In the fall of 1916, four years before the 19th Amendment would make it unconstitutional to deny voting rights on the basis of sex, African-American women in Chicago were readying to cast their first ballots ever for President. The scenes in that year of black women, many of them the daughters and granddaughters of former slaves, exercising the franchise, was as ordinary as it was unexpected.
Theirs was a unique brand of politics crafted at the crossroads of racism and sexism. African-American women had always made their own way. In Chicago, they secured a place at the polls by way of newly enacted state laws that, over 25 years, extended the vote to the women of Illinois, gradually, unevenly and without regard to color. The real story, however, is an older one that stretches across generations of black women’s ambition and activism. It only sometimes intersects with better-known tales of how white women campaigned for their political rights. And yes, sometimes black and white women clashed. Still, the history of black women and the vote is one about figures who, though subjected to nearly crushing political disabilities, emerged as unparalleled advocates of universal suffrage in its truest sense.
Their story begins in an unexpected place—the church. For black women, church communities were central sites for developing their sense of rights and how then to organize for them. No one understood this better than Julia Foote, born in 1823 and who, at the age of 18, felt herself called to preach in the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church. By the 1840s, Foote was a leader in a churchwomen’s movement which demanded that they, like men, should be entitled to occupy pulpits and interpret the scriptures.
Victory came in 1848, when A.M.E. churchwomen won the right to preaching licenses. Black churches would never be the same. That year marked the start of a decades-long campaign in which women lobbied for religious power: voting rights, office holding and control of the funds they raised. Were they on a path toward women’s suffrage? Certainly, yes, if the proceedings that summer in Seneca Falls, New York, are any measure. There, white American women gathered to make demands upon the nation. They sought access to the ballot box, but they also shared the aspirations of A.M.E. churchwomen, insisting at the conclusion of the Declaration of Sentiments: “that the speedy success of our cause depends upon the zealous and untiring efforts of both men and women, for the overthrow of the monopoly of the pulpit. . .” Women in the A.M.E Church understood this demand well.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper is often overshadowed by figures like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass in the story about women’s voting rights in the 1860s. Watkins Harper was present during the fateful and divisive 1869 meeting of the American Equal Rights Association when delegates splintered over the question of whether they would support the proposed 15th Amendment, which protected the voting rights of black men, but not women. Delegates charged Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony with having advocated for “educated suffrage,” a position which implied that former slaves were not fit to exercise the vote. Frederick Douglass responded by conceding that women had a stake in the vote, but ultimately deemed their claims less urgent than that of black men for whom voting was “a question of life and death.”
Watkins Harper took the floor, the lone black woman to speak. A teacher, poet and antislavery activist, she somewhat reluctantly supported Douglass: “If the nation could handle one question, she would not have the black women put a single straw in the way, if only the men of the race could obtain what they wanted.”
She also had frank words for white women: “I do not believe that giving the woman the ballot is immediately going to cure all the ills of life. I do not believe that white women are dew-drops just exhaled from the skies. I think that like men they may be divided into three classes, the good, the bad, and the indifferent.”
Watkins Harper was in the end a political visionary: “We are all bound up in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse of its own soul.” She demanded that black women be included as part of “one great privileged nation.” This was the purpose of the ballot. Sadly, her vision of unity failed, the movement splintered into two competing organizations—The American Woman Suffrage Association and the National Woman Suffrage Association. The rift divided long-standing allies and undercut the possibility for the sort of coalition of which Watkins Harper spoke. For many black women, it was a wound that would never quite heal.
Eliza Gardner began her women’s rights work as an A.M.E. church activist, continuing the campaign begun by Julia Foote decades earlier. In the 1880s, Gardner confronted a religious glass ceiling when it seemed that women would not be elevated above the status of preachers to become full-fledged ministers. She spoke directly to the men who headed her church: “I come from old Massachusetts, where we have declared that all, not only men, but women, too, are created free and equal, with certain inalienable rights which men are bound to respect.” Gardner then proposed a tough bargain: Women would continue to ensure the well-being of the church, but only if they received the support and respect of male leaders: “If you will try to do by us the best you can. . . . you will strengthen our efforts and make us a power; but if you commence to talk about the superiority of men, if you persist in telling us that after the fall of man we were put under your feet and that we are intended to be subject to your will, we cannot help you in New England one bit.” Her threat was not an idle one.
Gardner was also building her power in new, secular women’s clubs. In 1895, she was among the leaders at the founding of the National Conference of Colored Women, serving as chaplain. Gardner had already imbibed women’s rights ideas in abolitionist and church circles. Now, she and other black women activists were joining forces to tackle national problems under the motto “lifting as we climb.” It was the “woman’s era,” though not because black women were adopting a single issue or focus in their on-going campaign for rights. Instead, their agenda was set as a response to the rise of segregation, racial violence and the disenfranchisement that affected black men and women alike.
By the dawn of the 20th century, black women had arrived. And to understand how in Chicago they came to vote in 1916 requires understanding of what occurred in their churches and women’s clubs. Black women had always strived to enhance their power. And perhaps after voting and holding office in churches, doing the same in the realm of party politics was an obvious next step. What is certain is how through their clubs and their churches, black women then became party activists: rallying, marching, vetting candidates, electioneering, voting and even running for local office.
Their success had only begun in 1916. And it would continue well beyond 1920 and the addition of the 19th amendment to the Constitution. In much of the country, racism continued to block black women’s political aspirations, as it had always done. At the start of the 20th century, it was not yet possible to see clearly the modern civil rights movement that lay ahead. Chapters were yet to be written, ones that included figures like Mississippi’s voting rights champion Fannie Lou Hamer, and landmark legislation such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Also on the horizon was Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to be elected to Congress, and then run for President.
Though they likely dreamed of her—a daughter of Chicago and an heir to those black women voters of 1916—Michelle Obama defied any script as she wrote her chapter in the history of black women and political power. And if the past might not have anticipated her, she certainly drew upon it when she stepped to the podium at the August 2008 Democratic National Convention, and explained how history had shaped her: “This week we celebrate two anniversaries. The 88th anniversary of women winning the right to vote and the 45th anniversary of that hot summer day when Dr. King lifted our sights and our hearts with his dream for our nation.” Mrs. Obama claimed two histories: that of gender—as represented by the passage of the 19th Amendment, and that of race—as expressed through the Civil Rights movement: “I stand here today at the crosscurrents of that history, knowing that my piece of the American dream is a blessing hard won by those who came before me.” In Obama’s 21st-century view of American political culture, she drew insight from her position as a daughter of both Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. She embodied the legacies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer. Race and sex, in her analysis, were not only a fraught dyad or a burden to be borne, they were also core facets of black women’s political identities, and the starting place for any quest for rights.
“Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence,” curated by Kate Clarke Lemay, examines the complex narrative of women’s suffrage in the U.S. and highlights the struggles that minorities endured long after the passage of the 19th Amendment. The exhibition opens March 29, 2019 at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and is part of the Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative.