5. 19th Amendment: Suffrage and the Power of Women’s Votes

5. 19th Amendment: Suffrage and the Power of Women's Votes

With Guests:

Helping us to understand the power and the promise of the vote and what this means for women’s empowerment are two very special guests:

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In this Episode:

In this episode, in the midst of the centennial anniversary of women’s securing the right to vote, we focus on the 19th Amendment. The perpetual struggle for U.S. voting rights has been fraught with conflict, and the fight for women’s suffrage was no exception. Even after the 19th Amendment was passed, women of color were denied the opportunity to vote: Black women were kept from voting through insidious practices like poll taxes and long wait times (some which still exist today); Indigenous women, many of whom inspired the initial Euro-American push for women’s rights and suffrage, were not considered citizens; and Asian women could not naturalize for citizenship. In fact, until the mid-1950s, laws enacted by Congress—including the Page Act—made it very difficult for Asian women who immigrated to the U.S. to become citizens.  

Because voting rights are central to our democracy, we devote this episode to the 19th Amendment, its history and the road ahead.

Background Reading:

Take Action:

  • Make sure you’re registered to vote at WhenWeAllVote.org.
  • Find more ways to stand up for everyone’s right to vote here.

Transcript:

Michele Goodwin: 

Welcome to the “On the Issues With Michele Goodwin” at Ms. Magazine, a show where we report, rebel and tell it like it is. On this show, we center your concerns about rebuilding our nation and advancing the promise of equality. Join me as we tackle to most compelling issues of our times.

On today’s show, we focus on the 19th Amendment. This is the 100th year anniversary of women securing the right to vote in the United States—yet we know that road was fraught, as women of color were denied the opportunity to vote, Black women were kept from the vote, indigenous women were not considered citizens, and Asian women could not naturalize for citizenship. In fact, until the mid-1950s, laws enacted by Congress—including the Page Act—made it very difficult for Asian women who immigrated to the United States to become citizens. 

When Sojourner Truth gave that groundbreaking speech about womanhood, she spoke about the pains of Black women—unpaid labor, birthing children snatched from their arms, and much more. She understood the power of the right to vote, as so many women do, and we understand voting rights are central to our democracy. They help determine not just who the next president will be, but they help us to steer local elections, too—for county offices, school boards, mayors, governors, district attorneys and more. 

Helping us to understand the power and the promise of the vote and what this means for women’s empowerment are two very special guests. Joining me today are Sally Roesch Wagner. She is a writer, a historian, a director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Center. She was awarded one of the first doctorates in the country for work in women’s studies. She is the author of The Women’s Suffrage Movement,” and “Sisters in Spirit: Iroquois Influence on Early Feminists: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Early American Feminists.”

Also joining me today is Melanie Campbell. She is the executive director and CEO for the National Coalition of Black Voter Participation. She is a nationally recognized expert in civic engagement, election reform and coalition-building, and so much more. She is a convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable, Intergenerational Public Policy Network.

Now before I turn to our guests, I want to take a moment to pause and reflect on that famous, important civil rights leader, movement leader and voting rights advocate, Fannie Lou Hamer.

Let’s take a listen to her speech from her speech in 1964, when she addressed the country at the Democratic National Convention.

It gives me chills.

Fannie Lou Hamer:

I was carried to the county jail and put in the booking room. They left some of the people in the booking room and began to place us in cells. I was placed in a cell with a young woman called Miss Ivesta Simpson. After I was placed in the cell, I began to hear sounds of licks and screams. I could hear the sounds of licks and horrible screams. And I could hear somebody say, “Can you say, ‘yes, sir,’ nigger? Can you say ‘yes, sir’?”

And they would say other horrible names.

She would say, “Yes, I can say, ‘yes, sir.'”

“So, well, say it.”

She said, “I don’t know you well enough.”

They beat her, I don’t know how long. And after a while she began to pray, and asked god to have mercy on those people.

And it wasn’t too long before three white men came to my cell. One of these men was a State Highway Patrolman and he asked me where I was from. And I told him Ruleville. He said, “We are going to check this.” And they left my cell and it wasn’t too long before they came back. He said, “You are from Ruleville, all right,” and he used a curse word. And he said, “We’re going to make you wish you was dead.”

I was carried out of that cell into another cell where they had two Negro prisoners. The State Highway Patrolmen ordered the first Negro to take the blackjack. The first Negro prisoner ordered me, by orders from the State Highway Patrolman, for me to lay down on a bunk bed on my face. And I laid on my face, the first Negro began to beat me.

And I was beat by the first Negro until he was exhausted. I was holding my hands behind me at that time on my left side, because I suffered from polio when I was six years old.

After the first Negro had beat until he was exhausted, the State Highway Patrolman ordered the second Negro to take the blackjack.

The second Negro began to beat and I began to work my feet, and the State Highway Patrolman ordered the first Negro who had beat to sit on my feet—to keep me from working my feet. I began to scream and one white man got up and began to beat me in my head and tell me to hush.

One white man—my dress had worked up high—he walked over and pulled my dress—I pulled my dress down and he pulled my dress back up.

I was in jail when Medgar Evers was murdered.

All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens.

Michele Goodwin: 

Sally, I want to start with you.  We’ve just heard from Fannie Lou Hamer. I want you to give us a sense though of the history before Mrs. Hamer and her efforts to secure the right for women in Mississippi—for Black women in Mississippi [to vote].  That was the 1960s, but you can tell us about a longer arc of women trying to secure the right to vote.

Sally Roesch Wagner:

Oh, Michele. I’m delighted to be with you and happy to share this story as I know it.

Women have had political voice on this land for over 1,000 years—while we, in the United States, are celebrating 100 years of having a political voice guaranteed in the Constitution. I think that’s the most sobering part of this story for me, is that there are women of color who are … citizens of sovereign nations today who are able to provide a leadership of that long, having a political voice. The clan mothers have, since the founding of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the sixth nation confederacy. I’m, right now, on the aboriginal homelands, the original homelands of the Onondaga nation, one of the six Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois nations, formed the confederacy. 

The clan mothers have for 1,000 years nominated, held in office, and removed if necessary, the chiefs that represent them in counsel. It’s a balance of authority, and one of the most surprising things to me is that one of the decisions that a clan mother must make is whether or not the chief is appropriately representing them. He must listen to her and listen to the voice of the people through her, and he cannot have committed a violation of a woman or a child or it is the responsibility of the clan mother to remove him. 

Michele Goodwin: 

One of the things that you’ve just shared is 1,000 years of history, in terms of voting rights and political engagement on these lands, and that’s very sobering when you consider that people are celebrating today 100 years of that through the 19th Amendment. 

Sally Roesch Wagner:

We have a tenth of the experience that native women have had, and that’s just Haudenosaunee. You know, I think that native women have had…indigenous women have had political voice on this land for a long time before Columbus landed. 

Michele Goodwin: 

That’s really so important for our listeners to understand. You know, so most people have heard about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony but why do you think that indigenous women have largely been left out or shut out of the story about women’s suffrage, voting, and empowerment?

Matilda Joslyn Gage (Wikimedia Commons)

Sally Roesch Wagner:

Part of the reason, I think, is the same reason that Matilda Joslyn Gage has been written out of history. Matilda Joslyn Gage was considered equally important with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. They were the leadership triumvirate of the National Women’s Suffrage Association.

In 1890, the two women’s suffrage organizations merged to form a more conservative vote-only movement, and at that point, the movement becomes not only more conservative, it becomes practicing racism as policy.

Michele Goodwin: 

Amongst women.

Sally Roesch Wagner:

Yes. This was the National American Women’s Suffrage Association—and they made the argument: Look. Give women the vote because it’s a way to maintain white supremacy. There are more white women than there are Negroes, and there are more white women than there are immigrants, so if you want to maintain white native-born supremacy, give us the vote.

They allowed the state auxiliaries to segregate, to work for Jim Crow Laws, and also to work for the vote for white women only. It forced African American women to organize on their own, and they organized for a multiplicity of issues, but they organized, also, for suffrage. 

Now, once this movement becomes a racist policy practicing movement, it’s going to be an embarrassment to them to look to women of color as having a leadership role with the initial suffrages. I mean, here’s a story that they never would’ve wanted to tell. Matilda Joslyn Gage …

Michele Goodwin: 

Tell it. Tell it. 

Sally Roesch Wagner:

I’d be delighted to. Matilda Joslyn Gage, who was the president of the National Women’s Suffrage Association, in 1875 wrote a series of articles, front page, in the New York Evening Post, and in those articles, among other things, she talks about the superior position of Haudenosaunee women.

She also, in 1878, writes an editorial in the newspaper that she is editing, the suffrage newspaper, Women’s Rights Newspaper—she does an editorial in support of the Haudenosaunee chiefs who refuse citizenship in New York State when there’s a law that would give them citizenship and the vote, and she says they’re a sovereign nation every bit as much as Mexicans, and Canadians, and we would not force citizenship on them

She goes on to talk about the need to support treaty rights. In 1893 she is given an honorary adoption into the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk Nation and given a real name—the name is still in use today—and the same year she’s arrested for voting in her own village in a school board election, a school suffrage election, and she writes that her clan sisters are considering her for a position in the Council of Matrons, which would give her a political voice, so in 1893 she’s arrested for voting in her own nation. It’s a test case like Anthony’s case was a test case 20 years before, and she’s given an honorary adoption and the possibility of political voice in her adopted native nation. 

Michele Goodwin: 

My goodness, but as you say, she’s largely written out of history and what you’re suggesting is that part of that is because of her anti-racism—the fact that she was looking to stand aside indigenous folks, Native Americans, and speak of equality with folks who had been shut out.

So, it’s not just indigenous women who’ve been left out, and so Melanie, I’m so grateful that you’re on the show, too. Just a wonderful guest. You’ve been doing path-breaking work in this space. Can you tell us, from your perspective, why it is that the 19th Amendment evokes mixed feelings amongst Black women, while on one hand it’s celebrated 100 years in, women’s equality and voting, and yet at the same time there are folks who feel it’s a complicated issue to celebrate?

Melanie Campbell:

Michele, thank you for this invitation. I kind of wear a couple of hats … but I’m also a delta, a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated, and so we know when we had the suffrage march that we were asked to go to the back of the processional, and although we helped for white women to get that right, it did not deal with the fact that African Americans were still going through the times of Jim Crow laws, and it wasn’t until 1965 that we really had the right to vote without fear or intimidation, and so that reality of how it meant for Black people, especially Black women at that time—that’s in short order the mixed bag, and we’ve never stopped fighting to end voter suppression today, and so hitting us with Billy clubs and water hoses as they did in the ‘60s, but we have voter suppression that is happening even as we speak when you’re even talking about what’s happening today as we prepare for the 2020 general election. 

So, for African Americans, it’s always been a mixed bag. We commemorate it. We know we were there. We know we helped push it, but we know it did not bring all … and it wasn’t like we weren’t voting in some places before the suffrage march and all of those things had happened. Yes, sisters like Ida B. Wells, and Mary Church Terrell, and you had Mary McLeod Bethune. Black women were very much a part of fighting not just for voter rights but just for liberation during those times, and so the idea of intersectionality was not the term, but that’s what was happening. There was more to it for us, especially trying to vote meant you could lose your life, so it was a whole different … so that’s part of the challenge, but we still lift up our role in it. 

Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, and Mary McLeod Bethune (Wikimedia Commons)

Michele Goodwin: 

So, Melanie, and also for you, too, Sally. What went wrong then with the suffrage movement and its relationship to racial equality?

Melanie Campbell:

Just the reality that when Black women showed up, they were asked to get to the back of the line—so even in showing up there was this notion that there was a racial hierarchy happening in that moment, in those moments, and so that reality lasted throughout.

So, when I think of this 100th anniversary, I immediately think about what happened from then to 1965, because our history and fighting for the right to vote never stopped—before that and even into today—and so when you talk to Black women of today, especially younger Black women, they really don’t get why we’re even commemorating this moment about the women’s right to vote, and we knew for African Americans, it just wasn’t in reality, and if you get to thinking about what happened in the South, where I’m from—I grew up in Florida—so Mary McLeod Bethune, when she went to go try to register or get folks registered to vote, they were attacked.

That you don’t really hear about. You hear women won the right to vote, 19th Amendment, rah, rah, rah—but you have to break that down to say well, wait a minute, hold on.

In many cases for many years we didn’t really lift it up as a part of our Black history, even though that we were present, so we think about systemic change when it comes to voting rights. We think of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because it was dealing with the fact that the violence that took place because of racism, so for African Americans, we see that as our moment versus the 19th Amendment, because it wasn’t practically what happened. 

Michele Goodwin: 

And so then I’d like to turn to you then, Sally, to help us understand then how voting rights became further suppressed after the 19th Amendment. 

Sally Roesch Wagner:

I think that how it went wrong is the beginning of it—that I think they chose the wrong allies. I think the suffrage movement should have and could have supported African American men in voting, could’ve supported immigrant men in voting, could’ve worked against voter suppression laws instead of working in the states, and especially in the South, for voter suppression laws.

And I think at the same time that we celebrate, they push democracy a bit forward. They may have won the battle to put it in the Constitution, but they lost the war for freedom, and they lost the war for ensuring that there would be a vote there for the taking—that people actually could vote.

Melanie has just nailed it. I mean, that’s exactly what happened, and I think that it was not just choosing to align with Southern racists; it was also choosing to throw African American women under the bus. 

When they came to the conventions and asked for support for an end to discrimination, for example, on the trains, Susan B. Anthony was president at the time, and she said: Well, that’s not our issue. We’re only working for the vote.

Ida B. Wells. How many African American lives would’ve been saved if the women’s suffrage movement would’ve worked with Ida B. Wells against lynching?And so I think at the same time we celebrate, we have to hold these suffragists accountable for continuing the racism that was present in this society, and still is, and for fostering the voter suppression that we are still fighting in the 2020 election

Michele Goodwin: 

And really capitalizing off of white supremacy in that way. It’s an excellent point that you mentioned, which is that, in being complicit with that racism in acquiring power by proximity, the war was really lost because it’s not as if what that engendered were a whole set of other rights, even for white women, as we continue to see pay gaps, as we continue to see after that a Supreme Court that didn’t recognize women being able to serve on juries, or for that matter to even be executors of estates when their husbands died. Such brilliant points. 

Melanie, were you going to add to that?

Melanie Campbell:

Yes, and when we look at the Civil Rights Movement of the ’40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, the reality about Emmett Till as an example, right.

Mourners at Emmett Till’s funeral. Emmett Till was a 14-year-old African American lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after being accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store. (Wikimedia Commons)

African Americans who lost their lives when white women could be there at their will—and I always say there were also white women who were a part of the movement, but there was also the reality that white people—men and women—and especially in the South but not exclusive to the South … how do I want to say this? I come out of a place called Mims, Florida where the Klan … I grew up around the Klan, right. We grew up understanding … I’m a ‘60s baby, understanding that racism had never left just gotten more sophisticated, but I come out of a community where Harriett and Harry T. Moore‘s home was bombed in the ‘50s before I was born, but it was ingrained in us. So being able to understand that as we were continuing to fight for our rights, that racism never left; it just evolved—and so that reality, when it comes to voting rights, as being one of the lynchpins for our liberation, not the only right, because racism comes in so many forms, for us, for African Americans, it’s even today … even when we talk about what happened then with violence and other kinds of things, like poll taxes and literacy tests, and then we look at today and what do we have? 

We have the dismantling of the Voter’s Right Act in 2013 with Shelby v. Holder. We continually have, since President Obama was elected, states across the country passing laws to make sure that this would never happen again so that for us is hard to just look at it—this is where I’m struggling even with our conversation. It’s like what hard is to know that some of these things have never really left and have just evolved.

That’s why we have a Black Lives Matter movement now, because the systemic racism that has prevailed and voting being a core part of … or voter suppressing our vote is just because it’s been the continuous tactic and that’s been … again, not all African Americans, not all white people, not just white women—but just the system itself that allows for white supremacy to still reign in this country. 

Michele Goodwin: 

And in fact to help give our listeners greater understanding, because we have a number of listeners who write to us and tell us how much they enjoy the show, and there are things that they learn that they just simply had not known before, that they were never taught in school, that they didn’t pick up on in college, didn’t even pick up on in graduate school, and so just to emphasize that a little bit more, when you mentioned poll taxes what are poll taxes? Even though you think that everybody must know what poll taxes were there are people who…

Melanie Campbell:

You’re right. Yeah, I’ve been working too long in this.

Michele Goodwin: 

Exactly. There are people who don’t know about poll taxes, don’t know about the jellybeans in the jar, or the number of … you know, guess the number of bubbles on a bar of soap. What was that history?

Melanie Campbell:

You know, the passing of Congressman John Lewis, I think, was a really teachable moment for a lot of younger generation folks who kind of tuned into hearing about his legacy. Understanding that poll taxes were fees that were charged to make sure, especially in the South, for Black people not to be able to vote, and then they had grandfather clauses, excuse some poor whites from payment if they had an ancestor who voted before the Civil War, but there were no exemptions for Black people. There were all kinds of things that were put in place. Literacy tests, people coming up and walk up to go register to vote and somebody would just make up something, like: How many jellybeans in a jar? And throw a number out. Of course, you’re wrong. You can’t register today, right.

Things like being lynched. It was domestic terrorism at its worst when folks tried to register to vote. People’s homes were bombed. I mentioned Harriette and Harry T. Moore. 

Harry T. Moore was organizer, president and state coordinator of the Florida branch of the NAACP. Moore and his wife Henrietta were killed in a bombing at their home on Christmas Eve, 1951. (Wikimedia Commons)

What were the Moore’s? The Moores were the heads of the … Harry T. Moore was the head of the NAACP in the state of Florida in my hometown, which is why I have some different perspective growing up with those stories that were told, was bombed because he was, what? Trying to register people to vote. And his wife and both of them died in 1951 from the bombing of their home by the KKK.

Those were called, then, ways of voter suppression, and then I said they evolved to being more sophisticated, and so when you talk about 1965 and the passers of the voting rights saying what was the strength of it was the fact that you had the ability for the federal government to monitor, right, and to be able to—you had Section IV and Section IV that made sure that someone couldn’t just decide tomorrow to move a polling place without being clear if they had historical discrimination in that particular state, or in some cases county, and so the reality is that it was gutted and here we are today where that hasn’t been corrected by Congress—although one half of that, the House of Representatives have passed what they now called the John Lewis Restoration … Voting Rights Restoration Act.

The Senate, that bill is sitting in the Senate not being passed by the leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, who says he’s the grim reaper and he just has a graveyard full of bills that have been passed, and voting rights is right there as one of those things.

So even as we’re going through the election there are so many states that could change rules and change laws, and there’s no federal remedy, and for African Americans, our history has been that we would steep the federal government because state’s rights, right—I’m not trying to get in the weeds but just…

Michele Goodwin: 

You get in the weeds. That’s completely fine. 

Melanie Campbell:

Hopefully, to understand that. State’s rights were, for the most part, not to the benefit of African Americans for our liberation and we would go to the Supreme Court, we would go to the federal government. We would got to the Justice Department to help remedy discrimination of all types—and now we’re in a situation where this administration is not somewhere you can go. The Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act and in no way appears to be able to want to correct that. 

Michele Goodwin: 

And over time, as you’ve mentioned, there was various ways in which voter suppression continued—so that even though Black people were free from the shackles of slavery, still Jim Crow was absolutely awful and sometimes could even mean death for lots of Black folks. But you’ve mentioned Congressman John Lewis. Representative John Lewis recently passed away, but he was a stalwart, and he and so many others fought for the right to vote, and that ultimately led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. What was it that the 1965 Voting Rights Act was supposed to do?

Sally, would you help us? What was that all about? And then I’m going to turn to you, Melanie. 

Sally Roesch Wagner:

I would pass that to Melanie because I think she could probably answer that much better than I could. 

Melanie Campbell:

I think in a nutshell it was about being able to have the right to vote without fear of intimidation. That’s in short order what it was about—because at the end of the day, yes, we had the right to vote but we didn’t have the right to vote without fear or intimidation of death to be able to vote or to be able to register to vote, and so you think about Congressman Lewis and so many others who crossed that bridge in March of 1965 and took those blows for us to have the right to vote without fear of intimidation, to be able to make sure that we would be able to elect candidates of choice. 

Joined by President Barack Obama and others, Congressman John Lewis crosses the Edmund Pettus Bridge, 50 years after the historic Selma march. (Official White House Photo / Pete Souza)

What does that mean? So, when it comes redistricting, draw lines to be able to figure out the ability for African Americans to be able to have an opportunity to be represented in the Congress, or in the state legislatures, and all the way down to district, school board districts, and county commission districts, and things like that so that—so in a nutshell, that’s what the Voting Rights Act did was protect our right to vote, but also give us the ability to build power, to build political power, to have access and opportunity.

That’s the way I like to describe it so folks can understand, and so because there are so many states—again, state’s rights was a part of the discrimination and racism that African Americans faced, especially in the Southern states, which was 11 states that were under the jurisdiction of the Justice Department to really monitor changes to make sure that any changes that were made were not discriminatory, and so it meant that if you were covered state or covered jurisdiction, then you had to go through the Justice Department to make sure that what you were changing was not discriminating against African Americans and others, and so that’s in a nutshell what it was about. 

So, when it was struck down in 2013, because of Shelby County versus Holder, it struck down the ability for there to be, I’m getting in the weeds again, a trigger for federal pre-clearance, before implementing any changes to voting laws or practices, so it makes easier for a state to make it harder for Black people, brown people.

We know that the reality is people of color are discriminated against, Latinos and others, and so the idea of having to fix that is something that we really need to take as a priority in this country. 

Michele Goodwin: 

So, as part of that case that you mentioned, it was a Supreme Court case that struck down part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which came about after all of that struggle, all of the violence that was against Black folks and others as they were trying to get folks to register to vote—and one of the things that the court said is that they didn’t think that the times were the same as they were in the 1960s. That no discrimination, that the kinds of ways in which voter suppression took place in the 1960s, that we just simply weren’t going to see that in the 2000s, so can you tell us about what it is that we’re actually seeing now? 

Melanie Campbell:

We’re seeing voter suppression online. We’re seeing voter ID laws passed all over the country in too many places. We’re seeing voter purges just without any real basis for them. We’re seeing polling locations being closed but not realizing what’s happening—so those are just some of those things. And even digital voter suppression is a new thing for us. We know that’s happening. 

Michele Goodwin: 

What exactly is that Melanie? What is digital voter suppression?

Melanie Campbell:

Digital voter suppression? Well. In the 2016 election, people hear about what happened with Russia. What did Russia do? Meddling of the elections. Well. Part of it was a targeting of not just African Americans but we were the main target of bad information, misinformation, disinformation—sending out bad information to and targeting the African Americans—and so the term we use now is called digital voter suppression, which is literally that’s what we’re talking about: online information. And it’s not the easiest thing to police, but it’s something that has an adverse effect on voter information, voter access. And even as we’re addressing the 2020 election for these next 78 days, 77 days from November 3rd. (I look at it every day.)

Where are we, really? What’s happening with the postal service is not under the Voting Rights Act, but it is under the reality that there are so many other sophisticated ways that we’re being impacted when it comes to voter suppression, but we’re going to keep fighting. 

Michele Goodwin: 

So, thank you for mentioning that because for some people who see voting as being pretty simple, that there’s a polling place that’s in their community, they go to that polling place in their community and they’re in and out within 20 minutes—so what you’re sharing is that it’s not that way for all Americans, basically. Am I right?

Melanie Campbell:

Yeah, and then now we have COVID-19, right, a pandemic. We saw in the state of Georgia, as an example, when the primaries took place in June where you had all of those long lines. It was a combination of things, and that example of all of those polling places that were not open, not enough. So you had long lines, unusually long: People stayed all day, for hours upon hours upon hours and so those changes can be made without checking to see the adverse impact of polling places not being opened across the state of Georgia because because the Voting Rights Act doesn’t have any teeth. That’s the word I want. So, these changes can’t be made, and the end result is voter suppression because if you’re not able to stay in a line for eight, nine, 10 hours you may not be getting to vote that day.

And so the other part of what’s happening now is we’re encouraging people to vote early ,and then we have an administration that’s doing everything they can to make sure certain people aren’t able to vote, but it’s impacting all Americans, not just African Americans. 

Impact with the attack through the postal service, attack on the postal service, of making sure they don’t have the infrastructure and the resources to take care of moving absentee ballots and applications for voting, so we have a tsunami of voter suppression issues that some of those things are about the fact that we don’t have a strong Voting Rights Act, but other things are new tactics that may not fall under that law but it still has an effect of suppressing the vote. 

Michele Goodwin: 

Right, and in fact, you mentioned the post office and there have been a number of attacks there even though there have been people who’ve been voting by mail for centuries in the United States, particularly people who have been in the military, so this is certainly nothing that’s new, utilizing the postal service to be able to access the right to vote.

I want to pivot for a moment and think about where we are now and how we move forward, with thinking about women and the right to vote. So, what is it that we get from women being able to exercise the right to vote?

Sally, I’d like to include you in on this—so when you think about what women were fighting for more than a century ago, some of those concerns continue today. So what have women wanted, and what’s been the benefit of women being able to vote?

Sally Roesch Wagner:

I think when the suffrage movement, when the Women’s Movement began to focus exclusively on the vote in 1890, we lost not only momentum, but we’ve lost the history.

In 1850, Matilda Joslyn Gage calls for equal pay for equal work. And she was not alone in that. At that point, women were making about a third to a half of the wages that men made. Today we’re what, 75, 78%, and for women of color it’s less than that, so at this rate, we won’t have pay equity for 150 years, you know. We lost the momentum of working for that.

We lost the momentum of working for reproductive justice. Matilda Joslyn Gage and Elizabeth Cady Stanton spoke out about the rights of the unborn, and what they said was the most sacred right of all is to be wanted and chosen and welcomed into the world, and the only way you can ensure that a child will be welcomed, and the mother is ready for this child, is for the woman to have the absolute decision making about whether or not she will birth and under what conditions. 

We’ve lost the momentum of what the women’s movement began—and I think regaining our history in an authentic way, which is what I tried to do in my book, the “Women’s Suffrage Movement: The Anthology,” was looking at what are all of the other issues that we were dealing with? Once we know that history, we know that we are on a trajectory that we didn’t begin in the 1970s or in the year 2000. This is—we’re continuing the fight for freedom. 

Michele Goodwin: 

So important that you recognize that and that you mentioned that reproductive rights, and so much more—that those were issues that are not just important for these times but more than a century ago, women were talking about that.

In fact, that makes me think about Sojourner Truth, who was born enslaved and was not able to vote, but she was a proponent of women’s equality and of women’s right to vote, and in a speech that most people regard as her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech she speaks to that.

So many people think of the speech as being about chivalry—as she does say that who opens up the carriage door for her—but there was much more to that speech as she talks about having birthed 13 children and nearly each one snatched from her arms to be sold, and no one heard her cry but god, and she says, “Ain’t I a woman?” And it’s a really powerful moment that connects to that reproductive justice piece. 

So, Melanie, I’d like to put that same question to you. When we think about women and voting, what’s the power and impact of women’s voting, because for so long men have said: ‘Well, look. We can take care of your issues for you. We can take care of your issues for you as judges. We can take care of those issues for you if we’re in the legislature. Why do you really need to be in those spaces?’ So, what’s the answer to that?

Melanie Campbell:

A woman president. We’re going to get there, right?

I think about how close we came in 2016, with Hillary Clinton, and here we are in this moment where, because of my day job, I’m not advocating for, I’m just talking facts as a 501(c)(3) organization, but just the facts—that we now have a national ticket with an African American woman who has an Indian background as well.

I think breaking that glass ceiling is more than symbolic, and I think we know that as women we are the majority vote, but yet it doesn’t reflect—not just from the top of the seat of political power, but not enough of us in the Senate, not enough of us in the House, not enough governors, and I think the issue of race and gender breaking those barriers will carry women to our rightful place. I believe it’s our time.

Kamala Harris. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

I know the generations behind me are definitely more than saying it’s our time, so I think we’re in a moment, even in the midst of all of the challenges that we face, that women are stepping forward. Black women are owning our power unapologetically—so we advocated and pushed, and we feel like many of us who weighed in were heard by Vice President Biden in choosing Kamala Harris as his running mate, and that to many people last week was hard to describe.

So many women that I’ve talked to from across generations—from women in their 80’s on down to women in their 20s and 30s—said that in that moment a lot of us cried. Why? Because we felt seen. We felt heard. We felt that this shifted something and all of the women who we named and those unnamed that we’re standing on the shoulders of our ancestors. I was blessed to be mentored, like many others, by Dr. Dorothy Irene Height, who helped found our organization, and thinking about folks like her, and thinking about just so many Shirley Chisholms, and so many Barbara Jordans, and so many others that came through and how that moment meant so much to addressing some of what we’re talking about as African American women. So I think it’s our time as women, and once we break some of those barriers I think, for the girls coming, for our girls, they’ll be able to look up and see themselves. Lived experience matters at the end of the day. 

Michele Goodwin: 

Well. In a Q&A with Safiya Charles, which was published in The Nation a couple of years ago, you said if you want to win get a Black woman candidate, and you said that may be a little arrogant, but look at the results, and you mentioned right there in Washington D.C. What were you talking about there?

00:43:44 Melanie Campbell:

Well. I also coined the phrase follow Black women if you want to win. I’m talking about the power of our vote not just being “the backbone” of the Democratic party but the backbone, the fore bone, and there’s not a Democrat who’s won the White House in recent history that didn’t win with the push of Black women to help carry that through. We’re not the only part of that but we are definitely a core, and really pushing to say: Respect Black women—not just our vote as a voting block, but respect Black women’s leadership at the end of the day, and we’re already showing that we can win in many places, especially mayors and other down-ballot kind of races, and so that’s part of what it was, and really pushing the party that benefits from our vote to not just benefit from our vote but respect our leadership. 

Michele Goodwin: 

Right, because you’ve also said that the secret sauce of Black women’s political power…

Melanie Campbell:

You’re Googling me!

Michele Goodwin: 

I’ve got to prepare! You say that the secret sauce of Black women’s political power is not just us turning out; it’s also who we get to turn out. We influence who votes in our families, and in our relationships, right. So, I want you to unpack that a little bit further—and what about those who say that well, Black people didn’t do enough in 2016, and there have been a lot that have pushed back on that, and say that: Why is this always Black people’s responsibility? 

Melanie Campbell:

We still gave Hillary Clinton 94% of our vote. We are the influencers. Seventy percent of Black women we’re head of the household, so we influence our households. We influence our significant others, our partners, whatever that significant other may be. We influence our children. We influenc—and so that’s the role we play significantly when it comes to that, so that’s what we mean by we’re the secret sauce. We’re not just a voting block to say if we show up that’s okay, but if we get others to show up that’s part of the secret sauce.

And so if you know that as a candidate, right, and respect that as a candidate, then when we try to weigh in on issues or platforms in recent times of who to really … respectfully, right, make the case about why you can get to 270 electoral votes if you choose a running mate that—in this time of Black Lives Matter movement, and I go back to that because this nation is made up of a diversity of races, and cultures, and all of that, but yet we’ve only had one African American president, and so the idea of being able to say: Diversity should not be an exception; it should be the rule. That’s what’s important, I believe, and I think when you look at that—not just because you’re of my color means that makes it perfect, but it does mean that some of your experiences that we are—when I walk out the door, yes, I’m a woman but I’m an African American woman. Every time I walk out the door, and so that reality, experience that’s been revealed, unfortunately, because of the killing of George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and Eric Connor, and Sandra Bland, and Tamir Rice, and on and on and on and on. 

It’s just brought it to the broader communities of this country to see what we see and see what we’ve been trying to say. The right to vote without fear or intimidation. Core to that reality. You can’t change any of these problems without having political power in this nation. 

Michele Goodwin: 

Well. You know, we’ve reached that part in the show where I ask my guests to give us a silver lining.

Is there something that you see that’s hopeful in going forward, and I’ll start with you, Sally. What’s the silver lining to having a discussion about the 19th Amendment, about the 19th Amendment being in its 100th year—although as you started us out, look, for indigenous women here this has been over 1,000 years—but what’s the silver lining?

Sally Roesch Wagner:

For me, it’s the moment in which we’re really looking at this. Given COVID, things have speeded up for service workers, but they’ve slowed down for a number of the population—so that we’re really paying more attention, and I think the succession of murders of African Americans that was then quickly transferred into the next big story, it was the extended moment of watching that murder in Minneapolis that I think was a wakeup call to the country, and that happening at the same time that we’re celebrating a centennial that we can re-examine and look at—wait a minute: The origins of where we are today with the voter suppression; we need to examine some of those through the suffrage movement.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s final speech, the very last one she gave at a convention before her death, was on educated suffrage, and that was a dog whistle for: Who didn’t get educated? Who is it illegal to learn to read and write, and native men who coming into the country didn’t have the benefit always of English as a first language, certainly—so I think that the silver lining for me is that we are perhaps, as a nation, taking a look at where really does leadership come from, and leadership no longer can come from above. 

Boy, we are getting a perfect example of when you have a rich, white, straight man who can’t see beyond his own nose, and you have women of color who understand in terms of economics, who understand in terms of transgender women—the people who understand most the issues that we need to be dealing with are the people that are at the bottom of the power structure, and I think we’re beginning to understand in this moment that’s where leadership has to come from. 

Michele Goodwin: 

Thanks you, so much, for that Sally. Thank you, so much, for being with us, and Melanie what do you see as the silver lining?

Melanie Campbell:

Oh, I think when I can look at a poll that’s taken in these last few months and we’re all seeing the same thing when it comes to what happened with the tragedy, that we all are seeing the same thing about the need to address systemic racism in our country, and so that makes me hopeful. 

Michele Goodwin: 

As we close our show let’s take one last listen to that “shero,” Fannie Lou Hamer. 

Fannie Lou Hammer:

It was the 31st August in 1962 that 18 of us traveled 26 miles to the county courthouse in Indianola to try to register to become first-class citizens. We was met in Indianola by policemen, highway patrolmen, and they only allowed two of us in to take the literacy test at the time. After we had taken this test and started back to Ruleville, we was held up by the city police and the state highway patrolman and carried back to Indianola where the bus driver was charged that day with driving a bus the wrong color. After we paid the fine among us, we continued on to Ruleville and Reverend Jeff Sunny carried me four miles in the rural area where I had worked as a timekeeper and sharecropper for 18 years. I was met there by my children, who told me the plantation owner was angry because I had gone down to try to register. 

After they told me my husband came and said the plantation owner was raising cane because I had tried to register, and before he quit talking, the plantation owner came and said, ‘Fannie Lou, do you know? Did Pap tell you what I said,’ and I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ He said, ‘Well, I mean that. He said if you don’t go down and withdraw your registration you will have to leave.’ He said, ‘Then if you go down and withdraw then you still might have to go because we’re not ready for that in Mississippi,’ and I addressed him and told him…I said, ‘I didn’t try to register for you. I tried to register for myself.’

Fannie Lou Hamer speaks at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. (Wikimedia Commons)

Michele Goodwin: 

Guest and listeners, that’s it for today’s episode of “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin.” I want to thank my guests Melanie Campbell and Sally Roesch Wagner for joining us and being part of this critical and insightful conversation. When women lead, change happens.

And to our listeners, I thank you for tuning in. We hope you join us again for our next episode where we will be reporting, rebelling and telling it like it is as we focus on DACA and immigration. It will be an episode that you will not want to miss. 

If you believe, as we do, that women’s voices matter, that equality for all persons cannot be delayed and that rebuilding America, being unbought and unbossed, and reclaiming our time are important, then be sure to visit us at Apple podcasts. Look for us at msmagazine.com for new content and special episode updates. Rate and subscribe to “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Google Podcasts and Stitcher. Let us know what you think about our show.

This has been your host Michele Goodwin, reporting, rebelling and telling like it is. “On the Issues With Michele Goodwin” is a Ms. magazine joint production. Kathy Spillar and Michele Goodwin are our executive producers. Our producers are Maddy Pontz, Roxy Szal and Mara Virabov. Our assistant producer for this episode is Oliver Haug. The creative vision behind out work includes art and design by Brandi Phipps, editing by Will Alvarez, and music by Chris J. Lee. Stephanie Wilner provides executive assistance.