Last August, I was on a local radio show, talking about women’s suffrage history, and advocating for a celebration of the day that women in America got the right to vote. August 26th should be a celebration in my opinion! Someone emailed the host to ask ,“ Wasn’t the woman’s suffrage movement only all about upper class white women?”
The implication being that this movement excluded women of color. The answer is yes. And no.
From the abolition of slavery in 1865 until 1965, we can easily point out many injustices, insults, and missteps as this country continues to work, haphazardly and slowly, toward racial equality. To fulfill the promise in the Declaration of Independence of “equal justice for all” has been a difficult and sometimes cruel road.
The first females to speak in public against slavery were two wealthy white women, Sarah and Angelina Grimke of Charleston, South Carolina. In 1830, they were insulted, not just for their views on slavery, but that they dared to speak in front of “mixed” audiences. A mixed audience was then considered one of men and women together!
The first women’s rights advocates, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, were at the World Anti-Slavery Conference in London when they met in 1840, and, because women were denied the right to speak at the conference, they decided that once back in the United States, they would work to address women’s rights.
Susan B. Anthony, one of the most famous of the 19th century suffragists, was an abolitionist before she was a crusader for women’s rights. At the historic Susan B. Anthony house in Rochester, NY, one of the displays tells the story of when Ida B. Wells, an African American writer, reformer and suffragist, came to stay with Anthony. Noticing that Wells had a lot of typing to do, Anthony offered her secretary to help with her work load. The secretary refused to work for a women of color, and Anthony had the secretary fired.
One of the most famous incidents of African American women being slighted by the white women of the suffrage movement was when Alice Paul was lining up the suffrage parade of 1913, and told Ida B. Wells that her colored women’s group from Illinois had to march at the back of the parade. Wells was outraged, and declined to participate at all. Then, as a spectator on the sidelines of the parade, Wells jumped out from the crowd and proudly marched with the white women of Illinois.
One bright spot in suffragist history is St. Louis’s own Edna Gellhorn, a wealthy white woman, who became a civic leader, suffragist, and reformer. In 1910, Gellhorn joined the suffrage movement. She helped to organize the political demonstration at the Democratic convention held in St. Louis in 1916, called “The Golden Lane” or sometimes “the walkless-talkless” parade. Over 3000 suffragists came to the streets of St. Louis, dressed in white with gold sashes that said “Votes for Women”, and the male delegates had to walk past them from their hotel to the convention center. This event attracted national attention to the women’s suffrage cause.
In 1919, Gellhorn was elected the first president of the Missouri League of Women Voters and served three terms as president of the St. Louis League of Women Voters.
Here is what The State Historical Society of Missouri had to say about Gellhorn:
“Throughout her career, Gellhorn demonstrated her belief in not only women’s equality but also racial equality. When the St. Louis League held a vote in 1919 to determine whether African American women could serve on its board, Gellhorn cast the deciding vote that opened the board to African Americans.
Twenty years later, when the league’s office was located at the Kingsway Hotel in St. Louis, the hotel staff told African American League members they could not use the public elevators; instead they would have to use the service elevators. Outraged, the league, led by Gellhorn, moved out of the hotel and into a new office rather than let its black members be discriminated against.”
One wealthy, white woman who could not be called a suffragist, but she did a tremendous amount for the advancement of black people in the 1930’s and 1940’s was Eleanor Roosevelt. Soon after her husband Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated as president, she had set up meetings with the NAACP, to meet at the White House. She advanced the careers of many women, including, Mary McLeod Bethune, president of the National Association of Colored Women. “From their first meeting in 1927, Eleanor Roosevelt was impressed by the vigor of Bethune’s feminism, her race pride, and her compelling magnetism.” (Eleanor Roosevelt, the Defining Years, by Blanche Wiesen Cook.) Eleanor also lobbied her husband relentlessly to vocally support and endorse any anti-lynching legislation in Congress. Eleanor spoke at a conference on Negro Education in 1934, and had this to say, “I think the day of selfishness is over; the day of really working together has come and we must learn to work together all of us, regardless of race or creed or color .. .. We go ahead together or we go down together.”
The photo of the women in “The Golden Lane” of 1916 in St. Louis shows no women of color. But history does not determine the future. The Golden Lane of 2016, dubbed “Celebrate the Vote Festival” (www.celebratethevotefestival.com) will show our progress, as ALL women line up to honor those before us and take action for our daughters and granddaughters. Take my hand, sister, and let’s walk the lane together.
Let’s Celebrate Our History!