Collaboration for justice: How history’s more inclusive past foretells our future
This August marks the centennial commemoration of women’s suffrage and the passage of the 19th amendment. New books, musicals and museum exhibitions are widening the historical lens to add the names of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Zitkala-Sa, Lola Armijo, Mabel Lee and other women of color alongside more well-known White suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
This long overdue and more accurate account allows us to reflect on the roles our own ancestors Ida B. Wells and Madam C. J. Walker played in the fight for women’s suffrage. It is our hope that once included in our collective history, these stories motivate and inspire today’s social justice activists.
Ida B. Wells — Michelle Duster’s great-grandmother — is best known as a journalist, suffragist, anti-lynching activist and a co-founder of the NAACP. In May, she was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for her courageous reporting.
Madam C. J. Walker — A’Lelia Bundles’s great-great-grandmother — was a beauty industry entrepreneur who provided jobs for thousands of Black women and became a philanthropist and political activist.
Excluded from key White suffragist initiatives, Ida, Madam and thousands of Black women created their own organizations. Through enfranchisement, they believed they could begin to combat legally sanctioned racial violence and the institutional racism that denied housing, education, jobs, health care and fair wages in their communities.
On March 3, 1913, when White suffragist Alice Paul tried to consign Black marchers to the rear of a suffrage parade on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., Ida defied the order and joined the otherwise all-White Illinois delegation. In August 1917, at the first national convention of Madam Walker’s sales agents, the delegates sent a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson urging him to support legislation to make lynching a federal crime. Because of the militant stance on racist federal policies, both women were spied upon by Wilson’s War Department and labeled “Negro subversives” in a classified military intelligence report.
For Black women in 1920, the franchise of the 19th Amendment remained elusive. The fight for suffrage continued for another 45 years until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and indeed continues to this day.
In the spirit of our ancestors, we join forces to bring equity to Black women while also documenting the work and giving credit to women who paved the way for the next generation of activists on the frontlines of change.
The literacy tests, grandfather clauses and poll taxes that blocked our ancestors from voting have been replaced today with purges of voter rolls, shuttering of polling places and tampering with the U.S. Postal Service. Because of Ida and Madam, we know voter suppression when we see it.
Despite these obstacles, we are energized by the political power of women, especially Black women, who have consistently turned out in higher percentages than other voters in recent elections.
Ida and Madam would have been pleased to see that 102 women were elected to the U.S. Congress in 2018 and that a quarter of U.S. senators are women, including California Sen. Kamala Harris (D), who has been chosen Vice President Joe Biden’s vice presidential running mate.
Like Ida and Madam, we know that women of color must continue to fight on many fronts and that American democracy remains a work in progress.
If we had a wish, it would be, like Ida and Madam, that the opportunity to have a voice in politics as both voters and public servants truly made available to all.
We believe that voter registration and the act of voting should be easy and accessible to all eligible citizens. We look forward to a time when Election Day is a paid national holiday, when voting early is not thwarted and when voting by mail is not undermined.
Ida B. Wells and Madam C. J. Walker — along with hundreds of other women of color — have challenged America to live up to its ideals for four centuries.
Just as they have inspired generations of activists, we strive to do our part today.
Michelle Duster is an author, professor and public historian. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @michelleduster.
A’Lelia Bundles is the author of “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker,” a New York Times Notable book and the inspiration for Self Made, a recent Netflix series. She is chair emerita of the National Archives Foundation. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @aleliabundles.
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