As a people, we quite properly celebrate our past, the anniversaries of those moments in our history when Americans of conscience moved us closer to fulfilling our national ideals. In May and June of this year, our nation marks the Centennial of one of our most important and historic triumphs.
Expiating America’s Other Original Sin
For the first 144 years of our nation’s existence, the words, “all men are created equal” did not include the women of our country. Except in a few of the newer states west of the Mississippi River, women were denied the right to vote.
It is worth reflecting upon this harsh truth. For more than three-fifths of our nation’s existence, democracy did not exist for most of the women of our country.
Then, in 1919, after more than seven decades of struggle, the men then serving in our Congress finally voted to propose to the states for their ratification of the 19th Amendment to our Constitution guaranteeing women’s suffrage.
Recalling the struggle to achieve what UCLA Professor Ellen Carol DuBois has termed “the single greatest act of enfranchisement in American history” would be important at any time. It is especially relevant to our own time, however, when the voting rights of millions of Americans are under attack.
American men in 1919 and 1920 may have voted for women’s suffrage, but they did not “give” women the vote. Women (and men) fought for this most fundamental of our democratic rights, overcame difficult political obstacles, and won it.
Lessons For Our Time
As Professor DuBois reminded us in her recent Washington Post article, despite repeated setbacks, the Suffragists persisted — and, ultimately, their vision and determination prevailed.
Professor DuBois also articulates an even more compelling insight for our own time: the essential, but difficult, process of building and maintaining our progressive coalition in a national politics still dominated by issues of race.
As the University of Maryland’s Professor Sharon Harley elaborates in her excellent article for the U.S. Park Service, African American Women and the Nineteenth Amendment, the relationships among Caucasian and African American Suffragists were complex and often strained.
Prior to the Civil War, the abolition and women’s rights movements were intertwined and mutually supportive. Free abolitionist Black women like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Maria W. Stewart, Henrietta Purvis, Harriet Forten Purvis, Sarah Remond, Mary Ann Shadd Cary and others were also prominent in the struggle for women’s rights.
As Professor Harley quite accurately informs us, however, after the Civil War, the movement for women’s suffrage became entwined with the national debates about the rights of former slaves and the meaning of citizenship.
With the proposal of the Fifteenth Amendment, which would enfranchise Black men but not women, these interracial, progressive coalitions began to seriously fragment.
Suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony deserve our nation’s respect for devoting their adult lives to extending the franchise.
A less comfortable historical truth, as Professor Harley and others have reminded us, is that Ms. Stanton, Ms. Anthony and other Caucasian Suffragists all too often threw their Black sisters and brothers under the political bus in their efforts to gain political support for women’s suffrage in the South.
Moreover, as the national debate about women’s suffrage came to a head, the impact of the “women’s vote” on Black political power became an important point of contention on both sides of the struggle for women’s suffrage.
This is why the vision, courage, fortitude and determination of Black Suffragists like Ms. Ida B. Wells, Ms. Mary Church Terrell, Ms. Augusta T. Chissell of Maryland, and so many others deserve our acknowledgement and commendation today as we celebrate one of the most transformative democratic victories of our past.
Often disparaged and discounted, these strong Black women of conscience continued to fight against the twin evils of legally enshrined racism and sexism. Largely through their efforts, the national political coalition advancing universal citizenship survived, and a more inclusive democracy prevailed.
The Struggle for Full Equality Continues
Even as we celebrate the Centennial of the 19th Amendment during the coming year, the work to perfect our Democracy continues. Like the Suffragists of our past, the women of our time are demanding equality, justice and opportunity for everyone, not just for themselves.
As the Chair of the National Democratic Party’s Platform Drafting Committee in 2016, I can attest that we Democrats are clear about where our progressive coalition must stand. Here, from our Platform, is our pledge to the American People, women and men alike:
“We are committed to ensuring full equality for women. Democrats will fight to end gender discrimination in the areas of education, employment, health care, or any other sphere. We will combat biases across economic, political, and social life that hold women back and limit their opportunities and also tackle specific challenges facing women of color. After 240 years, we will finally enshrine the rights of women in the Constitution by passing the Equal Rights Amendment. And we will urge U.S. ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.”
Our Democratic Party, not always a strong supporter of women’s equality in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, has become a committed advocate for gender equality today.
This is what the advocacy of a strong, united, progressive coalition can achieve.
I believe that the Suffragists of America’s past, Black and White alike, would approve.
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.
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This article originally appeared in The Afro.