August 17, 2020:
By Kathleen Kingsbury
When Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify women’s suffrage, one hundred years ago on Tuesday, many American women saw the realization of a dream deferred since the country’s founding: They could have a hand in shaping democracy.
For the suffragists who had battled for voting rights, risking arrest and physical abuse, it was a triumph. But many powerful individuals and institutions refused to partake in the celebrations. And The New York Times editorial board was among those hostile to the cause.
In the years leading up to that victory, The Times declared its disapproval. “The New York Times does not believe that the achievement of woman suffrage will increase either the happiness or the prosperity of women in America,” the board wrote in 1913. Two years later, when measures permitting women to vote were on the ballot in various states, the board argued: “Without the counsel and guidance of men, no woman ever ruled a state wisely and well.”
As a woman now running our editorial page, I am not proud of all of my predecessors’ views. But I want to confront rather than paper over the times when our page has stood on the wrong side of a fight. By acknowledging our past failings, we can set a new course for our future. Brent Staples, is a leading voice on how vital it is to reckon with our moments of shame, narrow-mindedness and bigotry. An editorial board writer for more than 30 years, he has wrestled with the wrongs of white suffragists who marginalized Black women — and even compromised with white supremacy — during the battle for the ballot.
Brent’s essays reveal the way the suffrage movement betrayed Black women. In the reign of racial terror that followed emancipation, he wrote, white women sought the vote partly as a symbol of parity with men whereas Black women were fighting for the survival of their families. Leading white suffragists insisted on shunting Black women aside, even demanding they march at the back of a 1913 parade. Lionized figures like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B.
Anthony demanded their own freedoms, but were no freer of classist and racist views than many of their contemporaries. This past weekend, Brent and the editorial board have again examined the unfinished work of the fight for the 19th Amendment. We recognize the Black women who played pivotal roles in the struggle for women’s voting rights, only to be elided from records of the movement. After white women got the right to vote, it would be another 45 years before the Voting Rights Act eliminated some of the discriminatory measures that kept Black women from the polls, including poll taxes and literacy tests. The fight to fully secure African-Americans’ right to vote continues, as the Georgia politician Stacey Abrams and others have written in our pages.