By Neena Arndt
It may seem clear to us today that all adult American citizens should have the right to vote. But it wasn’t so long ago that discriminatory actions kept people of color from exercising their civil liberty, as 19th (and even 20th) century activists advocated for their own group while ignoring the rights of those unlike them. While meeting with Frederick Douglass in 1866, Elizabeth Cady Stanton—long enshrined as a heroic figure in the suffrage movement–remarked that she would “cut off this right arm of mine” before she ever fought for voting rights for Black people and not women. Her remark reveals an attitude that remained unfortunately common among suffragists of that era.
The racism of Stanton and other activists was amplified by a sense, after slavery’s end, that either women or Black men—but not both—could gain the right to vote. Earlier in the century, Black and white women had sometimes worked side by side; as early as the 1830s, cities like Boston, New York and Philadelphia all had female anti-slavery societies, in which diverse groups of women expressed their political ideals. Abolitionism provided a natural segue to suffrage for the civic-minded citizen, as activists initiated the United States’ centuries-long transformation from a country that categorically privileged white men above all others to a more egalitarian nation. But suffragists splintered over whether to support the 15th amendment, which granted voting rights to Black men. Wendell Phillips, president of the American Anti-Slavery Society, famously referred to this post-slavery period as “the Negro’s hour” for voting rights. As writing from this period frequently assumes “Black” to be male and “woman” to be white, Phillips’ declaration implies that Black women have no place in this discourse while white women will have to wait their turn.
Stanton went further than ignoring the needs of Black women; she actively sought to deny men of color their rights by questioning their qualification to participate in democracy. Again debating Frederick Douglass at a convention in 1869, she opined, “think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung-Tung, who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic, who cannot read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling book…making laws for Susan B. Anthony. The amendment creates an antagonism everywhere between educated, refined women and the lower orders of men, especially in the South.”
Given attitudes like these, it’s hardly surprising that although the 19th amendment—ratified in 1920—technically granted all women the right to vote, women of color faced obstacles for many decades afterwards. In the South, people had to wait up to 12 hours to register, which proved impossible for those working long hours to earn a meager living. Officials also subjected Southerners to literacy tests, often requiring specific knowledge about the state Constitutions, which many could not pass because they’d had little access to education. Some states also required aspiring voters to pay poll taxes. The theoretical right to vote meant little in practice; Black women and men needed another wave of activism, and more legislation, before they could participate fully in their democracy.
They would have to wait another 40 years before the national sentiment tipped in their favor; it wasn’t until the 1960s that the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum. It was then that Fannie Lou Hamer, a woman in her 40s who had spent her life toiling on a plantation, took up the cause after making her first attempt to vote. Although the 19th Amendment had passed when Hamer was three years old, she’d lived decades of her life without knowing it applied to her. “I had never heard until 1962 that Black people could register and vote,” Hamer said later. Although she could read well, Hamer failed a literacy test, only passing it on her third attempt after studying esoteric details of the Mississippi Constitution. She made it her mission to advocate for voting rights, becoming an important catalyst for the rapid social change that characterized the era.
In June 1964, three civil rights workers, who had volunteered to help Blacks register to vote in Mississippi, disappeared. The FBI later recovered their bodies, and indicted sixteen members of the Ku Klux Klan in the murders. It was a high-profile crime that even more clearly brought the issue of voting rights into focus. That same year, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited unequal application of voter registration requirements. This was followed in 1965 by the Voting Rights Act, which prohibited literacy tests and provided federal monitoring to ensure that no localities took measures to discourage or prevent specific groups from voting.
By this time, 19th century activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton were long dead—many, like Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, had died before the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. History textbooks memorialize them for their efforts to achieve suffrage. For some. Today, as civil unrest once again grips our world, we celebrate a woman whose passion, struggle and endurance—”we are sick and tired of being sick and tired”—led to achieving suffrage. For all.