In 1899, the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) held a national convention in the booming mid-western city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. The city was thrilled to be center stage and promoted the event heavily. Anna Sutherland Bissel, first woman CEO of a major corporation, took delegates on tours of her vacuum cleaner factory and even gave out engraved miniature carpet sweepers as swag.
A lot of churches in the area were already predisposed to oppose suffrage so NAWSA came up with an effective strategy. They sent Susan B Anthony, Reverend Anna Howard Shaw, Lucy Textor, Mrs. Colby, Lena Morrow, Laura Clay, Reverend Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Laura Greg, and Harriet Taylor Upton out to churches as speakers. From the pulpits of very crowded churches, they were able to plead their case directly and dispel misinformation and malicious stereotyping of the movement. They were able to alleviate many concerns regarding suffrage and the teachings of the church.
However, NAWSA was not as open to making the same type of effort for accepting women of color in the suffrage movement. Towards the end of the convention, African-American suffragist Lottie Wilson Jackson asked her fellow attendees to acknowledge the difficulties that women of color had in getting to the convention and to pass the following resolution: “Resolved, the colored women ought not to be compelled to ride in smoking cars, and that suitable accommodations should be provided for them.” Kentucky suffragist Laura Clay absolutely opposed it. Although Alice Stone Blackwell defended Jackson’s resolution, it came down to Susan B. Anthony making a decisive declaration that while women are still “helpless” and “disenfranchised”, nothing can be done to help women of color with their issues. Jackson’s resolution was solidly defeated.
The 1903 NAWSA national convention held in New Orleans, Louisiana, was all about courting the support of southern white women for a state-by-state suffrage strategy even if it meant excluding women of color. African-American suffragists were outright barred from attending. Racial policies were openly discussed by the white attendees and the official NAWSA stance taken on the “Negro Question” was that “the right of the state is recognized within the national body and that each auxiliary state association arranges its own affairs in accordance with its own ideas and in harmony with the customs of its own section." This meant that any state branch of NAWSA could choose to be segregationist and the national organization would not interfere on the basis of “states’ rights”.
These two examples only address the experience of African-American suffragists. There were suffragists of all races who faced the intersectionality of gender and being a person of color. Honestly documenting and addressing these issues does not undo the work of the NAWSA. The prejudice actions of past cannot be changed, but it can be better acknowledged and history can become a fuller, deeper, and more complex story that includes everyone.
This week’s song pick:
“I know where I’ve been” by Queen Latifah https://youtu.be/H-2He8cNHdw
Episode 48 Sources:
More about Charlotte “Lottie” Wilson Jackson
More about Anna Sutherland Bissel
More about Harriet Taylor Upton