Ways of Seeing: Rethinking American political progress
On Aug. 18, Donald Trump posthumously pardoned Susan B. Anthony. who voted illegally in 1872, well before the 19th amendment granted some women that right in 1920. I wonder if he would have pardoned her if she were black. For decades, Anthony fought shoulder to shoulder with thousands of women, organizing parades, demonstrations, and other events to raise awareness to garner support for women’s suffrage. And although the group of suffragettes was diverse, those most remembered — women like Alice Paul, Carrie Chapman Catt, or Anna Howard Shaw — are white.
Much of the work to get white women the vote was also done by women of color or women from marginalized communities. African American, Latina, Asian, and Native women all worked tirelessly alongside the white women who are most commonly revered for securing the vote.
In her forthcoming book, “Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement,” historian Cathleen D. Cahill argues that these activists of color were critical to the overall suffrage movement, even if they were not always recognized by their white peers. At other times, she notes, white women treated these women of color as iconic and used them to bolster the argument for women’s suffrage. As Cahill points out, a 1913 march for suffrage in Washington, D.C., provided examples of both cases. On the one hand, white organizers forced African American suffragettes to find their place at the back of the parade while a woman referred to as “Mrs. Wu” was literally elevated to stand atop a float. Wu provided an example of a “real Chinese woman” and represented the women of the Chinese revolution of 1911 who Cahill argues “had fascinated and inspired American suffragists for two years.”
Native women, Latinas, and African Americans all bolstered arguments for women’s suffrage in one way or another over the years and they all most certainly actively participated in that movement as well. In her book, Cahill notes that Chinese and Native American women, in particular, were exoticized by white women and used as icons to garner support for women to step into the political scene in America. In the case of Chinese women, suffragists noted the fact that the 1911 Chinese Revolution was a boon to women’s power in China and argued that the United States should catch up. In the case of Native women, suffragists argued that matrilineal power granted women all kinds of authority in American Indian culture. How could the United States move forward not doing so when even Natives granted women political sway? Women used these arguments to get the support of men to grant them the right to vote.
Latinas and African Americans, too, worked tirelessly for suffrage but they continued to be discriminated against. In yet another important forthcoming book, “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All,” historian Martha S. Jones, whom I have quoted before in this very column, describes how generations of black women toiled endlessly for suffrage, only to face repugnant racism. Although the 19th Amendment theoretically opened the door to all women, Jones points out that, “The same poll taxes, literacy tests, understanding clauses, and violence that hampered their husbands, fathers, and sons now beset Black women’s lives.”
So, 1920 came and went and the 19th Amendment did not enfranchise all women. Native women would not get the vote until 1924, when the Indian Citizenship Act granted Native Americans citizenship. Even then, they suffered widespread discrimination and disenfranchisement for decades. In 1943, the U.S. lifted its ban on Chinese immigrants, allowing some to become citizens and get the vote. It wasn’t until 1952 that some Japanese Americans got that right. Latinos and African Americans across the nation continued, and I could argue still continue, to face voter suppression in various forms, even though Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, prohibiting racial discrimination in voting (key components of the Act were repealed, though, in 2013).
One hundred years after what most people understand as the year the U.S. granted women suffrage, women and voting remain on everyone’s mind — but now it is because a woman of color occupies the VP slot on the Democratic ticket in the year of an election that, to many, feels more important than so many before them. Kamala Harris, an incredibly accomplished and qualified 55-year-old woman of African American and Southeast Asian descent joins Joe Biden, a 77-year old white man in a race against Republican incumbents Donald Trump and Mike Pence. And once again, thousands of Americans see this as symbolic of something grand.
And it is, just as 1920 and the 19th Amendment was. But at the same time, Harris is already facing challenges and being presented in the media in problematic ways. In some ways, it mirrors how women of color were exoticized and used to gain support 100 years ago, only to be sidelined in the decades that followed, and it reveals deeply entrenched and problematic ways that women of color have always done incredible amounts of work but never actually been fully empowered in the American political system.
In my opinion, Harris should be at the top of the ticket. But even putting that aside, just seeing how already the media casts her as a top choice for VP because she is a woman of color is problematic. Instead of highlighting her incredible accomplishments first, noting her race and ethnicity as her major appeal does precisely what women did to get support of men to get the right to vote. It tries to use Harris’s race to garner the support of the electorate to win. Beyond that, it actually undermines her worth as a candidate. Already, disgruntled Americans are saying she only got the VP slot because she is a woman of color, not because she is incredibly qualified for the job.
Going forward, she will not only face intense scrutiny because of the deeply problematic sexism and misogyny that I believe contributed greatly to Clinton’s defeat in 2016, she will also be faced with intense racism. Because she is a woman of color, people assume she does not belong in a position of power. Hopefully, though, it won’t take us a century to see Harris or women like her to be fully empowered.
Mary E. Mendoza is an assistant professor of history at the University of Vermont and the David and Dana Dornsife Fellow for Historical Work in the American West at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. She lives in Weybridge.
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