These 19 black women fought for voting rights

Nsenga K. Burton

August 18, 2020 marks 100 years since the ratification of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing all American women “suffrage,” or the right to vote. The dominant narrative about the women’s suffrage movement is framed through the experiences of white women (and to some extent, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a noted and outspoken supporter of women’s rights). But African-American women played a major role in obtaining the right to vote even though many of them would not truly enjoy the right themselves to the same extent until decades later.  

In 1872, Susan B. Anthony attempted to vote in the presidential election and was arrested and tried in Rochester, New York. In Battle Creek, Michigan, Sojourner Truth demanded a ballot and was turned away. The suffrage movement was in full swing.

A recently-found photograph of escaped slave, abolitionist and Union spy Harriet Tubman that was acquired by the Smithsonian is displayed before a hearing of the House Administration Committee in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill June 17, 2015 in Washington, DC. Auburn, New York, photographer H. Seymour Squyer made the photograph around 1885. Born into slavery, Tubman used a network of antislavery activists and safe houses known at the Underground Railroad to help lead about 13 missions to rescue about 70 enslaved family and friends.

Women’s rights activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Betsy Ross, who championed gender equity, didn’t feel the same about race. While many white suffragists worked to help eradicate the institution of slavery, they did not work to ensure that former slaves would have citizenship or voting rights.

“Black women were not accounted for in white women’s push for suffrage. Their fight wasn’t about women writ large. It was about white women obtaining power – the same power as their husbands, black women and black men be damned,” says Howard University Assistant Professor Jennifer D. Williams.

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