Suffrage for white women


Suffrage for white women


By the 1916 election, it was clear the Nat'l Woman’s Party strategy was working: a federal constitutional amendment had become a live political issue. NAWSA couldn’t beat NWP, so they were going to have to join them. But neither group was willing to confront its own racism.🧵

For years NAWSA had supported a federal amendment strategy only tepidly, in deference to their southern members. These white women insisted on a “states rights” approach - meaning, no votes for Black women and no new federal oversight of voting.

0But NAWSA’s state by state strategy wasn’t delivering. The painful 1915 losses in NY, NJ, MA & PA were followed by more losses in 1916. By then Carrie Chapman Catt had replaced Anna Howard Shaw as head of NAWSA. Catt was a stronger leader and a more skillful strategist.

Catt saw that if NAWSA refused to engage on a federal strategy they would tempt political irrelevance. Though Catt would never have said so publicly, Alice Paul had made a federal amendment a possibility - and forced NAWSA into supporting it.

NAWSA’s embrace of a federal amendment did not represent an epiphany about the evil of white supremacy. Nor did Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party expect one. On the contrary: both white women’s suffrage organizations continued to accommodate a racist ideology.

While rejecting explicit “whites only” voting laws, they encouraged the argument that votes for southern women would STRENGTHEN white supremacy. Meaning, southern states could expect white women wd vote and Black women & men could not. (This IS what happened for the next 45 yrs.)

White suffragists believed that in order to win, they had to reassure southern politicians they could enfranchise women while keeping Jim Crow. They understood that southern Black women wouldn’t be included in the victory - but they weren’t the ones suffragists were fighting for.

Alice Paul (and Susan B. Anthony before her) knew race discrimination was wrong, but insisted it was a separate issue, unrelated to women’s right to vote. Carrie Catt (like Elizabeth Cady Stanton earlier) didn’t care if Black women were excluded.

Mary Church Terrell, Hallie Q. Brown, W.E.B. DuBois & other Black activists were working for voting rights. White suffragists could have collaborated w/them to demand that every citizen get the ballot. But racism - their own, the nation’s - kept them from making common cause.


Daily Suffragist




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Daily Suffragist, “Suffrage for white women,” Daily Suffragist, accessed December 4, 2023,

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