Justice  /  Vignette

The US Suffragette Movement Tried to Leave Out Black Women. They Showed Up Anyway

Racism and sexism were bound together in the fight to vote – and Black women made it clear they would never cede the question of their voting rights to others.

In late winter 1913, suffragette Alice Paul and her committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) were at work planning a women’s parade that aimed to upstage Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration with a many-thousand-strong phalanx of women protesting for the right to vote. Paul was poised to pull off an unparalleled act of political theater on the nation’s biggest stage, Washington DC’s Pennsylvania Avenue. Her vision was clouded, however, as Paul contemplated what it would mean to have Black women among the marchers.

By 1913, racism was tightly stitched into the fabric of the movement for women’s votes. As far back as the 1860s, suffrage leaders had traded in anti-Black thinking. They had even linked arms with openly racist allies who, for example, in 1867 Kansas looked to trade the defeat of Black enfranchisement for the elevation of white women to the polls. The movement continued into the 20th century by way of a southern strategy that aimed to win support for a women’s suffrage amendment by remaining hands-off when it came to Jim Crow, assenting to the ongoing disenfranchisement of Black women in the south. Paul built her radical wing of the movement on this troubled foundation.

Initially, Paul had reached out to invite Black women in Washington DC – especially the members of Howard University’s Delta Sigma Theta sorority – to take part in the parade. Facing criticism and the threat that white southern women might pull out, Paul recalculated, and drew a line: the parade was to be “a purely suffrage demonstration entirely uncomplicated by any other problems such as racial ones”. Paul imagined she knew best: “Our winning suffrage will be the thing that will most raise the state of Negro women.”

Had she asked, Black suffragists would have advised Paul that there was nowhere for her committee to hide. Racism and sexism were bound together in the fight for women’s votes. When it came to suffrage politics, there was nothing pure about them.

On the morning of 3 March 1913, Black women rose early and joined the throng that assembled for the parade. Ida B Wells, the Chicago-based anti-lynching and women’s suffrage activist, was at the center of a true dust-up when on the eve of the parade she was advised to march with other Black women rather than with her Illinois state delegation. It was a painful rebuke, but Wells refused defeat and ultimately marched with her state’s representatives, flanked by white women allied with Chicago’s Alpha Suffrage Club.