This article was originally published by American Experience to accompany its documentary, THE VOTE. Written by Martha S. Jones and edited by Ben Greenberg.
By Martha S. Jones
The 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment is a chance to recover less well-known histories of women and the vote. If we take away little else, the suffrage centennial can teach us how the Black women leaders of 2020 — from Stacey Abrams and Ayanna Pressley to Michelle Obama and Kamala Harris — have emerged out of a centuries-long struggle for political power, in movements led by Black women themselves.
The 1913 women’s parade marked a critical turn in the road to the 19th Amendment. Alice Paul and the Congressional Committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) set aside older models of women’s politics that relied upon persuasion, partisanship and patronage. In their place, parade organizers placed confrontation front and center. The women seized the national stage — on the eve of a presidential inauguration no less — and put their bodies on the line in what turned out to be a raucous scene: Suffragists clashed with their critics and the curious for all the nation to see. Behind the scenes, Alice Paul and her collaborators in Washington had inherited the anti-Black racism that had always run through suffrage associations. When given her opportunity to remedy how white supremacy threatened to taint her parade, Paul faltered. She evidenced neither clarity nor conviction and the message to Black suffragists was clear. On March 3, they would not be excluded. Nor however would they be welcomed. A pointed awkwardness ran through the day’s events as a few dozen Black women took their places among thousands of marchers. The women stepped into a new phase of the suffrage movement, but they failed to leave racism behind.
There among the thousands of women marchers were leading Black women like Ida B. Wells, Carrie W. Clifford and Mary Church Terrell. They were joined by teachers, pharmacists, artists and members of the Howard University chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. These women’s routes to the parade were paved with a distinct struggle over voting rights in America. Black women marchers had not been active in NAWSA. They were not among the many volunteers who supported Alice Paul and NAWSA’s Congressional Committee as they planned for the parade. Black women suffragists arrived that day carrying their independent experiences of conventions, manifestos and organizing. On March 3, 1913, two women’s movements met up. And, as The Vote explains, it was an uneasy occasion.
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.
Martha S. Jones is a historian and the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University and a co-President of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. She is the author of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All.