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Home / Articles / Columnists / On the Bright Side /  Votes for Women
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Monday, August 3,2020

Votes for Women

By Jonna Shutowick. M.S. Ed.  

This month marks the centennial anniversary of the 19th amendment, acknowledging, and thus protecting, suffrage for women. I thought it pertinent to highlight a woman who worked so hard to bring that to pass. I’ll dig a little deeper than Susan B. Anthony and her dearest friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Those two rock stars got the whole conversation moving in 1848 (see my column from last month :-) This month’s story begins in 1913, with the suffragettes marching in Washington, D.C. the day before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson.

Alice Paul is credited with organizing the event. It was spectacular – pageantry as protest – and thus it is one of the most photographed events of that year. Led by Inez Mullholland in her Lady Liberty gown atop a white stallion, contingents of women from every state followed, donning purple sashes across their flowing white dresses emblazoned with the slogan “Votes for Women.” Women from around the world also attended and marched in solidarity with American women to demand universal suffrage.

What we didn’t see in those iconic photos were the African American women who organized, fought and marched, yet were almost entirely absent from the photos. According to the National Women’s History Museum (which exists only online, no Smithsonian... yet), “Both then and now, African American women have been erased from the narrative of women’s suffrage in America.” ( So the person I am highlighting this month is a woman who put herself out there and got into those photos: journalist and activist Ida B. Wells. When the National Association of Colored Women registered constituents to participate with their states, they were told that they would be allowed (sigh) to march, but would have to march in the back! They were told this by the event’s organizer, Ms. Alice Paul. (I know, right?!) This was the women’s version of the Frederick Douglass slight that Susan B. Anthony had to contend with 45 years prior. First it was black men telling all women to politely wait their turn (America’s not ready for women’s suffrage). Fast forward to 1913, white women saying essentially the same thing to black women (America is not ready to see us marching... together).

Ida B. Wells was having none of it. When the parade began, she ran up to where her white sisters from Illinois were marching and joined them right up front, head held high. Born into slavery, she began fighting for the rights of African Americans as soon as the ink dried on the Emancipation Proclamation (okay, she was a child at the time, but her parents were very active in Reconstruction, and she picked up where they left off in her teen years). In addition to her tireless work for universal suffrage, perhaps her most important work was investigative journalism around the horrors of lynching. She published several pamphlets and articles in newspapers, organized rallies and spoke out; she even traveled the world to expose lynching to foreign audiences in an effort to pressure our government to act. Later in her career she focused on urban reform in the burgeoning city of Chicago. So thank you, Ida for knowing your worth and not being afraid to take a stand. Your courageous act continues to inspire over 100 years later.

Dr. Myra Pollack Sadker, professor and researcher whose work charted sexual bias in our nation’s classrooms, said it best: “Each time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worth less.” I would add that each time anyone who supposedly shares a history with people does not see themselves represented in the story, they also feel worth less. The word history has its root in the Greek: histo r, which means learned wise man. It evolved to historia, which means finding out, learning a story. Some would argue that this erases the masculine overtones of the word history, but I disagree. I used to like the idea of adding the word herstory to our vocabulary to include women’s history. But that, too, seems short-sighted. Perhaps in a few thousand years, curious minds will look up the etymology of the word ourstory.


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