As we celebrate Black History Month, the League of Women Votes would like to bring special attention to the contributions of women of color in the suffragist movement and to the 100 years of continual work that generations of women of color have contributed to the rights of all women to vote and more.
Women like orator and abolitionist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper who, speaking at the 1866 National Women’s Rights Convention, boldly called out racism.
“You white women speak here of rights,” Harper told the crowd, calling them out for their lack of female solidarity across racial divides. “I speak of wrongs.”
Or Mary Church Terrell, one of the first college-educated Black women in America and the daughter of formerly enslaved parents, who with Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin cofounded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896. The NACW became instrumental in consolidating Black suffrage groups across the country, greatly increasing the voice of the movement, and was instrumental in the successful passage of the 19th Amendment.
Or Ida B. Wells, owner of two newspapers, who was one of the most prominent anti-lynching activists and respected journalists of the early 20th century. Wells also was a strident supporter of women’s voting rights and was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
But even after the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1919, which stated that, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” Black and other marginalized women still had to fight to exercise those rights. (Native women, who at the time of the amendment’s passage were not considered to be citizens, gained that right in 1924.)
Efforts to suppress Black voters, such as poll taxes, literacy tests and other barriers, would spark a decades-long push in Black communities for equal access to the ballot, with civil rights activists making voting rights key to their fight for racial justice.
And much as with the larger suffrage movement, Black women continued to take a leading role, pushing for unfettered access to the vote, with women like Amelia Boynton Robinson and Fannie Lou Hamer working alongside figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis to secure voting rights. Their efforts would culminate in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, legislation that finally secured the vote for Black people.
League of Women Voters Chief Executive Officer Virginia Kase notes that, “Progress towards a more perfect democracy is often messy, but we can’t allow the ends to justify the means, especially if they perpetuate oppression. Let us use the lessons of our history to inform our present and our future. Let us seek out ways to ensure all eligible voters have their voices heard and their votes counted.”
There is no doubt that the road to true equal voting rights for women and people of color has been, and continues to be, long and challenging.
During Black History Month, we invite everyone to learn more about the roles Black and other women of color played in the passage of the 19th Amendment as well as work that followed to ensure that all women, particularly women of color, could exercise that right.
The League of Women Voters of La Plata County honors and celebrates these courageous Black women leaders in the voter rights movements across our nation and across the ages. We are fully committed to diversity, equity and inclusion in principle and in practice. To learn more about the league, please visit us at www.lwvlaplata.org.
Laurie Meininger is a retired diplomat and civic volunteer. She is on the board of La Plata County League of Women Voters.