Suffrage for a Few: The Women Left Behind by the 19th Amendment

Last week we celebrated the passing of the 19th amendment and the role of Cayuga County women in the fight for suffrage. While it was an important step towards equality for women, the movement wasn’t inclusive of all women. Although inspired by the Haudenosaunee, Native American women were not granted the right to vote until 1924 and African American women, while heavily involved in the fight for suffrage, struggled for racial equality within the women’s rights groups and later faced many obstacles to voting that white women did not.

Many of the leaders of the women’s rights movement were inspired by their Haudenosaunee neighbors whose matrilineal society showed that gender equality already existed for some. Matilda Joslyn Gage, one of the more revolutionary women’s rights activist, wrote of the Haudenosaunee in a series of articles for the New York Evening Post in 1875 saying, Division of power between the sexes in this Indian Republic was nearly equal…its women exercised controlling power in peace and war.

Savagery to “Civilization” Print by Joseph Keppler, 1914
Library of Congress Collection)

Although Haudenosaunee chiefs were male, the clan mother chose and advised them and could remove them from their position if they did not faithfully serve their people. Native American women also enjoyed rights to their own property and equal rights within their marriages. These rights were undermined by the U.S. government’s program of assimilation.

Native American women were invited to speak at women’s rights meetings and rallies, but when they began to fight for their own rights in resistance to forced assimilation policies, they were largely ignored by many of the leaders of the women’s rights movement. 

Native Americans were not granted full citizenship until the Indian Citizenship Act, also known as the Snyder Act, of 1924. Even after they became citizens, the constitution left it up to each state to decide who has the right to vote and it took until 1957 for all states to enfranchise Native Americans. Although they finally were legally able to vote, many encountered the same obstacles that African Americans faced such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and outright intimidation. 

The Fifteenth Amendment Lithograph by James Beard, 1971
Library of Congress Collection)
African American Suffragists
Library of Congress Collection)

African Americans were also heavily involved in the women’s rights movement without enjoying the same results as white women. Prior to the Civil War, African American women were prominent in the suffrage movement. Formerly enslaved women like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman were active in suffrage circles and were often invited to speak at meetings. After the Civil War suffrage became entwined with debates over the rights of the formerly enslaved, leading to disagreements within the suffrage movement. The American Equal Rights Association (AERA) was formed by former abolitionists and women’s rights activists and endorsed both women’s and African American men’s right to vote. The proposal of the 15th amendment, passed in 1870, which would give African American men the right to vote but not women angered many in the suffrage movement, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who insisted that men shouldn’t receive the right before women. 

These two women split from AERA and formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA).  Many in the NWSA felt that supporting African American’s right to vote would alienate white southern women from supporting suffrage so they prevented African American women from attending conventions and forced them to march separately from white women in suffrage parades.

Despite the segregation within the movement, African Americans still joined the NWSA and other suffrage groups. An African American member of the NWSA, Adella Hunt Logan, explained how much the right to vote meant to African Americans: 

“If white American women, with all their natural and acquired advantages, need the ballot, that right protective of all other rights; if Anglo Saxons have been helped by it… how much more do black Americans, male and female, need the strong defense of a vote to help secure them their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?”

The passage of the 19th amendment, the end point for white suffragists, was just the beginning for African American women’s involvement in the suffrage fight. Jim Crow laws in the south prevented many African Americans from exercising their right to vote. It wasn’t until the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which banned racial discrimination in voting, that a majority of African Americans could actually vote. Despite these laws, people of color have still faced obstacles to voting that most white Americans do not.