African American Women Suffragettes

The subject covered by Rosalyn Terborg-Penn’s African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920, is painful.  Simply put, during the struggle for women’s suffrage, white women frequently ignored or even hijacked African American women’s equally compelling efforts to secure the vote.  To make matters worse, the history of women’s suffrage in this country has pretty erased the contributions of African American women, beginning with Harriet Tubman and continuing on through succeeding generations.   In addition to blatant racism, white suffragettes repeatedly “forgot” their African American sisters or made strategic decisions to back-burner their cause so as not to downplay the possibility that women’s suffrage would enfranchise African American women, as well as white women.  The South was a particular problem, but many white suffragettes north of the Mason-Dixon Line were little better.  Racists need not have worried too much about an onslaught of African American women voters, because even when these women won the constitutional right to vote through the 19th Amendment, numerous obstacles were thrown in their path and often precluded them from voting.

It should be noted that a number of African American men of the time were quite dismissive of their sisters’ rights.  As repeatedly emphasized throughout this book, African American women repeatedly faced dual discrimination  — on the basis of sex and race.  The chronicles of the Civil Rights movement during the latter half of the 20th Century reveal that the problem stubbornly persisted.   Strong and brilliant African American women who risked all in support of Civil Rights were frequently ignored and relegated to supporting roles.  As just two examples, African American women generally didn’t get to speak at rallies such as the March on Washington, and Diane Nash, one of the major heroes of the Civil Rights movement, is largely forgotten despite her courageous and savvy strategic contributions to Martin Luther King and others.  (This may be straying a bit from the point, but Diane Nash deserves to be remembered and honored.)

The Struggle for the Vote  isn’t particularly easy to read.  It is fairly short,but the narrative doesn’t flow.  The author is careful to cite original sources and to pore through lists of meeting attendees and committee members in order to record the names and contributions of those who would otherwise be forgotten.  This is important information, and the author is right to be specific.  The contribution of these women needs to be recorded and celebrated.    Terborg-Penn also writes from a strong point of view:  African American women were important contributors to the women’s suffrage movement and yet received little or no recognition for their efforts.

I do recommend this book.  As racial and sexual inequality continue to plague this country, it is a good reminder that neither issue can be meaningfully addressed in isolation from the other.




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