Anyone who has studied the woman suffrage movement knows of its unfortunate history of racism; we are again reminded of this by New York Times editor Brent Staples’ Sunday opinion piece, When the Suffrage Movement Sold Out to White Supremacy. In addition to a detailed history of offenses by white suffrage leaders against black suffragists, he offers us welcome but little-known information about black suffragists such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, who challenged white reformers to “rid themselves of racism,” and Coralie Franklin Cook, who, despite tremendous regard for Susan B. Anthony felt the movement had “turned its back on women of color.”
There is truth and understandable outrage in these accounts, even viewed through a 21st century lens. But the inescapable fact is that without the tireless efforts of all suffrage leaders for almost a century who knows when the vote would have been won for either black or white women? Certainly this doesn’t excuse racist behavior, but the faults of some white leaders should not completely tarnish the work of thousands, many of whom worked tirelessly for abolition only to see the 15th Amendment give the vote to black men, leaving all women black or white behind.
We cannot change the past, we can only benefit from its study, and there are still many “wrongs to be righted.” How much better it would be to take the lessons learned from these histories and work to eradicate the voter suppression movement that is looming throughout our nation today? There is much work still to be done. Wouldn’t that be the best way to honor these remarkable sung and un-sung participants in the woman suffrage movement, black and white?