OP/ED When the Suffrage Movement Sold Out to White Supremacy


A committed egalitarian, [Frances E. W. Harper] balked when suffragists embraced a definition of “women” that included only the educated and the affluent. In a now famous speechgiven in New York, Harper told the audience that fates of black and white, rich and poor were “all bound up together.” She refused to decouple race from gender, arguing that the day-to-day racism she and other black women experienced was in fact a “women’s issue” that suffragists were obligated to confront.

“You white women speak here of rights,” Harper said that day in 1866. “I speak of wrongs.” Reciting the litany of humiliations that black women had to endure on public conveyances — not because they were women but because they were black — she asked, “Are there no wrongs to be righted?”

Harper’s speech anticipated by more than a century the “intersectional” legal analysis of the critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, who showed how policies that treat race and gender as mutually exclusive deprive black women of redress in discrimination cases while also obscuring the fact that they struggle under the dual burdens of racism and sexism.

“History of Woman Suffrage” draws heavily on the proceedings of the 1866 meeting but tellingly leaves out Harper’s momentous speech. The historian Nell Irvin Painter argues that her words were “too strong” for white suffrage leaders who saw her polished, self-assured style as antithetical to what they viewed as blackness. They preferred the uneducated version of black womanhood embodied by the formerly enslaved suffragist Sojourner Truth, who entertained her audiences as she imparted her ideas.

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