Racism in the Movement
Racism pervaded the women’s suffrage movement. In that, it was utterly ordinary - it replicated and reinforced the racism that is baked into the creation and governance of the United States.
One approach to the story has been to literally whitewash it - to tell a heroic version of white women struggling against patriarchy, erasing the ugly things they said and did. Another approach is to reject white suffragists for their racism, and focus only on the intersectional work of Black suffragists.
The point of studying history is to do better in the present. Neither ignoring white suffragists’ racism nor ignoring them altogether helps us grapple with the challenge of our time: creating a genuinely multiracial democracy.
White suffragists disappoint us in every era: after the Civil War, at the turn of the century as white supremacy is tightening its grip, and in the triumphant aftermath of the 19th Amendment, when white suffragists refuse to challenge Jim Crow. And yet, writing them off entirely is a mistake. Critique them, engage them, but don’t ignore them. As Ta-Nehisi Coates said of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: “...I think of Stanton and Anthony, misstepping, but always pushing, always agitating, always expanding, and I feel a strong kinship. I don't need my personal pantheon to be clean. But I need it to be filled with warriors.”