Women’s Suffrage and Personal Heroes

I wrote this piece for my college’s blog, so I thought I’d repost it here. Never delete anything you write. I mean, unless it’s just horrible, mean, or just plain wrong…. :O

An Anthropological Look at the Women’s Suffrage Movement

In August 2020, we commemorated the centennial anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment. Many books and other media are dedicated to this time, and the events that led up to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. But as an anthropologist, I am dedicated to looking beyond the historical documents to the behaviors of the past, and how those actions and events affect us today.
The seed for the first Woman’s Rights Convention was planted in 1840, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton met Lucretia Mott at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, UK. The conference refused to seat Mott and other women delegates from America because of their sex. Stanton, the young bride of an antislavery agent, and Mott, a Quaker preacher and veteran of reform, talked then of calling a convention to address the condition of women around the world.

The Seneca Falls Convention was the first women’s rights convention in the United States. Held in July 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, the meeting launched the women’s suffrage movement, which more than seven decades later ensured women the right to vote.

“I am in Great Britain today because I believe that the silent indifference with which she has received the charge that human beings are burned alive in Christian Anglo-Saxon communities is born of ignorance of the true situation. America cannot and will not ignore the voice of a nation that is her superior in civilization.”

In 1893, journalist and early civil rights pioneer Ida B. Wells crossed the Atlantic for the first time to deliver that message to Great Britain. She had been ignored by the Women’s Suffrage movement in the States because of the color of her skin.
Many of the prominent women in the US suffrage movement had made the decision that if they tried to include women of color into the struggle, the powerful while male elite who were against granting women the right to vote would be even more against them. Instead of fighting for the equality of all women, they chose to segregate their movement and create a narrative of the “Republican Woman”, the white, educated women who were being denied the right to participate in the betterment of the country.

Today, anthropology tries to focus on intersectionality: the understanding that different aspects of an individual or a group’s social and political identities combine and create different levels and ranges of discrimination, privilege, and mobility in a society. The word itself was first used by scholar and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989. While still a student studying to be a lawyer, she saw that gender and race were being studied as separate issues. To Crenshaw, studying them in isolation to each other made little sense. She saw that women of color, for example, are doubly discriminated against, particularly within the criminal justice system. Acknowledging that there are many factors that surround how one is able to navigate our society is important. And gives us the opportunity to improve upon it.

Another example of what can happen when we exclude one group in order to be able to help another is the new Hulu series Mrs. America, which chronicles the “culture wars” of the 1970s and the Equal Rights Amendment, meant to clarify the Constitutional rights granted to people in the 15th and 19th amendments. The issues mentioned in the series can be directly traced back to that original decision, made by Susan B. Anthony and others, to exclude people of color in favor of getting some rights for their group sooner.

One of my personal heroes is Susan B. Anthony. I grew up writing reports about her in school, dressed up as her for History Day, and still have the original notecards that I used for a speech that I gave on her in 6th grade. I can understand the frustration of some who are disappointed in our heroes once we learn more about them.

But that’s the point of learning, isn’t it? Our heroes are human. They have human flaws. The mistakes made by these influential women still reverberate through our society today, as we struggle to deal with this problematic past and grow into an inclusive future.

We can understand the thought process and beliefs of people in the past without accepting them, or apologizing for them. Ms. Anthony knew that black women were even more oppressed than she was, she just didn’t consider that oppression a priority, or even really possible to address. She wanted progress, ANY progress, and was willing to sideline the oppression of women of color to get it.

I think she’d love the of “creation of “Ms.” And she’s my first stop for a cup of coffee and a chat when I get my own time machine. We have much to discuss.

Published by

Drs. Dana Pertermann & Mark Neels

Friends, colleagues, and sparing partners, Drs. Dana L. Pertermann and Mark A. Neels collaborate on research in military history, politics, and culture. They are currently both college professors in Wyoming. They blog weekly about the past, the present, and the future of the U.S. and the world.

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