In 1919 and for nearly a decade before, when women were marching for the right to vote, Black women were told to march behind their White counterparts. What an interesting fact considering that Black women are—in this presidential election year—the must-get voting block for the candidates, including current President Donald Trump.
This year is the 100th anniversary of the passing of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits the states and the federal government from denying the right to vote to citizens of the United States on the basis of sex. It was passed by Congress on June 4, 1919, and ratified on Aug. 18, 1920.
However, women were actually given the right to vote as long as 150 years ago in one state, and believe it or not, it wasn’t on the East Coast or the South or even the Midwest. It was in the western state of Utah.
According to Utah state archives, a young lady of just 23 cast her vote on Feb. 14, 1870. It’s the first vote cast by a woman in the United States.
A lot of stories go with the years of women protesting and marching to be accepted as equals in politics and business. But only recently have stories surfaced about Black women’s role and involvement. And the stories aren’t always pretty, as women of color, even in an effort to support the 19th Amendment movement, were subject to blatant racism and a concerted effort to keep their voices quiet.
According to a recent story in “USA Today,” women of color were working for more than the right to vote for themselves and their White sisters.
“They didn’t have the luxury to just be working for their own vote. They were trying to improve conditions for their race and community. It was a broader vision.”
When the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was formed in 1890, it began holding conventions, but often Black women were excluded. It wasn’t long before Black women formed their own organizations, such as the National Associate of Colored Women, led by Mary Church Terrell. In 1912, the organization formally endorsed the women’s suffrage movement.
Terrell’s parents were once slaves, so it is notable that she went on to become one of the first Black women in the country to graduate from college. However, when it comes right down to it, women of color received little or no credit for the passing of the Amendment.
“In movies about the struggle for votes for women, a lot of facts were left on the cutting room floor,” said Ann Boylan, a historian and professor at the University of Delaware in a recent article in UD Daily. “Women’s history has always been suppressed. It hasn’t been accorded the same importance. And this is especially true for women of color.”
The names behind the movement are legendary beyond the movement as well, such as Ida B. Wells, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Fannie Barrier Williams and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.
It began for Black women as early as 1866 in Philadelphia. The Fortens—Harriet and Margaret—helped to found the Philadelphia Suffrage Association. Harriet would go on to serve on the American Equal Rights Association, which was designed to be supportive of the suffrage movement for Black women, as well as the rights of African-American men. The National Association of Colored Women’s Club was stacked with influential Black women.
At some point, Stanton and Anthony left NAWSA to become a part of the American Woman Suffrage Association. Eventually the AWSA and NAWSA merged. However, race became an issue and Black members were not invited or allowed to attend the group’s conventions.
At the 1911 national NAWSA conference, Martha Gruening asked the organization to formally denounce White supremacy. NAWSA president Anna Howard Shaw refused, saying that she was “in favor of colored people voting,” but did not want to alienate others in the suffrage movement.
Even NAWSA’s more radical Congressional Committee, which would become the National Woman’s Party, failed African-American women, most visibly by refusing to allow them to march in the nation’s first suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. While the NAWSA asked Alice Paul, a director, not to exclude African-American participants, 72 hours before the event African-American women were directed to the back of the parade. Ida B. Wells defied the directive and joined the Illinois unit, prompting telegrams of support.
The battle between White and Black suffragettes continued right up to the amendment’s passage. But Black women weren’t just fighting for the right to vote: they were fighting for civil rights for all Black people, as well as economic and social inclusion.
That fight continues today.
Progress slow but sure
Today, Black women and women in general continue to battle for equal rights and respect in just about every arena of business, entertainment and even sports. There has been progress, for example, Michelle Roberts is the executive director of the NBA Players Association, overseeing billions of dollars in player salaries.
Just last month, a Black woman was named an assistant coach of an NFL team—the Washington Redskins hired Jenifer King as the first Black woman assistant coach, and she is the fourth woman overall in the league.
Women are now in major positions at the corporate level in most professional sports, and have major positions at entities such as ESPN and Fox Sports.
The corporate world is slowly changing as well. Just last month, FedEx named Ramona Hood, a Black woman, as its CEO.
There are more women now serving as mayors across the country than ever before. And in Congress, the number of women elected in 2016 is the highest ever.
According to U.S. government archives, since 1964, more than 70 women of color have been elected to Congress, including Shirley Chisholm., a Democrat from New York. She not only became the first Black woman in Congress, she also became the first Black woman to run for President (1972). Most recently, California’s Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris took a shot at running for president, and only resignedly dropped her campaign for a lack of financing.
Of the 126 women serving in today’s Congress, 47 or 37.3 percent are women of color.
Out of 100 of the country’s largest cities, 10 mayors are Black, including Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans and Lori Lightfoot of Chicago.
The prized Black woman voter
Black women have become the focus in this year’s elections.
Candidates on both the Democratic and Republican sides are waging war to attract the Black female voter. Black women stand out as a demographic group with one of—if not the largest —turnout rates in the country.
According to Forbes, a whopping 55 percent of eligible Black women voters cast ballots in November 2018. That’s six percentage points above the national average.
Candidates need to demonstrate a commitment to the things that most concern this voter bloc, such as health care and equal pay. Aimee Allison, the founder and president of She the People, told “Forbes”: “If you want to know what the possibilities for this country are beyond Trump, then listen to Black women, who are extraordinarily engaged, who are following politics, who are the most likely to bring our communities forward, and to support a broad-based justice agenda.”