Did we forget that the suffrage movement was laced with racism and a white supremacist understanding of the world?
Several articles have been published that center on the white pantsuit outfit Hillary Clinton wore to the inauguration of Donald Trump. All of these commentaries highlight the political import of women wearing white — namely, that it harkens back to the American and British women’s suffrage movement.
It’s understandable why Hillary Clinton was pegged as the modern embodiment of the suffrage cause. Not only is she viewed as a champion of women’s rights, but she has come the closest to breaking that formidable political glass ceiling. It’s also true that the inauguration wasn’t the first political occasion where she donned white, nor is she the first or only woman to adopt the practice.
Nonetheless, her decision sparked discussions about the obvious symbolism behind her wardrobe choice and the state of the suffrage for women today. In particular, in the wake of the widespread events that took place last Saturday, is it safe and fair to assume that we have entered a new wave of the women’s suffrage movement in this country?
Hillary Clinton wearing white on the eve of arguably the biggest call-to-arms for women’s rights in this country’s history is not coincidental. Estimates suggest that about half a million people — most of them toting pithy signs and wearing pussy hats — marched the streets of our nation’s capital the day after Donald Trump was sworn in as America’s 45th president. Millions more marched locally, in their own cities, to show their solidarity.
The massive turnout consisted largely of white women. Still, the theme of intersectionality did manage to make its presence felt. Native, Muslim, Hispanic and black women came out to put the Trump Administration and white feminists on notice. Each of the women from these marginalized communities where on site to fuse the unique set of social challenges they face with the more traditional issues that are prioritized in the suffrage movement: reproductive rights, equal pay, domestic abuse and violence, sexual assault, rape culture, parental leave and child care support.
But does the presence of marginalized women in Washington count as the beginning stage of a new suffrage movement? Better yet, is the real suffrage movement, the one understood by feminist historians like Louise Michelle Newman, worth resurrecting?
If some folks believe that electing Donald Trump to the American presidency was a beacon call for (white) women to resurrect the suffrage movement, then it’s worth noting that the cause of suffrage for women in our republic, like every other social struggle that has rocked America’s shores, was laced with racism. I highlight this pesky fact in a spirit of unity, not division.
Esteemed suffrage leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton harbored racist views and, like their white male counterparts, deployed racist logic to build an evolutionary case for why they were more deserving of the franchise than “Negroes.”
If we are to avoid making the same mistakes as white suffrage activists of yesteryear, then we need to acknowledge this, learn from it and map out ways to filter white racism from our current moment.
But have we learned? Judging by the controversy over who would helm leadership positions in the women’s march, it doesn’t seem like we have. In fact, activists of color who broached uncomfortable questions about this tendency to avoid diversifying leadership roles were accused of race-baiting.
It’s not just locking certain women out of leadership spaces that poses a problem. There’s also the “willful ignorance” of some (white) women, who protested and used the march to promote their opposition to violence toward women, but knew nothing about the #SayHerName campaign or the names of any of the black women victims whose bodies were violated and whose lives were snuffed out by the state.
In a sense, you can say that Clinton’s brand of feminism, which was fraught with problems, set the precedent for her followers and, possibly, this political moment. Her feminist credentials were questioned by black and Hispanic women, who could not reconcile her conviction that “women’s rights are human rights” with her espousal of the Crime Bill or the Welfare Reform Act. And her proximity to financial power lent credence to the belief that her feminism was of a bourgeois variety.
All of this is telling. It suggests that this new wave of the suffrage movement symbolically headed by Hillary Clinton appears to have begun in the same manner as its predecessor: whites showing up and showing out after, and only when one of their own is violated.
No wonder some critics have expressed skepticism about the ultimate meaning of this march and what it spells for the political times. One recent summary concluded that the march was nothing more than a feel-good event that, in the end, made for good publicity and a good opportunity for whites to vent or pat themselves on the back for taking minimal action.
Yet, even as I make these statements, it is still too early to determine if we’re in a new wave of sustained feminist activism in America. Marching is one thing. Doing long-term movement work is another.
However, if, as some articles have done, we’re set on using the language and example of the suffrage movement, on tying the present to the past; and if we’re set on classifying the work around women’s rights that’s being conducted in this period as the rebirth of the suffrage movement, then we owe it to ourselves to heed the information presented in this piece, to not repeat their mistakes, to expand the center and to build a movement that is inclusive of women from non-white backgrounds.