The Role of Women as Activists

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The Role of Women as Activists

Categories: News

By Paula Penebaker, President & CEO, YWCA Southeast Wisconsin


The 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, which granted all women the right to vote, was passed on June 4, 1919 and ratified on August 18, 1920. While the amendment granted women voting privileges, state laws and state violence meant women of color, particularly black women, did not secure the right to vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This post is dedicated to women’s past and contemporary struggles through the decades since that time.

One of the women’s suffrage leaders, Carrie Chapman Catt was born in Ripon, WI. She established the League of Women Voters on February 14, 1920. Today, the organization has nearly 800 chapters. “The vote is the emblem of your equality, women of America, the guarantee of your liberty” declared Catt. Let’s look back at the suffrage movement and think of the challenges that confront us, today, making our voices as important as they were almost 100 years, ago.

When Woodrow Wilson arrived in Washington March 3, 1913 for his inauguration, rather than watch him, hundreds of thousands of people were lined along Pennsylvania Avenue to watch the suffrage parade. As with many things in our country, racial division in the suffrage movement was not unique.

“The Root: How Racism Tainted Women’s Suffrage” provides an excellent commentary on the intersection between race and gender, the very essence of the YWCA’s mission of “eliminating racism and empowering women.” We’re often asked how the two are related. We explain that in the context of “intersectionality,” a term coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, law professor and social theorist. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as:

The interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage; a theoretical approach based on such a premise.

In plain English, we believe it is impossible to discuss race without discussing its connection to gender.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded in 1874 with policies that encouraged segregated unions. Passage of the 15th amendment that granted (in theory) the right to vote to black men further fueled resentment among some white suffragists in the South. This incensed Frances E. Willard, then president of the WCTU. Journalist and civil rights pioneer Ida B, Wells-Barnett (Ida) felt injustices needed to be addressed in a direct manner through protest and self-defense. Such behavior was an affront to Victorian sensibilities at the time and pitted her against Willard. (Hmm…I wonder if that foretold the 21st century characterization of the “angry black woman?”) Willard stated in 1890, “The safety of [white] women, of childhood, of the home, is menaced in a thousand localities.”

Later, Ida organized the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago and brought a group of black women to march in Washington in the 1913 suffrage parade. Organizers of the march asked that they walk at the end of the parade. She appealed to her white counterparts from Illinois to allow them to march with the white women. The white women wouldn’t agree. So, as the parade progressed she joined the Illinois contingent anyway and marched between two white women.

So! With that short historic backdrop, let’s look at what’s happening, today.

Baby Boomers remain the largest voting bloc in the country. Among them, Black women are a force to be reckoned with. We support issues that do not only speak to the needs of the black community. Black women understand the universality of women’s issues, that what helps one group helps all groups. While we may not like all positions of a candidate, we will vote for the one that is most likely to address the greatest needs of all US citizens. We tend not to be swayed by our husband’s preferences or their economic status, due in part, because many black women earn more than their male counterparts. Discrimination in general, related to the black pay gap is a topic for another day, but black women are less afraid of what might impact the men in their lives from an economic standpoint.

So! What do we do to bridge the gaps that exist between/among women as related to voting preferences?

  • Come together, listen, and learn from different perspectives.
  • Try to understand that it is impossible to separate race from gender, the concept of intersectionality.
  • Study women’s history and why things are the way they are for women in this country. Why is it that a country like the US hasn’t had a woman president when Israel, Argentina, India, Chile, Liberia, Iceland, Norway, Canada, England, Ireland, Switzerland and many others have? Most recently, Australia elected an expectant mother! Be independent thinkers.
  • Work hard at helping the men we love understand that supporting women’s issues isn’t necessarily in opposition to men’s issues.Vote for who YOU think is best after YOUR independent research.

Back in the day, Sojourner Truth opined that “If colored men get the right to vote and colored women didn’t then the women would be slaves to the men and everything would be as it had been.” Sojourner’s words are universal. If women of today don’t act independently from the men in their lives, we will not realize our full potential and FULL POWER as leaders in the fight for equality for all.