The Troubling History — and Unfinished Work — of the Suffragists

With millions of people disenfranchised along racist lines, this is no time for uncomplicated commemoration.

Black and white photograph showing a group of young female suffragists, wearing sailor costumes, seated on a float decorated to resemble a boat, the mainsail reads "Votes for Women, " and the marquee reads "We Are Rudderless - We Need The Ballot", 1900. (Photo by Ken Florey Suffrage Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

A group of young female suffragists seated on a float circa 1900.

Photo: Ken Florey Suffrage Collection/Gado/Getty Images

The centenary of the 19th Amendment’s ratification, which granted female citizens the right to vote in 1920, will be marked with monuments. On August 26, 100 years to the day since women’s suffrage went into legal effect, a statue will be unveiled in Central Park depicting three prominent suffragists: Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The monument will be the first in the park to feature nonfictional women. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump, a putrid misogynist and statue fetishist, has thrown his support behind a bill to create a monument to suffragists in Washington, D.C.

In one sense, at a moment of reckoning around which statues and monuments get to occupy public space, stone edifications of women who struggled for suffrage are a welcome and overdue addition to a terrain too often held by desecration-worthy slavers and colonizers. Both the New York and D.C. sculptures feature Black suffragists, like Truth, alongside white women, like Anthony and Stanton, who have been accorded disproportionate credit compared to their nonwhite counterparts. Yet, the suffragist monuments, like so many statues, obfuscate and reduce a complex and troubling history plagued by racism.

It is a problem with the practice of monumentalization more broadly, that statues suggest an idea of finished and settled history — indeed, narratives set in stone. This is no time to consider the fight for universal suffrage as a closed history, worthy of uncomplicated commemoration. Trump’s ever-growing efforts toward election sabotage are just the tip of the iceberg in a nation that systematically disenfranchises millions along indisputably racist lines. It’s no surprise that Trump would support efforts, however well-intentioned, to confine the struggle for voting rights to commemorable history.

As Melissa Gira Grant wrote in a recent essay, “The women who remain locked out of the franchise are the fractured legacy of a fractured movement.”

Over 6 million people in the U.S. are currently disenfranchised due to laws relating to current or former felony convictions; that’s 1 in 40 adults. Given the vicious racism of our carceral system, the racial bent of disenfranchisement is profound: One in 13 Black Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, according to a 2016 study by the Sentencing Project. This disenfranchisement is further compounded by voter intimidation and laws requiring voter ID (which disproportionately shut out poor Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, as well as trans individuals). The problem is not specific to women in these communities, but we are nonetheless talking about millions of women denied the vote, a century after their right to it was constitutionally affirmed.

Stanton and Anthony were unambiguous with their wish for an “educated” female franchise — an ostensibly race-neutral framework that effectively excluded most poor, Black women.

One could argue that the centenary commemorations are a reminder that the historic struggle for universal suffrage goes on: The promise of the 19th Amendment remains worthy and yet to be realized. This would be American mythmaking par excellence; the sort that lionizes the universalist claims of the nation’s founding documents, but forgets, for example, that the Declaration of Independence described Indigenous people as “merciless Indian savages.” A state built on stolen land, by the labor of people owned as property, cannot at the same time be a nation founded on the principles of universal rights. It is high time we reject narratives that claim the struggle for equality and justice as the fulfillment of the great American promise. Equally, for many prominent white, middle-class suffragists, the promise of the 19th Amendment was never intended toward universal suffrage. “Women’s suffrage,” for them, meant middle-class white women’s suffrage by design. To a major extent, this includes Anthony and Stanton, whose tome on the movement, “The History of Women’s Suffrage,” all but erases the work of Black women like Truth, even though the three women did correspond and, at times, worked in concert.

Yet Stanton and Anthony were unambiguous with their wish for an “educated” female franchise — an ostensibly race-neutral framework that effectively excluded most poor, Black women. Stanton particularly turned to explicit racist epithets in her argument that the women’s vote should come before that of Black men. As Brent Staples noted two years ago in the New York Times, Stanton “embraced fairness in the abstract while publicly enunciating bigoted views of African-American men, whom she characterized as ‘Sambos’ and incipient rapists in the period just after the war.” The decision to sit Stanton and Anthony next to Truth, a formerly enslaved abolitionist, reflects the fact that the three had worked together but ignores their split over Stanton and Anthony’s opposition to the 15th Amendment. “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,” Anthony famously proclaimed. The planned D.C. monument will also feature, among other renowned suffragists, Ida B. Wells, a journalist and anti-lynching campaigner, who refused to march at the back of a racially segregated march for suffrage in 1913.


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The racism that pervaded the suffrage movement cannot be excused by virtue of it taking place in a different era. Abolitionist suffragists like Truth, Wells, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper were in the struggle at the time and emphatic that the battle for liberation must be intersectional. It was a choice, and a shameful one, for white suffragists to align with white supremacy, both explicitly and tacitly; the 53 percent of white women voters who cast their ballot for Trump in 2016 took part in that same indefensible legacy. Any commemorations of the 19th Amendment’s centenary must reckon with this unbroken history of white women’s racism. It is of note that original plans for the Central Park monument featured only statues of Anthony and Stanton, alongside a scroll containing quotations from more than 20 other suffragists, including Truth. After some high-profile criticism, Truth was added as a figure. Unfeatured, though, are the fraught antagonisms between those women’s political visions.

“You can’t ask one statue to meet all the desires of the people who have waited so long for recognition,” said Pam Elam, the president of Monumental Women, the fund partly behind the statue, in defense of its original design. She’s right. But what women engaged in antiracist, anti-patriarchal struggle, in the legacy of Truth and Wells, also know is that waiting for recognition from a white supremacist state is a losing strategy indeed. In this way, the thousands of women who have taken to the streets this summer to fight for Black lives have honored the memory of abolitionist suffragists more than any statue could.

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