Much has been made of Susan B. Anthony’s role in the fight for women’s suffrage in the United States. Gertrude Stein’s second opera with Virgil Thompson The Mother of Us All followed the history of Anthony’s role in that fight and how she—Anthony (1820-1906)—died before ratification in 1920.
On June 10, 2019, the Steiny Road Poet visited “Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence,” a noteworthy exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery running through January 5, 2020. While Susan B. Anthony pops up in several places in the exhibit, she is not the leading lady of this show curated by Kate Clarke Lemay. In fact, one learns that despite Anthony’s work on getting the vote for Black men, when in 1869 the American Suffrage movement split into two groups, she and Elizabeth Cady Stanton formed and led the National Woman Suffrage Association which focused on issues of white women. The American Women Suffrage Association led by Lucy Stone, the more conservative group, made universal suffrage its goal. It was the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868 that allowed only Black men to vote that caused the riff. What the exhibition, which focuses on individual
women of the Suffrage Movement, doesn’t make clear is by 1890, the two groups merged.
What’s particularly informative for our current day situation is the emphasis on how minority women played a part in the struggle for women’s suffrage which sets the record as one of the longest reform movement (1832-1920). Prominent African American women included in this exhibit are Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) and Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931). Terrell, as Oberlin graduate, taught Latin at the Nation’s first Black high school (now known as the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Washington, DC) and was in 1909 a charter member the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). However, it was because of her friendship with Susan B. Anthony that she was able to help advance the cause of suffrage for Black women. Terrell was one of the few African-Americans allowed to participate in the National American Woman Suffrage Association
(NAWSA), the group formed in 1890 that brought the suffrage movement back together.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett (often referred to as Ida B. Wells) born into slavery became a prominent investigative journalist campaigning against lynching. She was also a leader of the civil rights movement and the Suffrage Movement. Like Terrell, Wells was a founder of the NAACP and interacted with the NAWSA, though more as a militant intruder. Among more recent examples was the story of Fannie Lou Hamer who tried in 1962 to register to vote in Indianola, Mississippi. The literacy test asked for explanation of de facto laws. It was a clear attempt to prevent Black citizens from voting.
Steiny also notes that the exhibition clarifies that the American women who petitioned for a woman’s right to vote are known as suffragists while the British counterpart are called suffragettes. The exhibition also addresses equal rights (e.g. equal pay for women) and abortion rights. Prominent women in politics—Nancy Pelosi and Hilary Clinton opened this exhibition March 29, 2019.
Steiny suggests that you, Dear Reader, should you be in Washington, DC, grab your daughters, granddaughters, sisters, nieces, female cousins and make sure you plan at least two hours to go through the six galleries and the hallway that runs between to see these more than 120 images and artifacts.