Episode 44: The Nineteenth Amendment Turns 100 (Transcript)
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Nahanni Rous: Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history and Jewish culture meet. I’m Nahanni Rous, bring you a special podcast episode for the suffrage centennial. The United States Congress adopted the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution on August 26, 1920. After many decades of determined activism, American women had won the right to vote. Despite this victory, racially discriminatory laws still prevented many people from voting. And even now, a century later, we are still working to achieve true democracy in America.
Martha Jones: So here we sit today in the 21st century and we know, whether you can vote, how you might vote, depends wholly on what state you live in and perhaps even what municipality you live in. And just because those interventions don't proclaim themselves to be motivated by racism or sexism, don't be misled, that we have an old tradition in this country of dressing up pernicious objectives in neutral clothing.
Nahanni: On this centennial of the 19th amendment, we celebrate the persistence of the suffragists, and also recognize that the generations’ long fight was marred by racism, classism, and antisemitism. In this episode of Can We Talk, we’ll explore the role of African American and Jewish women in fighting for women’s right to vote and the lessons we can learn from this history. Judith Rosenbaum talked with three historians and she’s here now to share those interviews with us. Hi Judith!
Judith Rosenbaum: Hi Nahanni!
Nahanni: So who are we going to hear from first?
Judith: First we’ll hear from Ellen Dubois. She’s Professor Emerita at UCLA, and has been researching and writing about the suffrage movement since the early 1970s. Her newest book is Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote. And true to the title of her book, she talks a lot about how drawn out this fight was...and the incredible tenacity of the women who fought for the right to vote.
Ellen Dubois: I take the long time that it took, the stubbornness and consistency of the leaders who refuse to give up, to use the quote that was used against Elizabeth Warren, “Nevertheless, they persisted.” Several generations lived and died without winning the vote and still did not give up. So I would say democracy is frequently, if not always imperiled, must be regularly defended or it will be lost. Alas, I would say our constitutional order, which we think of as being like the sun in the morning and the moon at night may not be eternal and we must act for it. And finally that in our activism, you really have to take the long view and not be discouraged because we're going to lose a lot.
Judith: Like Ellen, I, too, have found both wisdom and warnings in the suffrage movement. After the 2016 election, I turned to history, since as a historian, that’s what I tend to do. And I was drawn to the suffragists. They gave me some perspective and reminded me to take the long view. I was worried about the next four years, while these were people who worked tirelessly for decades, and many of them died before seeing the fruits of their labor! I asked Ellen, how they sustained the movement for so long. She reminded me that while women were fighting for the right to vote, they made plenty of other gains along the way.
Ellen: So we have education. We have professions. Women are physicians, they're lawyers. They’re writers, artists, so much so that by the time suffrage comes, it's almost like, to put it in a good way, it's like the icing on the cake, to put it in a bad way, it's so overdue. Women are a quarter of the labor force, whole divisions of the American economy couldn't exist without working women. So all that's left is politics. And the question is why keep women out of politics? The other thing I would say is it's important to remember that along the way, there are suffrage achievements, the most important of which are that many of the states west of the Mississippi are granting women—women are winning by their activism—the right to vote. They have full voting rights. They are voting for president. The women of Colorado vote for president in every election starting in 1896. By the time that this effort to change suffrage state by state finally crosses the Mississippi and arrives at victory in the most powerful state in the union, New York, in 1917, over four million women vote. So they already have the vote. These are important victories.
Judith: But Ellen and I also talked about the failures of the suffrage movement, especially the racism that emerged in the fight over the Fifteenth Amendment.
Nahanni: The Fifteenth Amendment granted African American men the right to vote in 1870.
Judith: Right. Prior to that, suffragists and abolitionists worked closely together and rallied around the call for universal suffrage, that is, voting rights for all. But in the lead-up to the Fifteenth Amendment, when it became clear the Republican party would only support suffrage for Black men, the movement split. Some were willing to accept the compromise of voting rights for African American men but not for women, and some were not, and this created a really painful rift.
Nahanni: Right, that’s when the famous alliance between abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass and suffrage leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton was shattered.
Judith: Yeah. Stanton and Anthony knew the opportunity for an amendment wouldn’t come around again for a long time. They were enraged that after decades of activism both against slavery and for women’s rights, women were being told to wait, and they, and other white suffragists, felt it was unfair that “uneducated” black men would get the vote before “educated” white women. Here’s what Ellen says about Stanton’s public response.
Ellen: Stanton particularly speaks, um, over a period of a couple months really drawing a lot on a lot of racist rhetoric. And it's very painful to read. She was, in her sort of core, elitist. And that had a racist element to it, but it also had an anti-immigrant element to it, too. She thought as she used to say, women like herself, shouldn't have to wait to get the vote until the daughters of "Blacks and butchers," as she said, got the vote. It's also true that at the same time, she pretty much almost for the entirety of her life believes in universal suffrage, the right to vote should be, um, accorded to all citizens.
Judith: We’re still living with the legacy of the racism of the suffrage movement. Many people of color are still wary of women’s rights movements. And the history of the suffrage movement is often told from the perspective of the white middle class activists who led the mainstream suffrage organizations. Other women who fought for voting rights are often left out of the story—like African Americans and some Jews. Which brings us to our next interview. Historian Martha Jones is a professor at Johns Hopkins University. Her new book is called Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All. She argues that we shouldn’t even use the word “suffrage” when we talk about the movement for voting rights, because it defines the work too narrowly. She says the word hides the fact that voting rights activism continued long after the Nineteenth Amendment became law. I asked Martha how she thinks we’re doing at marking the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment… whether we’re remembering what’s important about the fight for women’s right to vote.
Martha Jones: I'm a historian. Um, I'm not someone who trades in celebrations or even commemorations. My job is to bust myths and to help us appreciate a more—not only a more complex history, but I hope a more useful history. Because what the commemoration year helps us do is become more astute readers of our 21st century political culture. if we want to understand, for example, a figure like Stacey Abrams, a figure like Kamala Harris, um, Ayanna Presley, uh, Mrs. Obama, if we want to understand these women who are clearly forces in our own time, we need a different kind of history in order to do that.
Judith: Are there particular lessons that you think we can pull from the suffrage movement, whether its successes or failures, to kind of explicitly apply to the current battles for voting rights and enfranchisement that we're seeing today?
Martha: When the Nineteenth Amendment is ratified, it is no secret that African American women, many, many of them, will not be able to vote. That is not a secret. That is not an artifact or just a happenstance. That is part of the premise of the Nineteenth Amendment. Why? Because by law, in many Southern, in some Western States, black women will confront poll taxes, they will confront grandfather clauses, literacy tests, understanding tests. They will also confront intimidation and violence and they will not be able to cast their ballots. What's important about that for our moment? It is an example of the ways in which without ever invoking race, without ever invoking gender, individual States were able to craft laws that vastly disproportionately affected African-Americans—men and women—and kept them from the polls, even after two constitutional amendments, the Fifteenth and the Nineteenth had been ratified and were part of the US constitution. So here we sit today in the 21st century and we know, whether you can vote, how you might vote, depends wholly on what state you live in and perhaps even what municipality you live in. And just because those interventions don't proclaim themselves to be, um, motivated by racism or sexism, um, don't be misled that we have an old tradition in this country of dressing up pernicious, uh, objectives, right in neutral clothing. So this capacity to revisit, what happens after the Nineteenth Amendment, I think, lifts up, right, and sharpens our acumen, our capacity to then understand what's being wrought right, right under our very eyes. And if that was true even before we entered 2020, this is all the more true when we are now living through a pandemic. Um, and Americans are being asked not only to overcome the hurdles of voter ID, purging of voter rolls, the shuttering of polling places. They now are being asked literally to risk their health, their lives to stand on long lines and enter crowded polling places. Um, this is unfortunately part of our past, and it appears to be now, um, a struggle in our present. In our Congress today, um, there is a struggle over, um, restoring the voting rights act. So there are things we can do today, which is to say, um, create the conditions under which lawmakers in Washington will restore the voting rights act. That is a real thing we can do in our political lives in the 21st century. Um, that's not everything. Um, but it is certainly bringing us back to a different kind of baseline when it comes to voting rights.
Judith: Right. And it's on our watch. So if we're going to look to the past, we need to think about the places where we are implicated in history’s unfolding as well. Who are some of the black women activists in the fight for voting rights, whose names we should be sure to know?
Martha: Where to begin. But I appreciate that. Mary Church Terrell is a figure that we should know when we ask ourselves questions about how black women were part of taking the nation to the Nineteenth Amendment. Um, Terrell had been born in Memphis, Tennessee. Um, A young woman of color, um, and of privilege. She attends Oberlin College, um, heads to Washington, DC, where she teaches high school, very soon becomes part of the important community of black political activists in that city. This is an African American woman who sees in the movement for women's suffrage the interests of African American women who by the 1890s are looking for strategies that will defeat Jim Crow. Terrell is the first president of the National Association of Colored Women founded in 1895 and 96. Um, she is now the national head of a network of hundreds of Black women's clubs, thousands, tens of thousands of African American women, activated by the challenges of Jim Crow. And she will very self-consciously lead that organization and press its agenda to be sure that it becomes certainly a place for anti-lynching work, but also a site for women's suffrage activism. The last thing I'll say about Terrell and her frankness is that she really reveals to us one of the central concerns that African American women bring to voting rights politics. It is a concern that in some sense, distinguishes them from their white counterparts and it is the denigration, the violence, the threat of sexual violence that African American women in particular face, especially on public conveyances. Um, Terrell is a black woman who draws our attention to the struggles over the street car, the railroad car, the steam boat. All of these are places in which black American women are being violently wrenched from their seats. When they attempt to maintain them in a lady's car are then threatened with sexual violence. Terrell tells that story as a perennial one in her life, and helps us recenter what it meant for African American women to claim political power. They saw the vote as an instrument, a potential instrument, of self defense. The real crux of the story in Vanguard, I think, is appreciating that Terrell knows that white women watch what happens to her and what happens to women like her, and they do not act, they do not intervene, they do not speak for her or in her defense. And this distance between black and white American women as illustrated, on the railroad car, I think is one of the underlying tensions in the suffrage movement that never finds a resolution. Part of what I admire about the women in Vanguard is that they are not, uh, daunted by the shortcomings of the Nineteenth Amendment. They learn to work with them and around them.
Judith: As Martha says, African American women have continued fighting for equality—including the right to vote—long after women’s suffrage became federal law. We have to widen our lens on the suffrage movement or we miss this part of the history, and its relevance to our own political context today. Our last conversation in today’s episode is with Melissa Klapper, who is a Professor of history at Rowan University, and the author of Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women's Activism, 1890-1940. She says the suffrage movement was messy… it wasn’t really one movement, but more of a series of coalitions that came together and then broke apart. Like Martha, Melissa also argues for a broader and more inclusive history of the suffrage movement. Her focus is on Jewish women’s activism.
Melissa Klapper: I think that across all kinds of class and ethnic or national origins, a lot of Jewish women really saw suffrage as a mechanism of citizenship. That was very important to them, whether they were American born or were, had come into the United States.
Judith: Let's talk a little bit about that Jewish, like this sort of Jewish, what we might now call like Jewish values piece that shapes suffrage activism. Do you think that Jewish suffragists or some Jewish suffragists were really explicitly bringing a kind of Jewish sensibility to their suffrage activism?
Melissa: Yes. I felt, I can't say not, maybe not all of them. But I do think so. I found just tremendous amount of evidence that lots of the Jewish suffragists, just regardless of their personal background, made Jewish references. And they talked about biblical figures like Miriam or Deborah or Esther who are models of Jewish leadership. And that actually turned out to be important because rabbis of all denominations also use these references to be pro-suffrage in the pulpit from a religious perspective, from an explicitly religious perspective. Um, many of them, they didn't use the term that we might now use of tikkun olam, repairing the world, but they certainly felt that and they didn't use that language exactly. But they felt that their role as Jews was to, you know, "justice, justice shalt thou pursue," like it says in the Bible and that this was for them was a form of justice to pursue it. It was extremely important. It was part of their Jewish identity. And I think, and I actually think even some of the working class labor leaders, for instance, for whom traditional Jewish observance was definitely not part of their personal identity, but still they still, the thing that they valued the most in their Jewish heritage was the sense of justice and was the ability to be active in the public sphere. So I found that maybe I wouldn't claim for a hundred percent of them, but that most Jewish women involved in the suffrage movement did come to it, at least in part, out of Jewish values.
Judith: What about, you know, we've been talking about sort of Jews more as individuals. How would you describe the Jewish community’s approach, you know, Jewish communal institutions’ approach to suffrage.
Melissa: Well, if you look at Jewish newspapers, at American Jewish newspapers, both in English and Yiddish, they were almost entirely supportive of the suffrage movement. So in that sense, I do think there was a lot of communal support. What's interesting is that the Jewish women's organizations which were full of suffragists. Full of people who supported suffrage, even if they weren't spending all their time demonstrating in front of the White House, those organizations actually did not formally endorse suffrage until extremely late in the day and sometimes not at all. So a good example of this is the National Council of Jewish Women, founded in 1893, but from its founding day, the vast majority of its founding members, the leaders and the people who are, you know, the rank and file and the various chapters across the United States were all… So many of them were involved in either involved in suffrage or support it in some way or another, but the organization itself never endorsed suffrage. And that was a big question I had when going into this. And I think that one of the answers has to do with some of the tensions we mentioned before, which is that within the suffrage movement, there was racism, xenophobia, and there was antisemitism, and there was enough of that and it, it was problematic enough that some of the Jewish women's organizations just could not formally as a group collectively bring themselves to endorse suffrage.
Judith: So, what does antisemitism in the movement look like?
Melissa: Well, like antisemitism in America and elsewhere. It took on many forms. One was just theological. The best example of this is the very radical text called The Woman's Bible that Elizabeth Cady Stanton presided over in 1895. This is a feminist radical take on organized religion. And to this day, if you were to read it today, aren't you or anyone who's listening to this word, pick it up now, it would still be an incredibly radical text. It's amazing anyone even thought of it, honestly, in 1895 and it is really, really anti-Semitic. So that, that was a kind of theological religious antisemitism that may not even have been shared by that many people in the suffrage movement, but that Jewish women reacted to very strongly. They took this very personally, and also remember that antisemitism was on the rise, partially in reaction to the growth of immigration. And so it was a very delicate moment for the American Jewish community and they didn't want, they just couldn't associate themselves. So there's that kind of antisemitism. And then there's the kind of what sometimes gets referred to as polite, or genteel antisemitism, type of social antisemitism. We're not going to, you know, you can't come to my hotels, we're not going to go swimming with you, we're not going to hire you—which had a very negative impact on a lot of American Jews regardless of their background. And it also got expressed when there were state referenda that failed in places like Pennsylvania and Massachusetts and New York and New Jersey in 1915, some of the suffrage leaders blamed the Jews, even though as later research would confirm, any place that had a Jewish population was voting for suffrage. So it wasn't true, but there was this talk. And I think all of these things made Jewish organizations a little reluctant to come too close to the organized suffrage movement, even when most of their members supported the cause.
Judith: What are some of your favorite stories or favorite suffragists, Jewish suffragists that you've, that you've encountered?
Melissa: In California, there was Hannah Marks Solomons, and Selena Solomons, who were both very involved in suffrage. Again, it's a multigenerational movement, so it's not surprising to find multigenerational families, and Selina Solomons the younger daughter was really very instrumental in the successful California referendum. Um, before world war one. So they're a fun mother daughter to read about. And another one that's a little more obscure, but it has to do with my previous research is on Fanny Allen deFord. Fanny Allen is from Philadelphia from a very distinguished longtime Philadelphia family. And she, she was a doctor, actually, which is still somewhat quite unusual at the end of the 19th century. And she sent her daughter Miriam as a teenager out in the streets of Philadelphia to join suffrage parades. You know she was like, I'm taking care of my patients. I'm blazing my own kind of trail, but you go be a suffragist. And then Miriam Allen deFord became not just a suffragist, but also a significant journalist. Um, and so they are another mother, daughter pair who were fun to read about.
Judith: Yeah. That's great. And I think that also is relevant now. Cause I think we see a lot of, um, generational conversations around activism and people going to rallies with kids and parents and thinking about sort of, what is it look like to be for families to be committed to social justice over the long haul.What would you identify as some of the movement's greatest successes and greatest failures?
Melissa: Well, I think, I mean, there's the ultimate success of, okay, now women have the right to vote. This does not mean that every woman in America immediately had the right to vote because of course, African American women were still disenfranchised in the South by Jim Crow laws that actively disenfranchised everybody of color or most people of color. But I do think it is an accomplishment. And there were other accomplishments that went along with it. In the immediate aftermath of the Nineteenth Amendment, there was a spate of legislation that was the pro women's issues. And I also think in the Jewish context, there was definitely right after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, you have women in synagogues all over the United States saying, okay, you can't keep me off the board anymore. You know, it's time to, let's get with the program here. Generally not all, but many rabbis across all kinds of denominations really were in favor of suffrage. One of the things they did was sometimes invite these very prestigious Jewish women suffragists to address the congregations from pulpit. And in many cases, that was the first time a woman had ever given the sermon basically, or appeared on the pulpit. And so it's another way in which political activism has an impact within the Jewish community. Because once you've seen Maud Nathan speaking from the pulpit or Hannah Greenebaum Solomon, or Rebecca Kohut, these kinds of people, it opens doors for Jewish women to, you know, very incrementally, but to increase their, you know, eventual positions of Jewish leadership. I do think the Jewish community itself was also influenced by some of the things that happened as a result of Jewish women's activism in the suffrage movement. We should kind of think about that, too.
Judith: So let's turn our attention to failures. What would you define as the movement's greatest failures?
Melissa: Well, I do think, I mean the failure, it's not like we are just sitting here a hundred years later and calling out racism and xenophobia. There were critics, plenty of critics at the time who pointed to these as major problems. And it was a failure of the suffrage movement, not to do something or not to try to be better in some ways. Um, and. You know, everybody kind of everybody involved was guilty in some way or another of something. There was widespread racism famously in 1913 at the suffrage parade held right before Wilson's inauguration. African American women were forced basically to march at the back. Some of them didn't, Ida B. Wells famously refused to do that and joined the Illinois delegation. She just pushed through the crowd and took her place with people that she had been working with, who had asked her to march in the back so as not to cause trouble. And she said, no. So are people calling it out then so it's not just us looking back in retrospect. And I do think that's, those are failures, but I also think that it's not entirely fair to apply standards of 2020 to 1920. That's just not, it's not a realistic expectation. It's not how historians work. So I think that's one failure. And then I do think that many suffragists, but certainly not all did kind of believe that women getting involved in politics in this formal way would purify politics and make the world a better place. And it just didn't happen. Women were divided by too many things: race, class, religion, nationality, ethnic origin, sexuality—you name it. I mean, any of the things that we now see as intersectional as forms of identity were present then too. And I think that some women just were a little blind to that, were blind to that in ways that then hurt women’s ability to get certain kinds of things done. But I do think—I mean, I always say about the suffrage movement that we shouldn't say that women were given the right to vote. Women were not given the right to vote, women fought for the right to vote.. Women had to struggle for the right to vote for a very long time. And that language I think is important. And now, I mean, it's the tragedy of the 21st century that people still have to struggle for the right to vote.
Judith: So this is a complicated and messy history, as well as an inspiring one. And we can learn a lot from the messiness.
Nahanni: And we’re still living it—never more tangibly than in the run-up to a very significant election. Do you have some closing thoughts to share?
Judith: Well, of course it’s horrifying but unfortunately, not surprising to see the latent racism and xenophobia emerge from some of the white suffrage leaders, and to see racism employed as a strategy to achieve rights for white women. We’re still learning how to overcome this legacy, how to create a movement that is intersectional and that doesn’t center the experiences and needs of white women. I also think there’s another lesson here, that we might miss if we focus only on the racism of some white suffragists. The suffrage movement, and particularly its split around the 15th amendment, really reminds us that the powers-that-be will always try to pit marginalized groups against each other and to break up the coalitions that push for systemic change. We’re still taught to see issues as competing rather than connected. For example, just like the abolitionists and the suffragists, we’re often asked to choose which is more important—race or gender—as if people of color don’t experience gender oppression and women don’t experience racism. Our first step in combatting these divisions is to be aware of this history, to learn from the mistakes of the past, and to look for signs of history repeating itself. When we’re told we have to choose one group’s needs over another, we should always ask, who does this actually benefit?
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Nahanni: Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. This episode was produced by Judith Rosenbaum, Sarah Ventre, and me. Our team also includes Becky Long. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble.
Judith: The Jewish Women’s Archive is collecting voting stories. If you have a story to share—your own or a family story—please get in touch!You can use JWA’s new mobile app, Story Aperture to record and upload directly to JWA’s archive, or you can email us at podcasts at jwa.org/canwetalk, and anywhere you get your podcasts. Please take a moment to review us on iTunes, and share your favorite episodes with your friends so that others can find us.
Judith: If you’d like to help us produce more episodes of Can We Talk?, please go to jwa.org/donate to make a contribution. I’m Judith Rosenbaum.
Nahanni: And I’m Nahanni Rous. Until next time.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 44: The Nineteenth Amendment Turns 100 (Transcript)." (Viewed on September 21, 2021) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-44-nineteenth-amendment-turns-100/transcript>.