White Suffragettes were ready and willing—as their successors are—to abandon BIPOC to advance their own interests.
White women love saying some variation of, “We are the granddaughters of the witches you could not burn”—even though no “witches” were actually burned at the stake during the Salem Witch Trials. It would be more accurate for them to say, “We are the granddaughters of the Suffragettes who sold out Black and brown women for their own political gain.” Because white women have been choosing whiteness since they fought for the right to vote.
The likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Alice Paul will be celebrated this year, as they are every year. Since this year is the centennial anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, we will be seeing endless posts on social media about women having the vote for 100 years. Some have already begun. What we should actually be reflecting on is the 100th reminder of the quickness with which white Suffragettes were willing to abandon their Black and brown counterparts to ensure the ratification of the 19th Amendment, knowing it would not guarantee the right to vote for anyone but them.
As with most things—from hairstyles to fashion to vocabulary—white women were not the first to promote the idea that women should have a political voice, but they are the ones who receive all the credit in most discussions. Wakerakatste Louise McDonald Herne, the bear-clan mother of the Mohawk Nation, points out that Indigenous women were involved in politics far before the white colonizers arrived. In an interview with The Washington Post, Herne said, “It was our grandmothers who showed white women what freedom and liberty really looked like. They began to witness for themselves a freedom that they had never seen before.” Lucretia Mott, one of the drafters of the Declaration of Sentiments at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, spent the summer of 1848 with the Seneca Nation. This was transformative for her in that she was able to witness the positions of power Indigenous women held in communities that believed that society could not progress without their participation.
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Despite taking inspiration from Indigenous women, the white leaders of the Suffragette movement did not see the liberation of Black and brown women as tied to their own. In fact, these white women—once abolitionists—abandoned their supposed convictions, opposing the 15th Amendment and supporting white nationalism instead. In fact, white women’s feminist queen (before Hillary Clinton came around) Elizabeth Cady Stanton, openly espoused ideas that Black men were not smart enough or civilized enough to deserve the vote, but white women were. Stanton and her counterpart Susan B. Anthony courted white supremacists to be part of their movements. Amongst these women were Rebecca Felton, who was a fervent supporter of lynching, and Belle Kearney, who hoped that women’s suffrage would ensure “durable white supremacy.”
It should come as no surprise then that white women celebrated their victories in the streets with ticker-tape parades at the same time that Black Suffragists were threatened with violence when they tried to register to vote. When Mary Church Terrell petitioned her white counterparts for help, they told her it was a race problem, not a gender problem. So, they refused to help, arguing it wasn’t part of their movement’s mandate.
That and that alone should be the legacy of the white Suffragettes. They were ready and willing—as their successors are—to abandon BIPOC to advance their own interests. We cannot separate their embrace of white supremacy from the advances they made for affluent, white women. Sanitizing the history of the Women’s Suffrage Movement to fit the #girlboss narrative it is already being uplifted as this year is not fair to those who had to fight for years after—without the help of white women—to secure voting rights.