Confronting Segregation and Racism in the Women's Rights Movement

. The year 2020 will be significant in the United States. It’s an important election and census year. It will also be the centennial of the 19th amendment, which provided voting rights for white women. During the long fight for the 19th amendment, women organized, lobbied, protested, marched and even jailed. Many leaders emerged and organizations were formed in order to gain rights for women. However, the vote was not extended to Black women who fought for these rights then—and continue to do so now.

As many celebrate the upcoming centennial of the 19th amendment, we must remember that the fight for women’s rights have largely been segregated. White women’s groups were not welcoming to women of color and many white suffragists resisted efforts to grant African American women the right to vote.The history of the League of Women Voters (LWV), which will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year, sheds light on this history. Carrie Chapman Catt founded the non-partisan organization in Chicago six months before the 19th amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920. It is well-known that Catt, famously stated that women’s suffrage would strengthen white supremacy. This statement continued the division between women along racial lines. Over the past century, the organization has been dominated by college-educated, white middle and upper-class women. Today, the organization has over 700 state and local leagues in all 50 states with over 400,000 members and supporters combined.

The volunteer-based LWV does important work, which includes registration, engagement, and education. They host debates for candidates. They publish studies about various issues and take action on issues through lobbying, testifying in public hearings, and holding public forums.

However, their largely white aging membership is struggling to be relevant to younger and more racially diverse women.

During the 100 years of the LWV’s history, African American women have formed grassroots organizations that do much of the same work, but with a focus on issues that matter most to them. According to the 2018 American Values Survey, those issues are racial inequality, healthcare, and the growing gap between rich and poor. Within the last few years, the LWV instituted a diversity, equity and inclusion component to their organization. Several chapters of the organization have hosted forums and panels to discuss how they can increase the involvement of women who represent different races, age groups, and educational backgrounds.

The challenge is that the specific goals and strategies to increase diversity do not seem clear to local leaders or members. According to some LWV members, the efforts seem passive and undefined. These include activities such as screening films or watching webinars versus specific direct actions that would involve engagement with other groups or communities where coalitions or alliances can be built. This passive approach to inclusion and diversity was evident at the Washington state convention in Tacoma at the beginning of June. The efforts at diversity for the group, which consisted of mostly white retirees included displays of African American suffragists. These included Eve Abram, an African American storyteller who presented information about Dr. Netties Craig Asberry, a Black suffragist from the Northwest; and a presentation by me about the suffrage work of my great-grandmother Ida B. Wells.

During her keynote luncheon speech, Victoria Woodards, an African American and the mayor of Tacoma, made a brief comment on the homogeneity of the group and suggested that the group could increase diversity by not expecting women of color to come to them, but by engaging in more intentional outreach. She praised Cynthia Stewart, president of the Tacoma-Pierce County branch for attending an NAACP meeting where she was one of the few white attendees. In addition to outreach, the actual work needs to have meaning to African American women. Claire Hartfield, a member of the Chicago chapter, explained that she joined in order to help with the efforts to have a street named after Ida B. Wells and to assist states that neighbor Illinois for the 2020 election. The Executive Director of the LWV Illinois, Audra Wilson, leads a membership of over 3,000 and is making an effort to build partnerships and alliances with organizations where the LWV can bring support and infrastructure in order to achieve certain goals. She is convinced that the implementation of diversity needs to be strategic and intentional.

Black women have been engaged for the past several decades in shaping policy and demanding change. As a result of the last election cycle the power of African American women to impact elections has finally received some attention. Historically, the organizing and advocacy work of African American women have been mostly separately from predominately white women’s organizations. However, many organizations across racial lines have the same goals.

By working together to capitalize on each other’s strengths, using each other’s resources and infrastructure, and having a unified front and strategy to tackle issues, 2020 could profoundly transform this country. With the right amount of focus and deliberate and strategic outreach, the LWV could transform itself from being perceived by some as a “ladies who lunch” organization to a powerful ally and agent of change for all women.

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.