Following the New York primary Tuesday, dozens of New Yorkers pilgrimaged to Rochester’s Mount Hope Cemetery to place “I Voted” stickers on the headstone of suffragette leader Susan B. Anthony.
This, of course, should be expected, since Anthony, along with her close friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton and many others, fought tirelessly throughout the 19th century and early 20th century for white women to have the right to vote. Anthony, however, did not live to see her work come to fruition. She died in 1906, 14 years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
The feminist ritual at Anthony’s grave site is somewhat of a tradition, but this year was different. The number of “I Voted” stickers dramatically increased from years past, and the reason is clear. For many women who consider Anthony a hero, finally casting a ballot for a woman to become the Democratic nominee for president of the United States is the political mountaintop—though Hillary Rodham Clinton’s flag has not yet been planted—and to adorn her headstone is the sweetest poetic justice.
What is typically erased from glowing remembrances of Anthony, however, is her employment of strategic racism to reach her suffrage goals. She was an avowed anti-slavery advocate who still did not hesitate to dog-whistle Dixie while opposing the passage of the post-Civil War 15th Amendment, which, on paper, granted all black men the right to vote.
Anthony, who infamously said, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman,” was very clear that withholding support for the 15th Amendment wasn’t solely a matter of gender equality but of sustained white supremacy:
What words can express her [the white woman’s] humiliation when, at the close of this long conflict, the government which she had served so faithfully held her unworthy of a voice in its councils, while it recognized as the political superiors of all the noble women of the nation the negro men just emerged from slavery, and not only totally illiterate, but also densely ignorant of every public question.
Her stance caused her to be at odds with legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was a friend and a staunch women’s-suffrage advocate. Douglass believed that the enfranchisement of black men was a political and racial imperative that should be prioritized within the suffrage struggle to ensure the equitable protection of black lives, property and dignity under the law—an electoral protection that he felt white women already had access to through their husbands.
Anthony, however, did not have faith in gradualism, though so many feminists who consider her a hero espouse its merits today. She and Stanton, her partner in the fight for white women’s suffrage, demanded “revolution.” They wanted all people to have the right to vote, but no way in hell would they allow “the Negro” to beat them to the ballot.
Stanton once said of black men—or, as she called them, “Sambos”:
No; I would not trust [them] with all my rights; degraded, oppressed [themselves], [they] would be more despotic with the governing power than even our Saxon rulers are.
She believed that white women should be able to vote before black men because voting was a moral, intelligent responsibility for which black men were ill-equipped. According to Stanton’s racist fearmongering, these men were so devalued and demoralized that given a semblance of power, they would be more oppressive and violent than the white men before them.
In The Revolution, a women’s-rights newspaper that Anthony and Stanton created with funding from racist, pro-slavery Democrat George Francis Train, the pair wrote:
The old anti slavery school says women must stand back and wait until the negroes shall be recognized. But we say, if you will not give the whole loaf of suffrage to the entire people, give it to the most intelligent first. If intelligence, justice, and morality are to have precedence in the government, let the question of the woman be brought up first and that of the negro last.
Though Anthony navigated the political terrain as if all the women were white and all the blacks were men, some of us were brave. She and Stanton alienated not only their white abolitionist circle because of their growing relationship with racist Democrats—which abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison described in a harsh letter to Anthony as “the anti-n—ger party”—but also black women who had called them friends.
As Anthony continued her push for white women to be enfranchised, she became complicit in the marginalization of black suffragettes, including Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Francis E.W. Harper and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, among others. Many white women within the National American Woman Suffrage Association, an organization helmed by Anthony and Stanton, felt threatened by black suffragettes’ intersectional focus on race, gender and class. This racist discomfort led Alice Paul, a white supremacist who would eventually break with NAWSA to form the more radical National Woman’s Party, to organize a faction of feminists who wanted to ensure that abolition and suffrage were not viewed as interlocking causes so as not to lose the support of racists in their midst.
The increasingly segregated movement eroded along racial fault lines, with Wells-Barnett splintering off in 1913 to create the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago—the first black women’s organization to focus solely on suffrage in the country. The Alpha Club joined the National Association of Colored Women, which was established in 1896 with Mary Church Terrell as president, an organization that focused on women’s suffrage as part of a larger, anti-racism platform.
It does not escape notice that the image of the “I Voted” stickers adorning Anthony’s headstone began circulating online the same day the U.S. Treasury announced that after protracted efforts by grassroots organization Women on 20s, Anthony, Stanton and Paul will receive places of “honor” on U.S. currency. They will be joined by freedom fighters and abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, as well as white abolitionist Lucretia Mott, who, instead of joining her suffragette peers in declaring moral bankruptcy, remained steadfast in denouncing the racism that Anthony, Stanton and Paul employed to obtain their own political freedom.
Women on 20s’ goal is to have women on the face of U.S. currency by 2020, the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. On paper, that amendment was progress for all women; in reality, it was a lie. It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that all African-American women were allowed to vote somewhat freely—the same Voting Rights Act that in 2013 was gutted by the Supreme Court as Jim Crow-style disenfranchisement tactics persist in order to protect white supremacy at all costs.
Witnessing Anthony become the mother of the political moment we’ve reached in this country is nothing if not fitting. And as black suffragettes continue to be erased from the narrative, I am reminded of the words of black feminist scholar Anna Julia Cooper:
The white woman could at least plead for her own emancipation; the black woman, doubly enslaved, could but suffer and struggle and be silent.
Only the BLACK WOMAN can say when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.
The expectation has always been that black women should be silent, but we never have been—even when white feminists such as Susan B. Anthony wanted us to be. With unerring focus, we decide when and where we enter the spinning political ropes of race and gender, and we will continue to double-dutch between the two for our survival.
Still, I cannot help thinking what a privilege it must be to never have those parts of you shattered and scattered, to never have your race and gender stretched and pulled in opposing directions, to never have your loyalty questioned by black men and white women at every turn, and to never be expected to uplift one over the other, inch by inch, while being branded a traitor to the advancement of both.