Today is Women’s Equality Day, and the 100th anniversary of the formal adoption of the 19th Amendment into the U.S. Constitution. As the League of Women Voters of Minneapolis, a direct descendant of the national organization that led the battle for a woman’s right to vote, commemorates this hard-fought achievement, we recognize that racism both permeated and fractured the suffrage movement. As we aspire to better reflect the diversity of our city, we acknowledge there are scars from the past we must continue to heal.
In 1866, a powerful group of abolitionists (including founders Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Frederick Douglass) formed an alliance shortly after the end of the Civil War. Their goal was universal suffrage and they were committed to securing voting rights for all American citizens irrespective of color, race or sex. Unfortunately, congressional politics resulted in a watered-down version of what would become the 15th Amendment, ensuring the right to vote not be denied “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The word “sex” was omitted.
As a result, one faction of outraged suffragists refused to support the proposal, while another was willing to advance the rights of Black men first, trusting women’s rights would soon follow. This rift was deepened and racism laid bare when Cady Stanton, who opposed the compromise, expressed her indignation this way: “Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling book, making laws for Lydia Maria Childs, Lucretia Mott, or Fanny Kemble.”
The schism exposed deep-seated racist and classist attitudes that would persist within the movement long after the founding mothers. Sixty years later, suffragists betrayed their Black sisters in an effort to win support for the 19th Amendment by appealing to the bigotry of lawmakers. They employed a “Southern strategy” that would allow states to implement suffrage according to their own cultural norms; a dog whistle for Black exclusion.
From 1920 until passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964, Blacks were systematically and intentionally disenfranchised. States enacted policies designed to suppress Black voter participation, such as literacy tests and poll taxes. Blatant intimidation in the form of humiliation and violence, including lynching, was used against Blacks who dared try to exercise their right to vote. Not until the Voting Rights Act prohibited some discriminatory practices and scrutinized the behavior of particularly bad actors in the South did Black voter turnout increase. Despite the obstacles that still persist, Blacks vote at a higher rate than any other minority group and, in 2012, surpassed white voter turnout for the first time.
During the League of Women Voters’ first century of service, we’ve evolved from a white, upper-middle-class organization to one with greater diversity and inclusion. Since 1970, the League of Women Voters Minneapolis has become increasingly involved in advancing policies designed to expand voter access and combat voter suppression with an eye to racial justice. We’ve opposed voter-ID laws, worked to restore voting rights to felons and launched the campaign for Fair Maps to eliminate gerrymandering.
Ramping up voter outreach and education
This year, the League of Women Voters Minneapolis is ramping up our voter outreach and education, partnering with community organizations and focusing on areas of the city disproportionately impacted by the civic unrest after George Floyd’s death. In response to COVID-19, we’re advocating for simplified, mail-in balloting options for all.
The League of Women Voters of Minneapolis is not your grandmother’s League. We are still the nonpartisan education and advocacy group committed to empowering voters, but with a commitment to identifying racism and dismantling policies that suppress non-white votes. Learn more about our work and join us.
Anita Newhouse is the president of the League of Women Voters Minneapolis.
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