Countless women fought for over 70 years for the women’s right to vote and August 18, 2020 will be the centennial of the 19th amendment. Over the past few years there has been an increased focus on how to commemorate this 100th year anniversary.
During the late 19th and early 20th century, a wide variety of women fought for the same rights; however, there was contention between some white women and Black women. In many situations, Black women had to fight in order to be included in the movement.
These prominent women included Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terrell, Anna Julia Cooper, and Ida B. Wells, just to name a few. Wells worked with white suffragists in Illinois, and also founded the Alpha Suffrage Club, which was the first suffrage group for African American women. She and some white activists from the Illinois delegation went to Washington, DC to participate in the 1913 suffrage parade. Once there, Wells and all other Black women were asked to march in the back of the parade. The reason given for this request was to make white Southern women feel comfortable. It was extremely clear that the theory of sisterhood espoused by these white women did not align with Black women’s lived experiences. Of course, some Black women did not comply with the dehumanizing request, but that those white women had the audacity—and comfort level—to even ask exemplified how Black women were often disregarded in a whites-only suffragette movement.
Even though women legally got the right to vote in 1920, most Black women in the South were not able to exercise that right for decades because many barriers prohibited them from doing so. It took another 45 years before Black women could vote as a result of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 .
In addition, several decades after the passage of the 19th amendment, there was contention and struggle within academia about how to document the suffrage movement. There was an effort to whitewash the history or erase the black women who were involved. Many Black scholars fought for Black women to be included in texts and curriculum. In fact, the late Dr. Roslyn Terborg-Penn researched and wrote the seminal book African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920.
Now that we’re on the eve of the centennial, there are efforts to create public history pieces that honor the pioneers of the suffrage movement. The committees and funders are able to control which history will be reflected in public spaces.
There are currently 23 statues in Central Park and none of them are in the image of real women. A statue that is being created will change that. A committee formed to create a statue in New York’s Central Park to honor Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Although these two women undeniably fought very hard for women to get the right to vote, both opposed the 14th and 15th amendments to the US Constitution, which made it possible for Black men to vote, but did not give that right to women. Despite the fact that the suffrage movement included innumerable women over several decades, the statue of these two women is being referred to as a “Women’s Suffrage Movement Monument.”
Although most people could argue that the depiction of two white women does not represent an entire movement, great care was taken to select this design. According to their press release: A total of 91 submissions from artists across the country were reviewed by a diverse jury consisting of art and design professionals, historians and representatives from New York City Parks and the
Based on their website, it’s clear that the committee chose to focus their efforts on honoring these two individual white women. They have their specific reasons for doing so. In order to be inclusive, the design features a scroll which will include the names of several other suffragists.
Luckily, the Central Park piece is not the only tribute that will honor suffragists. A different project is being created in northern Virginia. The Turning Point Suffrage Memorial intends to reflect an expansive and inclusive history of the suffrage movement. Some states are also honoring local suffragists. One example is the state of Tennessee. In 2016, a monument was installed in Centennial Park in Nashville which includes the likeness of four white women: Abby Crawford Milton, Anne Dallas Dudley, Sue Shelton White, Carrie Chapman Catt, and one African American woman, J. Frankie Pierce. This piece depicts all five women walking together on equal footing.
Each public history piece developed to date depicts the suffrage movement in different ways. It is impossible to capture a movement that included thousands of women over several decades that will include everyone. However, there are examples of other public history pieces that tell a history of a community, movement or event that affects thousands in ways that highlight more than a handful of people. Some examples include the 9/11 memorial and the Vietnam Memorial Wall. Some cities have created murals that capture a collective history such as the one in the Orange Mound section of Memphis, TN and one is slated for Crenshaw Avenue in Los Angeles, CA.
When it comes to gaining a full picture of the extent of those who were involved in the suffrage movement, the piece being developed for Central Park will probably depict the most limited version of that story. It is fortunate that individual states and some other communities will create a more inclusive and expansive way of telling that important history. Through statues, memorials, murals and markers this important and complex history can be captured and told in a way that Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native women’s contributions can also be seen in a visual way.
Michelle Duster is an author, speaker, and writing professor at Columbia College Chicago. She has written, published and contributed to a total of nine books. She is currently writing a biography of her great-grandmother, Ida B. Wells.
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