Justice  /  Retrieval

Black Women’s 200 Year Fight for the Vote

For two centuries, black women have linked their ballot access to the human rights of all.

When I began the research for Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All, I wanted to learn what was on the minds of those Black women who marched in the 1913 parade. If they hadn’t helped to plan the parade and they never joined NAWSA, where had their commitments to women’s votes taken hold? What sorts of experiences had brought them to the parade? What did they hope to achieve by being there and how did they persist in their commitment to a cause when coalitions with white women suffragists proved to be too strained? I learned that Black women marchers were suffragists so committed to women’s votes that they endured awkwardness and slights on that March day. I also learned that their women’s movement happened elsewhere. The 1913 parade was but one brief chapter in their two-hundred-year long battle for political power. Black women were activists in their own women’s movement, one that aimed to win the vote while also insisting on the defeat of racism and sexism. Their story forever changes how we think about the history of women and the vote.

Black women fought for voting rights, not suffrage. The campaign for the 19th Amendment, often termed women’s suffrage, was one part of Black women’s broader advocacy for the voting rights of all African Americans, women and men. Women like Ida B. Wells came to the 1913 parade as veterans of the fight against lynching. Terrorist-style violence – along with poll taxes, understanding and literacy tests and grandfather clauses – had kept Black men from voting since the 1890s. Wells knew that the same would be true for Black women even if they won a constitutional amendment. In the year that followed the 1913 parade, US senators from the South spearheaded an effort to repeal the 15th Amendment, which in 1870 had prohibited states from using race to deny the vote. Black women watched as lawmakers attempted to trade support for passing a 19th Amendment in exchange for erasing the 15th Amendment. Black women knew they needed both.