It's Women’s History Month! This is a good time to reflect on the League’s history, as the organization approaches its 100th birthday and the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which declared: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” This was a major accomplishment on the part of the women and men who fought tirelessly for this right, many of whom were beaten and/or arrested, participated in hunger strikes, and defied familial and social strictures.
This is a powerful and important story, but it isn’t the entire story. This history of political triumph is actually just a triumph for white women, who utilized racist arguments to convince many white men to support their cause. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, while initially ardent abolitionists, became frustrated when it appeared that abolition was eclipsing suffrage. Anna Howard Shaw, a Methodist minister and president of the National Women Suffrage Association, made this racialized complaint: “You have put the ballot in the hands of your black men, thus making them political superiors of white women. Never before in the history of the world have men made former slaves the political masters of their former mistresses!” Even LWV founder Carrie Chapman Catt is on the record for using the argument that “White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage” in her lobbying efforts.
So how do we acknowledge this complicated history in our upcoming celebrations? LWVUS President Chris Carson and LWVUS CEO Virginia Kase spelled out the League’s commitment to facing this head-on in a recent essay published on LWVUS’s website, asserting, “We are having tough conversations about race in this country—and making sure that as an organization we confront our place in history. African Americans were shut out of the vision of the League. As we continue to grow our movement, we acknowledge our privilege and must use our power to raise the voices of those who haven’t always had a seat at the table.”
LWVWA and our Washington Leagues believe strongly that we must do better and that we are starting by listening and learning. Leagues across the state have organized forums and historical lectures to further our understanding of how issues of diversity intersect with the Leagues past, present, and future (if you missed it, you can watch Seattle-King County’s thought-provoking forum on “Exploring Racism in the Suffrage Movement” online). Both LWVWA and Local Leagues have focused on developing partnerships with community groups across the state. Others are doing targeted outreach programs within underserved communities. At the state level, we offered our 2018 ballot initiative explanations in seven languages, and have focused our legislative advocacy efforts on bills that promote and protect democracy.
The results of these actions will benefit many diverse populations, and help build a stronger, more diverse League. The League has a lot to be proud of in our history, but we also have a lot to make up for. This Women’s History Month, let’s focus on learning the complex and intersectional history of our organization and of women in the U.S. as one of many steps that will enable the League to fully realize its mission of empowering voters and defending democracy for everyone.
If you're looking for some enlightening reads for Women's History Month, check out this list.