intersectionality-reading-list would help fill the educational gap.


While it’s wonderful that you’re learning about intersectionality and some lesser-celebrated stars of the suffragette movement here, you shouldn’t have learned it here first. You shouldn’t have learned it anywhere outside of a classroom first. Accurate portrayals of history and discussions of societal problems should not be foreign to American classrooms. How do you think our curriculum should improve?






Sources


Brown, Tammy. "Celebrate Women's Suffrage, but Don't Whitewash the Movement's Racism." American Civil Liberties Union. N.p., 20 Sept. 2019. Web. 22 Aug. 2020.


Gines, Kathryn. "Anna Julia Cooper." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, 31 Mar. 2015. Web. 22 Aug. 2020.


Ginzberg, Lori. "For Stanton, All Women Were Not Created Equal." NPR. NPR, 13 July 2011.

Web. 22 Aug. 2020.


Hayward, Nancy. "Susan B. Anthony." N.p., 2018. Web. 22 Aug. 2020.


History.com Editors. "Women's Suffrage." N.p., 29 Oct. 2009. Web. 22 Aug. 2020.


Michals, Debra. "Alice Paul." National Women's History Museum. N.p., 2015. Web. 22 Aug.

2020.


Michals, Debra. "Elizabeth Cady Stanton." National Women's History Museum. N.p., 2017. Web. 22 Aug. 2020.


Michals, Debra. "Sojourner Truth." National Women's History Museum. N.p., 2015. Web. 22

Aug. 2020.


"Votes for Women Means Votes for Black Women." National Women's History Museum. N.p., 16 Aug. 2018. Web. 22 Aug. 2020.


Wilson, Midge, and Kathy Russell. "Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr." Wesleyan

University. N.p., 1996. Web. 22 Aug. 2020.