A New Exhibit Highlights Black Women's Fight for Voting Rights

The story of the multi-decade suffrage movement is complicated, messy, and complex. There were divisions between women, differences of opinions over tactics, efforts to exclude women of color, ideas of limiting suffrage to “educated” women, and arguments for how white women could gain the right to vote before Black men. As we approach the centennial of the 19th amendment in 2020, some institutions and individuals are working hard to educate the public on the multi-layered truth about the movement.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) is one of them. Its exhibit titled “Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence,” which opened on March 29th, will run through January 5, 2020. The curator of the exhibit, Dr. Kate Clarke Lemay, conducted research and acquired items over a four year period. With assistance from the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, enough funds were raised to pay for the expense of borrowing over 100 items for inclusion in the exhibit. Divided chronologically and thematically into six sections, the exhibit tells a compelling visual story of the movement. A variety of visual mediums are used including photos, paintings, engravings, works on paper, lithographs, video, newspapers, postcards, books, ballots, banners, and more. In addition, a companion book accompanies the exhibit by Lemay, featuring in-depth essays by famed scholars Lisa Tetrault, Martha S. Jones, and Susan Goodier.

The fight for women’s suffrage was segregated as white women organized white-only clubs that either marginalized or barred Black women. They formed the National Woman Suffrage Association, which took a national approach, and the American Woman Suffrage Association, which took a state-by-state approach and the two organizations ultimately merged in 1890 to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Black women organized their own clubs such as the Northeastern Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, which merged into the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. The all-black Alpha Suffrage Club was later founded by Ida B. Wells in 1913.

The suffragists faced enormous vitriol, which might be underappreciated today. Lemay curated the exhibit to include caricatures and cartoons from those who opposed the women attaining the right to vote. These illustrations depicted the women as overly masculine or in other contemporaneously disparaging ways such as donning horns to imply devilish intent. The display of these items in the gallery has a more tangible impact on visitors than simply reading about the opposition.

The NPG exhibit counters popular history’s narrow focus on a handful of wealthy white women as well as the false narrative that the movement was started when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony organized the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in Seneca Falls, New York.

In reality, Lucretia Mott was at the original meeting and Susan B. Anthony did not get involved until three years later in 1851. Sixty years later, most pictures of the 1913 suffrage march would only feature the white women who attended. There is little mention of the fact that Black women were also present and were asked to march in the back of the parade. By contrast, the NPG exhibit includes Black women: Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Harriet Tubman, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, and dozens of others. It is also dispels the myth that the struggle concluded when white women got the right to vote in 1920. Many women of color had to fight for years or decades to realistically gain those same rights. It took Native American women until 1924, Asian women until 1952, and many African American women until 1965. Some still face barriers today. Lemay included the good, the bad, and the ugly part of the decades-long struggle. She notes that the contributions and involvement from women of color were more challenging to find, but were important to include. Black women fought for suffrage as part of their overall struggle for equality that included equal pay, housing, civil rights, health care, education and more. This was different than many white women who focused solely on the fight for the right to vote. Lemay highlighted how Black women used an intersectional approach in the fight for their rights, which made it necessary for her to dig through biographies of individual women to extract their work in the suffrage movement and contextualize those campaigns. She said, “It was eye-opening to realize that there are not that many publications out there that cover this history from the beginning to the end.” She also relied on other sources that focus on this work including key works by Eleanor Flexner and Rosalyn Terborg-Penn.

In order to help address and highlight the complexity and diversity of the suffrage movement, NPG hosted a forum in April with approximately two dozen scholars, public historians, artists, and museum professionals. Several members of the group gave presentations and discussions on how to ensure women of color are not marginalized during the centennial commemorations.

This inclusion is important, not only for historical accuracy, but also as Lemay explained, “the public is hungry to learn about what some consider ‘hidden figures’ in the movement.”

The 19th Amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920, giving women the right to vote. A week later, on August 26, it was certified by the Secretary of State. The century-long hard work that Black suffragists did to combat racism and sexism is rightfully acknowledged and captured in this important National Portrait Gallery exhibit. As Lemay stated, “You cannot tell the story of the suffrage movement without including the contributions of African Americans.” As we approach the centennial commemorations in 2020, others also need to be diligent in telling the whole story.

About the Author

Michelle Duster is an award-winning author, speaker, and educator. Her professional background includes two decades of writing in advertising and marketing communications, event planning and concert promotion. Since 2008 she has written, edited and contributed to nine books and dozens of articles. In addition, she is active with several committees and boards to develop city, state, and national projects that focus on African American’s and women’s contribution to history. She is the great-granddaughter of Civil Rights icon Ida B. Wells.