The text of the 19th Amendment—the Constitutional amendment that was ratified 100 years ago today—seems to grant the right to vote to all women. “The rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex,” the amendment declares.
But in reality, the right to vote was only immediately accessible to white women. Black women faced restrictions on voting rights until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965—and, some say, still do. Native American women and Asian-American women also faced restrictions on voting rights until well into the 20th century.
Despite the fact that the 19th Amendment failed to grant universal suffrage, Black women were instrumental in fighting for its passage. On this centennial of the amendment’s ratification, we talk a look back at some of the women who fought for the right to vote, though it took another half-century for their vision to be fully realized.
Abolitionist Sojourner Truth delivered one of the most famous speeches in favor of Black women’s rights. In 1851, she asked the audience of white women at an Akron, Ohio women’s rights convention: “Ain’t I a woman?”
Truth was involved in the American Equal Rights Association, which fought for the right to vote for women and Black men.
Mary Church Terrell
Mary Church Terrell was president of the National Association of Colored Women and fought for Black women’s right to vote—including by picketing the White House.
Church Terrell, known internationally for efforts including her anti-lynching activism, battled to keep Black women a priority in the fight for suffrage as some white women suffragists began to prioritize white women’s voting rights over rights for Black women.
Ida B. Wells
The journalist who brought national attention to the lynching epidemic across the American South, Ida B. Wells—or Wells-Barnett, as she was also known—also dedicated her efforts to voting rights activism.
Wells fought against white women who tried to exclude Black women from voting rights meetings, demonstrations, and victories as they sought the support of Southern lawmakers. In 1913, Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party organized a parade in favor of women’s suffrage, during which Paul asked Black activists to march at the back of the line. Wells emerged during the middle of the parade to join white suffragettes at the front of the demonstration.
That same year, Wells founded the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first Black woman’s suffrage club in Illinois.
Wells was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 2020.
The woman who helped enslaved people find their way to freedom, abolitionist Harriet Tubman also fought for the right to vote in the years following the Emancipation Proclamation.
Tubman shared her own experience under slavery in speeches she gave about the suffrage movement in the late nineteenth century.
Harriet Forten Purvis
Alongside her sister Margaretta Forten, Harriet Forten Purvis helped establish the Philadelphia Suffrage Association in 1866. Purvis also served on the executive committee of the American Equal Rights Association, which fought for the right to vote for white and Black women and for Black men.
Angelina Weld Grimké
Angelina Weld Grimké was the grand-niece of white suffragist Angelina Grimké Weld. A writer, journalist, and poet, Weld Grimké argued in favor of women’s suffrage in her writing.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
Abolitionist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a founding member of the American Woman Suffrage Association. Also an activist in the temperance movement, Watkins Harper—a longtime ally of Frederick Douglass—addressed all three causes in her writing.
In an 1873 speech, Watkins Harper said, “Much as white women need the ballot, colored women need it more.”
One of the Quander family, a well-known Black family in the Washington, D.C. region, Nellie Quander served as the president of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a Black women’s sorority.
Quander sought for the sorority to be represented during the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession, her descendant Rohulamin Quander recently told the New York Times; when white suffragists tried to keep Black suffragists separate, Quander and her group—just like Ida B. Wells—joined the white women from her region at the front of the line.
Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin
Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin was an activist for Black women’s right to vote, active in New England as a member of the Massachusetts Women’s Suffrage Association.
St. Pierre Ruffin sought, ultimately unsuccessfully, to represent the National Association of Colored Women in the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. In the late nineteenth century, she published Woman’s Era, the first U.S. women’s rights magazine by Black women.
Nannie Helen Burroughs
“What can she do without it?” was Nannie Helen Burroughs’ retort to the question of what Black women would accomplish with the vote.
A lifelong educator and activist, Burroughs believed that Black women needed the right to vote to “protect their interests in an often discriminatory society.“
Sarah Parker Remond
Sarah Parker Remond worked alongside her brother Charles Lenox Remond in advocating for women to secure the right to vote. Remond signed the first women’s suffrage petition in Great Britain in 1866; she gave lectures throughout the region against slavery.
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