June 4, 1919 marks the day the 19th Amendment was passed in Congress. The Amendment would grant women the right to vote.
Since the United States’ founding, voting had been restricted to property owners. Only white men were permitted to own property, leaving women and African Americans disenfranchised for much of American history.
A Brief History of Women’s Suffrage
The women’s rights movement gained leverage after the Seneca Falls Convention in July of 1848. It was described by organizers as “a Convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women.” Around the same time, the nation would become embroiled in the Civil War. The war lasted from 1861 to 1865.
A Fracture in the Movement
During and after the war, figures including Elizabeth Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Henry Blackwell continued the women’s movement. When the 15th Amendment was passed after the war, the women’s movement was split on the issue. The Amendment gave black men the right to vote, which was a step in the right direction for abolitionists Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell.
Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, founders of the National Woman Suffrage Association, opposed the Amendment on the grounds that it did not enfranchise women. Susan B. Anthony, while remembered for her contributions to women’s rights, infamously said, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.”
The National Woman Suffrage Association would lobby for a Constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. Meanwhile, abolitionists Stone and Blackwell founded a separate organization called the American Woman Suffrage Association. They campaigned for women’s suffrage in the states.
Susan B. Anthony authored the 19th Amendment, which would be proposed in Congress in 1878 and defeated in the Senate nine years later. This defeat would cause the two suffrage movements to merge, becoming the National American Woman Suffrage Association. The organization would follow Stone and Blackwell’s strategy of tackling the women’s right to vote at the state level.
In just six years, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho granted women the right to vote. Wyoming had already done so roughly ten years prior in 1869.
For Gender and Racial Equity
Around this time in 1896, black women founded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW).
They understood that despite the participation of black women like Sojourner Truth, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Harriet Tubman in the women’s movement, white suffragettes were less than concerned with the rights of black women in particular.
In fact, the National American Woman Suffrage Association excluded black women from their meetings and parades.
The History of Woman Suffrage, authored by Susan B. Anthony, among others, neglected to mention the significant contributions black women had made to the women’s movement.
With the help of notable black women, the 19th Amendment would finally pass in Congress on June 4, 1919. It was ratified on August 18, 1920, granting women the right to vote.
It would take another 40 years, until the civil rights movement, when racist voting restrictions upheld during the Jim Crow era would be abolished.
Today, we are proud to recognize the contributions of black women who achieved women’s suffrage and made strides in civil rights in a time when no one was willing to speak on their behalf.
Black Women Who Fought for Women’s Right to Vote
We honor them today, on the anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment. These women helped achieve women’s right to vote, and so much more.
Born in 1797, Truth was a former slave, an abolitionist, and an advocate for women’s and civil rights in the nineteenth century. She was born Isabella Bomfree in the Dutch-speaking Ulster County, New York. Subjected to the horrors of slavery in her youth, Truth was bought and sold four times.
In 1927, she escaped with the help of an abolitionist family, the Van Wageners. Truth had five children, and she had escaped with her infant. The Van Wageners helped her successfully sue for the return of her five-year-old son, who had been sold to slavery in Alabama. In 1828, she became the first black woman to win such a case against a white man.
In New York City, Truth became a preacher and declared that she had been moved by the Spirit to speak the truth, hence her name. Truth met with abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, who encouraged her to speak about the evils of slavery. Truth dictated her biography The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, and survived on sales of the book.
She also met women’s rights activists Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and championed their cause.
In 1851, she embarked on a lecture tour in which she delivered her famous speech entitled, “Ain’t I a Woman?” Her speech challenged the popular notions of racial and gender inferiority.
Throughout her life, she continued to speak and help people escape from slavery. Her activism included lobbying and campaigning for civil rights (including an end to segregation) and petitioning Congress to provide land to former slaves.
During the Civil War, she organized supplies for black troops. She received an invitation to the White House to meet President Lincoln after the war.
Born into slavery in 1822 in Maryland, Harriet Tubman would become one of the most well-known antislavery activists and heroes of the Underground Railroad. Tubman served in the Union Army during the Civil War as a scout and spy. She also became a respected guerilla operative. She is considered the first African American woman to have served in the U.S. military.
Tubman helped rescue some 70 people from slavery as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. This led slave owners to know her name, and post a $40,000 reward for her capture or death. That amount is roughly equivalent to $1,281,304 today. Tubman bravely continued her work on the Railroad, and never lost a “passenger.”
In her later years, she joined Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in their campaign for women’s suffrage.
Having had a heart for service and great empathy, Tubman established the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged near her home. She hoped that the Home would allow others to continue her work for the poor and elderly in her community.
When Tubman died in 1913 at Fort Hill Cemetery in Auburn, New York, she was buried with military honors.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
Harper was born in 1825 in Baltimore, Maryland. A prolific writer, her writing career began in 1839 as she contributed to a number of anti-slavery journals. She was one of the first published black women in the United States, publishing her first book of poetry at age 20.
Her collection Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854) was widely popular. In 1859, her short story entitled “Two Offers” was published in Anglo-African. Harper made literary history as the first black woman to have her short story published. Years later at the age of 67, her famous novel Iola Leroy was published.
Harper was an abolitionist and a member of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. Through the organization, she helped refugee slaves on the Underground Railroad on their way to Canada. In 1853, she joined the American Anti-Slavery Society and became a public speaker and activist.
She founded and held office in many of the nation’s prominent progressive organizations. In 1894, she helped found and became the vice president of the NACW.
Josephine Silone Yates
Yates was born on Long Island, New York in 1852. At high school age, her aunt invited her to attend school in Newport, Rhode Island. The only black student in her class, Yates graduated as class valedictorian. She was the first black student to graduate from Rogers High School.
She went on to earn her teaching certification, and married Professor W. W. Yates of Kansas City’s Wendell Phillips School in 1889. Yates taught at the school, and was hailed as one of the best teachers in Missouri.
She was also a published author and an advocate for social change. She organized the Kansas City Women’s League and became its first president in 1893. Yates would become treasurer of the NACW from 1897 to 1901, serving as the organization’s president from 1901 to 1905.
Anna Julia Cooper
Cooper was born in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1858. Her book, A Voice From the South by a Black Woman of the South, published in 1892 would become a timeless African American feminist text.
She attended Saint Augustine’s Normal School and Collegiate Institute, and realized at one point that male students had a more rigorous curriculum than she and her female classmates.
This realization caused her to become a staunch advocate for black women’s education. She became the principal of M Street High School in Washington, D.C., where she established a college preparatory curriculum for students. Ivy League institutions accepted many of Cooper’s students.
Around this time, Cooper became a popular public speaker. She addressed the National Conference of Colored Women in 1895 and the first ever Pan-African Conference in 1900. At M Street, her emphasis on college preparatory education caused the city’s Board of Education not to renew her contract. Many people at the time, including Frederick Douglass, believed that black students should attend trade school rather than university.
Unphased, Cooper continued teaching at Lincoln University, a historically black college in Jefferson, Missouri. Having received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Oberlin College, she received her doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris at the age of 67. Her dissertation, written in French, was published in English as Slavery and the French Revolutionists, 1788–1805.
In addition to her innumerable accomplishments as an educator, Cooper was a devoted mother to seven. She raised two foster children and five adoptive children. She passed away peacefully, in her sleep, at age 105.
Mary Eliza Church Terrell
Terrell was born in 1863 in Memphis, Tennessee. An active member of The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Terrell was an early advocate for civil rights and women’s right to vote.
Her parents, former slaves, became small business owners and were an integral part of Memphis, Tennessee’s growing black population. Due to their success, they were able to send Terrell to Oberlin College.
In 1884, she became one of the first black women to earn her college degree. She would go on to receive her master’s degree in education.
At the suggestion of famous black sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, Terrell became the first president of the NACW.