Women won the right to vote a century ago. On August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment passed. The white women’s equal rights struggle began in 1776, though, when Abigail Adams, the wife of our second president and member of the constitution-drafting Continental Congress, sent her husband a letter. She urged him to “remember the ladies.” She further wrote, “All men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
The Continental Congress did not remember the ladies, and it reduced African American enslaved people into a fraction of a person for census and political representation. The National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA) because white women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony refused to support the 15th Amendment, which gave Black men, but no women, the right to vote. Ain’t I A Woman, thundered Sojourner Truth. The battle lines were drawn between Black men and white women. And few were willing to notice the Black women on the sidelines. It reminds me of a Black Enterprise cover, circa about 1980, where a Black man and white woman were arm wrestling, presumably over who should benefit from affirmative action. There was no Black woman on that cover, not even standing on the sidelines. When Akasha Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell-Scot, and Barbara Smith wrote their book, All the Women Are White, All the Men Are Black, But Some of Are Brave (Feminist Press 1982), Black women cheered. These sisters realized that with race/gender conflict, Black women are too often discounted, by Black men, but especially by the white women who purport to be allies.
History will reveal that white women have used their whiteness as a shield against both Black men and women, especially as they have falsely accused Black men of rape. Thir false accusations resulted in the destruction of several Black communities. Very recently, the Women’s March leaders asked Tamika to step down from their Board (she stay until her term was up) because she embraced the intersectionality of unapologetically Black activist and gender-affirming warrior. In this era of racial reckoning, white women have much to explore and grapple with. Too many of them are so myopic that they don’t get it.
Black women get it. Gwen McKinney, Patricia Ann Ford, and a coterie of their friends have launched a great website that explores the intersection of suffrage, race, and power,(firstname.lastname@example.org) and the ways that the majority narrative has too often erased the contributions that Black women have made to suffrage and justice. Most feminists know about Susan B. Anthony, but how many white feminists know of Nannie Helen Burroughs or Ida B. Wells? Black women often advocated for the same rights that white women did, but in protest, thanks to southern women and their racist mindset, Black women were excluded from public activity or asked to march at the end. That nonsense did not discourage the women of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority in 1913 when they pushed their way into the center of the march.
The historical relationship between Black and white women is ugly, but in this era of Black Lives Matter, Black women are rising. Despite extremely nasty shade, which I won’t dignify with a reference, there is at least a 60-40 chance that a Black woman will be Joe Biden’s running mate. The Higher Heights for America PAC is named after Dr. Dorothy Height (higherheightsforamerica.org) and supports Black women running for political office. They describe their space as “a political home for Black women,” and thy see to elect, mobilize, and amplify Black women. They are among those who celebrated Cori Bush’s surprising victor over incumbent William “Lacy” Clay in the St. Louis congressional primary. Actually, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Bush planned her work and worked her plan as a visible presence in St Louis, an organizer for Black Lives Matter and a grassroots activist. Her win is a victory for Black women, for progressives, and activists.
Even as Black women are rising, ugly racism too often attempts to put us in our place. In Aurora, Colorado Brittney Gilliam had planned a girl’s afternoon with her sister, nieces, and six-year-old daughter, Instead, they were confronted by the police because they mistakenly identified her car as “stolen.” Our “law enforcement” officer pointed guns at the young, innocent Black women and girls, and they were forced to lay, face down, on hot asphalt as they were handcuffed. Later, the police tepidly acknowledge their “mistake.” Later the police chief, Vanessa Wilson, apologized and offered therapy for the children. Brittney told a CNN anchor that the chief could “shove it” as she found it insincere. Incidentally, Valerie Wilson is a white woman who bet out three Black men for the job. Would they have handled this differently?
As always, the pace of progress oscillates with two steps forward and one step back. Black women are rising politically, but some things change slowly. Where are the majority women’s organizations in Aurora, Colorado? Pandemic notwithstanding, why are they silent? Would the Aurora police have treated a white woman with four young people in the car? Ain’t I A Woman?