The Fight to Vote: The Untold Story

This post originally appeared on PatMitchellMedia.com. It has been republished with permission.

2020 has already been a year of history-making events, and this week, another will be Kamala Harris’s official nomination as the vice presidential candidate on the Democratic national ticket.

Appropriately, given the historical significance of this year as the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment which gave the right to vote to white women, Kamala Harris remarked in an interview last week:

“When I think about the centennial and the importance of acknowledging the accomplishment … there’s a lot to celebrate, but also it should motivate us to be clear-eyed about how much work still needs to be done.”

black suffrage. The Fight to Vote: The Untold Story
Nannie Burroughs and nine Black women suffragists in 1905. (Library of Congress)

Work begins by honestly recalling and reviewing the history of the struggle for voting rights with 20/20 vision. We should be clear-eyed and accurate, putting forward the truth that in this movement and other social justice movements, women of color were organizing, supporting one another and working for change, and all too often, white women didn’t join them in their struggles. 

“What if Black women, it turned out, really always have been at the forefront of the struggles over American women’s voting rights, and what if we as a nation are just catching up to that?”

— Dr. Martha S. Jones, historian and author.
black suffrage. The Fight to Vote: The Untold Story
Suffragists demonstrating against Woodrow Wilson in Chicago, 1916. (Library of Congress / Burke & Atwell, Chicago)

Even the most informed among us, are catching up to a lot we didn’t know, learn or celebrate until now. Writer Marianne Schnall, in acknowledging the extent to which history books systematically erase women and their contributions to history, notes that “less than 3 percent of the words in history textbooks are specifically about women and only 5 percent of all images of historic figures are women of color.”

This is just one of many important facts becoming more well known because of a new project, “Truth Be Told“—a digital collection of historical portraits and artifacts funded by Melinda Gates’a Pivotal Ventures—that tells a more inclusive story of the women’s suffrage movement.

“If white American women, with all their natural and acquired advantages, need the ballot, that right protective of all other rights; if Anglo Saxons have been helped by it … how much more do Black Americans, male and female, need the strong defense of a vote to help secure them their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?”

Adella Hunt Logan

This is why, as we celebrate 100 years of white women voting this month, it’s important to unlearn what we were taught in school and seek out the truth about what really did happen. And a great place to start is with the “Truth Be Told” digital collection.

You’ll learn how Black women leaders such as Sojourner TruthFrances E.W. HarperMary Church TerrellJosephine St. Pierre Ruffin and Ida B. Wells-Barnett; Chinese suffragist Mabel Ping-Hua Lee; and Latinx organizer Nina Otero-Warren, were sidelined by the white women leaders, who believed their cause would gain more support if women of color were excluded. 

“A white woman has only one handicap to overcome—that of sex. I have two—both sex and race. … Colored men have only one—that of race. Colored women are the only group in this country who have two heavy handicaps to overcome, that of race as well as that of sex.”

Mary Church Terrell

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Two important new podcasts out this month also begin to tell the full story of women’s suffrage: “She Votes!,” hosted by journalists Ellen Goodman and Lynn Sherr. Having lived through—and covered—feminism’s second-wave, Goodman and Sherr recount stories that include the first demands to speak on public matters by antislavery activists in 1837, the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention for Women’s Rights, and up to the drama of the final passage in 1920 and beyond to the impact of women as voters on elections.

Another important podcast focused on women’s history also launched this month is “And Nothing Less: The Untold Stories of Women’s Fight for the Vote,” co-hosted by actors/activists Rosario Dawson and Retta. They explore the array of diverse voices beyond Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, sharing the stories of generations of activists who fought for full access to the ballot. Guests will include historian Dr. Martha S. Jones, author of “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All,” journalist Elaine Weiss, who wrote “The Woman’s Hour,” and Michelle Duster, the great-granddaughter of suffragist and civil rights icon Ida B. Wells.

While it’s true that the 19th Amendment, ratified August 18, 1920, made it illegal for states to deny the ballot to women based on their sex, it didn’t guarantee their right to vote. 

“Tremendous amounts of talent are being lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt.”

Shirley Chisholm

“Women would still have to navigate a maze of state laws—based upon age, citizenship, residency, mental competence, and more—that might keep them from the polls. The women who showed up to register to vote in the fall of 1920 confronted many hurdles. Racism was the most significant one,” writes Dr. Martha S. Jones.

Universal suffrage wasn’t secured until 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). And sadly in the 21st century, the right to vote is under threat once again. In the past 20 years, the Supreme Court has weakened the VRA and many states have “put barriers in front of the ballot box — imposing strict voter ID laws, cutting voting times, restricting registration, and purging voter rolls.” 

Which brings us to 2020, in the middle of a pandemic that raises health and safety concerns for in-person voting, and a president actively undermining the process for voting by mail. It’s important to check your registration status, learn about absentee and early voting in your state, or even register to vote if you need to do that. 

“I do not think the mere extension of the ballot a panacea for all the ills of our national life. What we need today is not simply more voters, but better voters.”

Frances E.W. Harper

This November, we not only have a woman running for vice president—the first woman of color on a Democratic party ticket—but we also have a record number of women running for Congress, surpassing the record set during the 2018 midterms. Advocacy groups, including Time’s UpEMILY’s ListPlanned ParenthoodSupermajorityNARALShe the PeopleHigher Heights for America and others, have been mobilizing to proactively combat the sexism and racism that negatively impact women running for political office.

Last week’s #WeHaveHerBack Twitter campaign shone a spotlight on what president and CEO of Time’s Up Now Tina Tchen calls the “unfair coverage, double standards, and coded language that have held women—and especially women of color—from positions of power, across party lines, for far too long.”

A lot is at stake in November 2020 to fulfill the promises of August 1920 (19th Amendment) and of August 1965 (The Voting Rights Act). 

For me, this feels like the time to Woman UP!—to show up, speak up, step up, stand up for one another and for the democratic values that every vote counts and every voter matters.

Onward!


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About

Pat Mitchell is known for her leadership in the media industry as a CEO, producer and curator. She partners with the TED organization to co-curate and host an annual global TEDWomen conference and is the chair of theWomen’s Media Center and Sundance Institute boards, a founding board member of V-Day, a member of the board of the Acumen Fund and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The first woman president and CEO of PBS, she most recently served as president and CEO of the Paley Center for Media; she is now a senior adviser to the organization. She is also the former president of CNN Productions, where she executive produced hundreds of hours of documentaries and specials, which received 35 Emmy Awards and five Peabody Awards. She was inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame in 2009.