Voices in Education

Unlearning History: The Women’s Suffrage Movement

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One hundred years ago, all women in the United States were guaranteed the right to vote. FALSE 

This year marks the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which prohibited the denial of voting rights on the basis of sex. What’s not often acknowledged in classroom textbooks and curriculum is the reality that not all women gained the right to vote. While the previously ratified 15th amendment prohibited Federal and State governments from denying the right to vote based on color, race or previous servitude, nothing in the U.S constitution and no federal laws explicitly prohibited discrimination on the basis of color, race and sex. Thus, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other women and men of color did not see their voting rights ensured until the 1964 Civil Rights and 1965 Voting Rights Acts, more than 40 years later. 

The 19th amendment guaranteed all women the right to vote. FALSE

On August 18th 1920, the 19th amendment was ratified. The amendment 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.”  Even though Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other women of color played a significant role in ratification of the 19th amendment, the language of the amendment did not explicitly protect their voting rights on the basis of their race.  So while monumental, the amendment only protected the voting rights of white women. For example, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper-- a Black woman-- spent her whole life advocating for abolitionism and women’s rights, and made a call to action to the suffragists at the National Woman’s Rights Convention in 1866, urging them to include Black women in their fight. 

While voting discrimination was prohibited on the basis of gender, loopholes in the system allowed for voting obstacles, including poll taxes and literacy tests, intimidation tactics, the denial of citizenship because of ancestry/immigrant status, and other racist strategies. These tactics were used by white Americans to prevent Black, Indigenous, and people of color from voting.

The Suffragists were progressive. FALSE

The women’s suffrage movement was inspired by Indigenous civilizations in which women often held leadership positions inside and outside the home. Additionally, the women’s suffrage movement had its roots in the abolitionist movement. Initially, women, free people of color, and enslaved people bonded over a mutual desire for suffrage. Women were often invited to speak at abolitionists group meetings, allowing them to utilize their platforms to call for change. Frederick Douglas, an abolitionist and reformer, was one of the 31 men, and the only African American present, to sign the Declaration of Sentiments at the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention in 1848. He also established the American Equal Rights Association alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, advocating for universal voting rights. 

While the 15th amendment prevented the U.S. government and States from denying citizens the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” it did not include “sex” as a protected category. A deep divide in the suffrage movement emerged and expanded. Recognizing that the South was still recovering from their loss in the war, grappling with a future without slavery, and a lack of support within the U.S. Congress for universal suffrage, some Black suffragists, including Frederick Douglass and Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, advocated for the endorsement of the 15th Amendment as it was written. Many white leaders within the women’s suffrage movement felt betrayed, and their reactions exposed their racism and elitism. The suffragists shifted their focus to single-mindedly pursuing voting rights for white women. Leveraging their power and privilege, they made a conscious decision to exclude BIPOC women from their movement.

The women’s suffrage movement was peaceful. FALSE

The women’s suffrage movement typically relied on peaceful tactics such as lobbying, parading and petitioning. Nonetheless, the women were not strangers to violence. In 1913, members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association were attacked by spectators as they participated in a suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. After decades of campaigning peacefully, yet making little progress and facing violent responses, the suffragists adjusted their strategy to one that embraced firmer methods. 

As part of their new methods, women began picketing at the White House. In one instance, in 1917, 33 women, members of the National Woman’s Party, up to 73 years-old, were arrested and tortured while protesting outside the White House. In retaliation, women participated in hunger strikes while imprisoned, leading to more violence as authorities retaliated with forced feedings. These outcomes were seen not just in D.C, but across the nation; as more and more women united, demonstrated and picketed, they were met with more resistance and violence from authorities and spectators. 

Women have equal rights today. FALSE

It is important to discuss, learn and unlearn the history of the women’s suffrage movement. It is also important to discuss and acknowledge the injustices that continued to exist within the system following the ratification of the 19th amendment. Black, Indigenous and People of Color women continued to challenge the systems in place for decades after, and continue to do so today. 

While BIPOC were left behind by the 19th amendment, the movements for universal suffrage and equal rights continued. Black people continued to fight for their rights well into the 1960s. However, injustices persist today because white supremacist institutions continue to allow racism and discrimination to prevail. 

The equal rights amendment (ERA), initially introduced in 1923 during the Women’s Suffrage Movement, states  “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”  The ERA regained momentum during the 1960s and 1970s, following the success of the Civil Rights movement. Pro-ERA groups lobbied, petitioned and demonstrated, revisiting suffragists’ tactics from the 1920s in order to meet the deadline for states to ratify the amendment, 1979. While the amendment deadline was extended to 1982, it did not receive sufficient votes and was not ratified.

The ERA was subsequently introduced to congress every year since. It was not until January of this year, 2020, that Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the amendment. It is now up to congress to remove the original deadline and push the amendment forward. 

Even if the ERA successfully gets ratified by congress, injustices continue to prevent BIPOC women from exercising their right to vote. Voter ID laws, voter registration limitations, voter purges, felony disenfranchisement (when the incarceration rates are extremely disproportionate across races), gerrymandering, limited early voting dates and locations are just some of the tactics in place to block voting rights.

As the fight for equality and equity continue, the idea of intersectionality has gained momentum as a call to action for current movements to reframe what and who they are advocating for. Originally coined by scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, intersectionality refers to the overlap, or intersection of race, class, gender, and other individual characteristics. When movements recognize intersectionality, they become more inclusive and more effective. Imagine, had women's suffrage movement leaders such as Susan B. Anthony relinquished their racist ideals and advocated for those who looked different from them, all women (and men) may have actually secured the right to vote 100 years ago. 

What is our call to action as educators? We must teach the painful reality of our history. It is up to us to disrupt the prevailing narrative that the 19th amendment was written for all women, or that all women could vote after the amendment passed 100 years ago. We can no longer deny that the women's suffrage movement was racist in action and practice due to it’s white leaders. Or the lie that all women are treated and seen as equal. As educators, we must choose to enlighten ourselves and our students so we can effectively advocate for ourselves and our peers. And importantly, we must encourage our students to be critical and analyze the stories, curriculum and media they consume. It is time for all of us to unlearn the systems of discrimination and racism, once and for all. 

Media Literacy Connection: 

After listening to Using Media to Know Better and Teach Better, Britt Hawthorne’s question framework for selecting media heavily resonated with me. She suggests we ask ourselves: 

  • Who is this content centering?
  • What stories may be missing?
  • How will this leave your learners feeling? 
  • Who is the intended audience of this media?
  • Who is going to feel really good about it? 

Educators, I urge you to take a look at your curriculum, your lessons and the media you are using in your class and answer some of these questions. This time, I challenge you to do so as you celebrate the Centennial of the 19th Amendment in your classrooms. 

PBS Resources to supplement  teaching the Women’s Suffrage Movement/US Suffrage History: 

Paula Hill

Paula Hill Education Media Content Coordinator | Certified Grades 5-9 Teacher

After spending my first-year teaching in a low-income urban school in Washington, DC, I returned to Florida to finish my Graduate Degree and seek further professional development. It was during my teaching there, that I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by inspiring educators and leaders who motivated, coached, and encouraged my growth and the growth of my students. It was there that I found a deep love for curriculum and curriculum development. I am now back in Washington, DC. where I’ve assumed an out-of-the-classroom role with PBS Learning Media as an Educational Media Content Coordinator. As I continue to learn and grow from others, I look forward to "paying-it forward" by helping my fellow educators and their students achieve success.

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