The right to vote for some, not all: An analysis of racism in the women’s suffrage movement

By Emma Collins, F/G Scholar



The debate about the legacy of the suffrage movement has been in the news cycle lately with the coverage about voters in this past election going from the polls to Susan B. Anthony’s grave to place their “I voted” stickers on her tombstone as a tribute for her work. News coverage pointed out that this tribute was particularly fitting because a record number of women were elected as governors and to Congress during this election cycle.

Voters visit Susan B. Anthony’s grave on Nov. 6

Voting stickers video

Click here to watch the video

But while some went from the polls to the gravesite to honor her work, others took to social media expressing unhappiness that, yet again, the complex history of women’s suffrage had been reduced down to honoring a woman who famously 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.”

To understand how racism has permeated the Women’s Suffrage Movement since the beginning, it’s important to understand how the movement progressed. Women won the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment in August 1920, but the battle for voting rights had been waged long before that victory (“Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”).

The Women’s Suffrage Movement Timeline

Interactive Timeline

Click to see an interactive timeline

The Women’s Suffrage movement really took off at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. This two-day convention was the first of its kind, particularly because the first day was women only. That day they talked about women’s rights in general, but they also addressed voting rights (“Woman Suffrage Timeline”).

Although this was a movement for all women, a significant portion of the female population was absent: black women. The absence of black women at the Seneca Falls Convention marks the beginning of the exclusion of African American women from the movement.

Many people who attended the convention were actively involved in the abolitionist movement, and at the time, abolitionists were still fighting to end slavery. While voting rights were a goal, the primary focus at the time was ending slavery. And while black women had been excluded from the Seneca Falls Convention, they were very much engaged in the abolition movement.

African American leaders of the women’s suffrage movement

The Civil War halted the suffrage movement as abolition took the forefront and women engaged themselves in the war effort. When the war ended, suffragettes again directed their focus toward voting rights for all. Initially, this included voting rights for women and black men. Two of the most prominent suffragettes, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, created the American Equal Rights Association in 1866 with the goal of extending suffrage to all regardless of gender or race (“Woman Suffrage Timeline”).

But a split in the suffrage movement soon appeared.

In 1869, tensions between African American leaders and white women’s suffrage leaders arose when the 15th Amendment was proposed. This amendment would give voting rights to black men, but not any women. For abolitionists and some suffragettes, this marked yet another victory in the fight for equality, but for a set of suffragettes, including Anthony and Stanton, this was a blow for women’s voting rights (McGoldrick).

They resented the 15th Amendment because, to them, it explicitly restricted voting rights to men only (“US Suffrage Movement Timeline”).

The American Equal Rights Association split into two groups, with Stanton and Anthony forming the radical National Woman Suffrage Association, which was designed to achieve voting rights for all women and African American men through a constitutional amendment. The other group, the American Woman Suffrage Association, sought to gain voting rights by amending state constitutions, not by amending the federal constitution. This latter group supported the 15th Amendment because they supported black men being given the right to vote even if women still could not vote (“Woman Suffrage Timeline”).

Despite some objections, the 15th Amendment was passed in 1870. Anthony, Stanton and the NWSA refused to advocate for it. Instead, they advocated for a 16th Amendment to extend suffrage to all. Douglass, the famous abolitionist and suffragist, officially broke ties with Stanton and Anthony for this (“Woman Suffrage Timeline”).
The suffragist movement used parades, pickets, lobbying, demonstrations and petitions to win voting rights for women.

The divide of the 15th Amendment is one of the most obvious signs of racial division in the suffrage movement. But racism was still prevalent in other ways.

In 1868, Stanton and Anthony founded the weekly women’s rights publication, The Revolution, which covered suffrage and women’s rights news across the country. Although Stanton and Anthony led a group advocating for voting rights for all, they still accepted funding for the publication from a well-known Democrat, George Francis, who opposed giving voting rights to African Americans unless they could read (Holland).

Racial divisions were also evident in the social clubs that women founded. Women’s social clubs were a way for women to gather together and advocate for causes that were important to them, including voting rights. White women, with the exception of those in New England, formed their own clubs but refused to allow black women to join. Although many of those clubs advocated for voting rights for women, there was an unspoken caveat: They wanted voting rights for white women.

In response, African American women formed their own clubs (“Woman Suffrage Timeline”). These clubs allowed black women to focus on priorities that many white women ignored, mainly violence and discrimination following the Civil War, such as widespread lynchings and rapes (McGoldrick).

One well-known African American women’s club, the Alpha Suffrage Club, was formed by Ida B. Wells-Barnett in Chicago in 1910 after women were given the right to vote there in local elections. One of the group’s first priorities was to get a black alderman elected to office. It also campaigned against a group of white women in Illinois who wanted to pass a restricted suffrage proposal that would prevent African American women from voting (McGoldrick).

1913 parade
Women suffragists marching on Pennsylvania Avenue

The women’s suffrage parade in 1913 in Washington, D.C. occurred one day before Woodrow Wilson became the 29th president. This was one of the first national events calling for a constitutional amendment.

The march was intended to show a unified fight for suffrage, but organizers asked all African American participants to march in the back of the parade.

Ida B. Wells attended the parade in Washington, D.C. with members of the Alpha Suffrage Club. The march organizers asked that she walk at the end of the parade, which Wells refused to do. When she appealed to the white women’s delegation from Illinois, they did not support her. Initially, she refused to march, but as the white delegation from Illinois marched by, she joined them, refusing to march in the back (“Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”).

The march was mostly white women, but 22 founding members of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority also marched in it to support voting rights for black women (Bernard).

19th amendment
19th Amendment

White suffragettes didn’t address the needs of black women who faced injustice and discrimination because of their race and gender. While white women were fighting for property and voting rights, black women also had to contend with being raped or watching their loved ones being lynched. White women wanted to be equal with their husbands, but black women wanted the right to vote to be able to fight for their own civil rights (Staples).

Other prominent white suffragettes besides Anthony and Stanton also expressed racist ideas throughout their fight for voting rights:

Belle Kearney, Mississippi state senator:

“The enfranchisement of women would ensure immediate and durable white supremacy…”

Anna Howard Shaw, president of the NWSA:

“You have put the ballot in the hands of your black men, thus making them political superiors of white women. Never before in the history of the world have men made former slaves the political masters of their former mistresses!”

Laura Clay, founder of Kentucky’s first suffrage group:

“The white men, reinforced by the educated white women, could ‘snow under’ the Negro vote in every State, and the white race would maintain its supremacy without corrupting or intimidating the Negroes.”

Carrie Chapman Catt, founder of the League of Women Voters:

“White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.”
While seeking to amend the U.S. Constitution, the women’s suffrage movement also waged a state-by-state campaign.

Many of the suffragettes who didn’t support African American women claimed this was because they didn’t want to jeopardize the support among white southerners. In order to secure a constitutional amendment, both the House of Representatives and the Senate each need to approve it by a two-thirds majority. Then, three-fourths of the states need to ratify it.

There was no way to get the 19th Amendment passed without the support of some of the southern states. Many southerners opposed the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote because it would increase the number of African American voters, which would jeopardize the social structure of the south and threaten to weaken white supremacy. Excluding black women from the right to vote was thought to be a way to gain the support of southerners (“The March of 1913”).

“Historians are rightly warning groups involved in suffrage commemorations not to overstate the significance of the 19th Amendment. It covered the needs of middle-class white women quite nicely. But it meant very little to black women in the South, where most lived at the time and where election officials were well practiced in the art of obstructing black access to the ballot box. As African-American women streamed in to register, Southern officials merely stepped up the level of fraud and intimidation.”

-Brent Staples

Ultimately, the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920, and it prohibits preventing people from voting based on gender. Brent Staples, an opinion writer for the New York Times, wrote in an opinion piece that although the 19th Amendment secured voting rights for all women, it really only secured the vote for white women. Black women continued to be excluded from voting because of literacy tests and poll taxes. Just as black men had been excluded after the 15th Amendment, black women were also now excluded from voting. And while many white suffragettes celebrated their victory, the fight for black women was still ongoing. It wouldn’t be until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that African Americans would successfully get those means of voting restrictions deemed illegal. Through that act and the 24th Amendment, black women were finally able to vote in elections (Staples).
Power to the Polls rally

This struggle between white women and black women didn’t end with the suffrage movement. It’s still prevalent in the modern feminist movement.

In the mainstream women’s rights movement, the issues that are focused on tend to be issues that matter most to the middle class, white women such as equal wages or longer maternity leave. And while those matter to all women, black women have other struggles that jeopardize their lives more than longer maternity leave does. They have to deal with problems like police brutality, racial profiling and high maternal death rates that don’t impact white women.

A criticism of the mainstream movement is that white women and their problems are the priority. Their problems have become women’s problems, not white women’s problems. Those problems are seen as the most important problems of all women. Problems stemming from racism are viewed as something to be addressed by someone else, even though those problems intersect with the sexism women of color face.

In response to this, just like Ida B. Wells, some women of color are pulling away to form their own groups. Some take feminism into Black Lives Matter. Others drop the title of feminist altogether and use terms like womanist to refer to themselves. Some leave the movements altogether. And others create their own movements in their communities.

Missing from the conversation and research about racism in the women’s movement is discussing other women who have been excluded or left out. This includes Native American, Latina, Asian and multiracial women. While the suffrage movement campaigned for women’s voting rights, Native American women and Chinese women, in particular, faced an inability to become citizens, which excluded them from voting. Like black women in the modern women’s rights movement, many of these women of color are also creating their own groups to campaign for their own causes.


Bernard, Michelle. “Despite the Tremendous Risk, African American Women Marched for Suffrage, Too.” The Washington Post. March 03, 2013. Accessed November 23, 2018.

“Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.” Information Literacy Defined, Library – Wesleyan University. Accessed November 23, 2018.

Holland, Patricia G. “George Francis Train and the Woman Suffrage Movement, 1867-70.” Iowa Digital Library – The University of Iowa Libraries. 1987. Accessed November 23, 2018.

“The March of 1913.” PBS. Accessed November 23, 2018.

McGoldrick, Neale. “Women’s Suffrage and the Question of Color.” Public Works: The Legacy of the New Deal. Accessed November 23, 2018.

Staples, Brent. “How the Suffrage Movement Betrayed Black Women.” The New York Times. July 28, 2018. Accessed November 23, 2018.

“US Suffrage Movement Timeline, 1869 to Present | The Susan B. Anthony Center.” Rochester Review:: University of Rochester. Accessed November 23, 2018.

“Woman Suffrage Timeline (1840-1920).” History of U.S. Woman’s Suffrage. Accessed November 23, 2018.

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