Lawanda Lyons-Pruitt: Suffrage and women of color
Guest Commentary

Lawanda Lyons-Pruitt: Suffrage and women of color

The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ratified on Feb. 3, 1870, gave African American men the right to vote. The 19th Amendment ratified on Aug. 18, 1920 gave all women the right to vote.

Achieving this victory was a long and difficult struggle that took years of protest and agitation. Although Black women including Ida B. Wells Barnett, Mary Church Terrell, Sojourner Truth, Mary McLeod Bethune, and many others “relegated to the footnotes of history,” were there and participated in the movement in the 1913 Suffrage Parade in New York City, suffrage leaders made a conscious decision to have women of color march at the rear of the parade. Ida B. Wells, however, refused to march in the rear and marched instead with her Illinois delegation.

After passage of the 19th Amendment, voting rights were denied to women of color, poor women and men, Native American women, and people of Asian ancestry. Native American women began receiving voting rights in 1924 through the Indian Citizenship Act and people of Asian ancestry received the right to vote and become citizens in 1952.

Unfortunately for African American women of color, it would take the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to remove Jim Crow restrictions such as passing a literacy test, counting soap bubbles in a bar of soap, etc., before they could vote. After its passage, as a young child living in Mississippi, I remember my maternal grandmother being taken to her polling place to vote. As she left, I recall nervousness and a fierce determination to exercise her right to vote.

Dr. Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins served as the League of Women Voters' 15th president and first Black from 1998 to 2002. In her book #WE Were There Too!, she wrote the League was born from the struggle for the right to vote and “Women of color were there too, from the beginning;” however, the ratification of the 19th Amendment was not the universal celebration it was reported to be.

“Winning the vote for women required 72 years of advocacy, but for women of color, it required an additional 45 years with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. There are lessons to be learned from history of the LWV exclusion of women of color, and how the presence of these women is ignored in the League’s existing history."

Rather than focus on the League’s failure to include women of color, I will focus instead on these women who made significant contributions to the struggle.

Ida B. Wells Barnett, born in 1862, freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, a founding member of the NAACP, an American investigative journalist, educator, women’s rights activist. Over the course of her life, she combatted prejudice, violence, and the fight for African American equality especially that of women. An anti-lynching crusader who died 1931, in 2020, she was posthumously honored with a Pulitzer Prize special citation for her outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific lynching of African Americans.

Mary Church Terrell one of the first African American women to earn a college degree who used her education to fight racial discrimination. She was the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, chartered member of the NAACP, the first African American admitted to the Washington DC chapter of AAUW, was especially involved in the women’s right’s movement focusing much of her attention on securing the right to vote and desegregating restaurants in white-only restaurants of her adopted home of Washington, DC.

Mary McLeod Bethune champion of racial and gender equality, founder of many voter registration drives after women gained the right to vote who played a major role in black voters transitioning from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party, founder of Bethune-Cookman College, founding president of the National Council of Negro Women, friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and the highest ranking African American woman in government when she was named Director of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration by President FDR and an unofficial “FDR “black cabinet member.” She was appointed vice-president of the NAACP, a position she held until her death in 1955.

Sojourner Truth, abolitionist’s and women’s right activist and first black woman to win a Court case against a white man and best known for her speech during the Civil War at the Women’s Right Convention in 1851, Ain’t I A Woman wrote “……. I have plowed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain’t, I, a woman? I have borne 13 children, and seen them most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”

On June 19, as we recognized Juneteenth which commemorates the Emancipation of the last remaining slaves in Texas, although President Abraham Lincoln issued the Proclamation in 1863, and as we look at the uprisings all over the nation, let us remember that the fight for equality, inclusion, and justice, and the struggle, continues.

Lawanda Lyons-Pruitt, Chief Investigator, Retired, Santa Barbara County Public Defender. President, Santa Maria-Lompoc National Association For the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)

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