“Someone struggled for your right to vote. Use it.” -Susan B. Anthony
The word ‘suffrage,’ which simply means ‘the right to vote,’ doesn’t sound like it fits its definition, does it? The term sounds like it could refer to a state of suffering. But such a thought is far from its meaning. Suffrage, the right for each citizen to have a voice in its government, is the backbone of the freedoms of American democracy. Each American has an inalienable right to vote and be heard, right? No suffering involved. Hmm, well, not exactly.
Groups of American citizens have historically struggled for decades upon decades in order to secure their right to vote, and some conflicts are ongoing to this day. These battles are addressed in some of the newly acquired books by Smiley Library which explore the experiences of a couple of these groups.
“On account of race : the Supreme Court, white supremacy, and the ravaging of African American voting rights” is constitutional law historian Lawrence Goldstone’s treatise of the disturbing history of suffrage for African Americans. Though ratified in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment, which explicitly states that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” was not fully realized for 95 more years — until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In that near-century of time African American citizens were continually and blatantly denied access to voting often under the guise of “states’ rights,” such as by use of literacy tests or poll taxes, and as Goldstone defines, were often aided by the decisions of the Supreme Court. Out of this grew Jim Crow laws of racial segregation which sought to further African American disenfranchisement and remove the group’s political and economic gains which had been advanced during the Reconstruction period. Though the Voting Rights Act of 1965 seemed to have remedied the ails of the previous century, Goldstone is disturbed by the 2013 decision by the Supreme Court in Shelby County, Alabama vs. Holder which has allowed states to put voter restrictions back into law. The suffering for suffrage, it seems, often comes from progress taking one step forward and two steps back. The right to make your voice heard may be inalienable, but it is also fragile.
While African Americans endured challenges in the 19th and early 20th century, the cause of women’s suffrage was running in tandem. When African Americans were given the right to vote with the Fifteenth Amendment, African American women were not included. One half of the American population — women — were denied this privilege of the citizenry. Author Ellen Carol DuBois begins her account in “Suffrage : women’s long battle for the vote” of the Women’s Suffrage Movement by outlining its beginnings in the temperance and abolitionist causes women embraced in the 1840s. However, the mutual goal of suffrage for African Americans and for women fell away as the Jim Crow era took hold, and the mainstream women’s movement left African American women behind.
DuBois does contextualize the exclusion of these women, as well as other issues of importance to the Movement at the time, such as advocacy for trade unions, birth control, and other social justice reforms. As the Movement continued into the 20th century these were abandoned as well. Women suffragists came to the realization that the vote would not be given to women until a constitutional amendment was put into place. It was Quaker reformer Alice Paul who began the process in 1912. DuBois chronicles the Movement’s history up to the establishment of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, and briefly addresses what came next. She quotes suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt’s comment on achievement of the Amendment, that is was just “the first lap of this struggle for women’s emancipation.”
These are just two of several new books on the subject of suffrage available in the Library. Other titles include “The woman’s hour : the great fight to win the vote” by Elaine F. Weiss, “Free thinker : sex, suffrage, and the extraordinary life of Helen Hamilton Gardener” by Kimberly A. Hamlin, “No place for a woman : the struggle for suffrage in the wild West” by Chris Enss, and “Thank you for voting : the maddening, enlightening, inspiring truth about voting in America” by Erin Geiger Smith. For more on voter suppression, you might consider “Uncounted : the crisis of voter suppression in the United States” by Gilda R. Daniels.
If you prefer a more visually tactile experience of history, you may enjoy “Exploring women’s suffrage through 50 historic treasures” by Jessica D. Jenkins. You may also visit our Heritage Room by appointment and find many suffrage-related artifacts, such as the campaign literature entitled “Form addressed to mothers, fathers and all good citizens urging an affirmative vote for the Suffrage Amendment : October 10, 1911“, published by the Redlands Political Equality League. Or visit the Heritage Room’s online exhibit at www.akspl.org, “The Woman’s Vote: A Century of Suffrage.”
The Library also offers books on the subject for children and young adults. Lawrence Goldstone offers a companion to “On account of race” for young adults with “Stolen justice : the struggle for African American voting rights.” Others for children include “How women won the vote : Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and their big idea” by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, and “Women win the vote! : 19 for the 19th amendment” by Nancy B. Kennedy.