Ida B. Wells, Sojourner Truth, Mary McLeod Bethune and Mary Church Terrell aren’t the first names that come to mind when you hear the word, “suffragette.” Yet, these courageous Black women had just as much to do with gaining the vote for women as Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Sojourner Truth was an enslaved woman in New York. Because the family who owned her family was Dutch, she grew up speaking Dutch. English was her second language. She walked away from her last owner in 1826. In 1851, she attended a women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio, and spoke to the group. She spoke against sexism and slavery many times in her life and had many influential friends in the abolitionist and suffragist movements.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett was born into slavery in Mississippi. She gained freedom after the Civil War and became a journalist who exposed the lynchings of Black men in the Deep South to the rest of America. Actively involved in the women’s rights movement, she was often ignored or shunned by other suffragists. She was a founder of the National Association of Colored Women’s Club which dealt with civil rights and women’s suffrage, and was also a founder of the NAACP.
South Carolinian Mary McLeod Bethune was the daughter of slaves who worked for pay for their former master until they earned enough money to buy their own land. She gained an education in the tiny window of time between Reconstruction and Jim Crow and went on to become an influential educator. (Bethune Elementary School in North Minneapolis is named for her.) In addition to being a champion of racial equality, she also worked for gender equality. Bethune led voter registration drives after women gained the vote in 1920, risking racist attacks. In 1924, she was elected president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, and in 1935, she became the founding president of the National Council of Negro Women.
Another daughter of former slaves, Mary Church Terrell was part of a rising Black middle class. One of the first African American women to earn a college degree (BA and MA, Oberlin College), she used her community standing to promote the betterment of the Black community. She saw the right to vote as essential to elevating the status of Black women, and the entire race, and campaigned long and hard for suffrage.
On Aug. 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. It took 72 years – from 1848, when the first women’s rights convention was held at Seneca Falls, New York – to get women the vote. Black men had been granted the vote after the end of the Civil War, but Black women were still women and not allowed to vote. Thousands of woman-hours –Black and white — went into the effort. Women wrote letters, made speeches, lobbied and marched. And though the women at the front of the parade were white and the ones in the back were Black their combined efforts paid off.
Voting rights and protections have expanded greatly since 1920, but there have been efforts in recent years to trim them back. It’s in the best interest of all Americans to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Women who work together can get a lot done. That’s been proven over and over by women in churches, synagogues and mosques; women who run schools; women in businesses large and small; women in politics. The late Diane Loeffler was known for her ability to work with others across the aisle in the Minnesota House.
As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the passage of 19th Amendment, all women who can vote owe it to all the women who made it happen by making an extra-special effort to vote this November.
Editor’s note: Information for this editorial came from the National Women’s History Museum.