In Celebration (and Criticism) of Women’s Suffrage

Ratified on August 18, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was the culmination of nearly a century of activism dedicated to procuring voting rights for women. And though we’re entering the centennial of that historic event this month, and though this anniversary undoubtedly calls for a year of celebratory reflections, this is also the ideal time to be more critical in those reflections.

The first women’s rights convention, which was held in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848 and was organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, marked the inception of the suffrage movement in America. Following the convention, Stanton and Mott, along with Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Burns, Alice Paul, Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells, and other activists, raised public awareness through organized activism and publications like The Revolution, eventually lobbying President Wilson to support the Nineteenth Amendment.

Though the Nineteenth Amendment enfranchised 26 million American women, it failed to fully enfranchise us—African American, Asian American, Hispanic American, and Native American women were still without the vote.

Similar to the flaws inherent in the Nineteenth Amendment, the potential of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was also tempered by exclusionary and racist practices. In a suffrage march in D.C. in 1913, Ida B. Wells’ delegation was told to march at the end of the parade because the rest of the Illinois delegation wanted to keep it “entirely white.”

I knew that Frederick Douglass had spoken on behalf of women’s suffrage (even in the face of Mott’s opposition to it) at Seneca Falls and was also one of only 32 men to sign the Declaration of Sentiments. I knew that in 1851, Sojourner Truth had delivered her iconic human rights speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?,” at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron. And then there was Mary Church Terrell, who spoke at the National American Woman Suffrage Association convention in D.C. in 1898.

Naively, I assumed that these were not only defining moments of the suffrage movement, but representative moments, ones that signaled decades of mutual respect and racial heterogeneity, acknowledgment of agency.

Recently, I discovered that Ida B. Wells was not only disrespected by fellow (white) suffragists, but it’s speculated that her name was omitted from the list of founders of the NAACP at the behest of other founding (male) members.

Ironically, my recent work in the 19th century—namely, the relaunching of The Revolution—has led me to a more meaningful understanding of the term/concept/identity intersectionality. The words and perspectives of bell hooks and Audre Lorde have assumed a greater intensity for me. As a 20+ year student and scholar of women’s literature, I want the history to reflect values that are aligned with my own, but I also know that I can’t be an effective activist and advocate for equal rights if I don’t acknowledge the gross misalignment of the two.

I wish that the process of reclaiming of women’s history, including her literary and artistic contributions, had been more balanced—in race, ethnicity, and sexuality. And I wish it had been more expedient overall.

But I think that The Revolution (Relaunch) might be providing us with an opportunity to create a cultural record that is both critical and celebratory of the women’s rights movement in America. It might also be an opportunity to publish something more inclusive and intersectional. And though I’m still filled with gratitude for the “mothers of the movement,” who are we today, as feminists, if we haven’t learned anything from the mistakes of our mothers?