A Suffragette’s View: Is 100 years too long to wait for our first black, female VP?

The 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified on August 18, 1920, granting women the right to vote. One hundred years later we stand on the brink of potentially electing a black woman to serve as the 49th Vice President of the United States. What would a suffragette say about this? Is 100 years too long to wait for our first black, female VP?

Fundamentally, the answer to this question comes down to voting rights, equality and representation. And ultimately it comes down to power — those who have it, those who don’t, and the time and momentum that it takes to shift that dynamic.

Change takes time. To answer our question, we need go back 200 years, to the America of the 1820s. Slavery was the backbone of the southern economy and women’s identities were defined by that of their husbands. It was during these years that the roots of the suffrage movement began to take hold. Reform groups sprang up across the U.S., including abolitionists, temperance leagues, and religious groups. Women played significant roles in many of these groups.

The first national women’s rights convention was held in 1848 in Seneca Falls, NY, organized by Lucy Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. It was at the Seneca Falls Convention that Stanton, with input from Mott, drafted the Declaration of Sentiments, modeled off of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Sentiments was a national cry for equality, stating that: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal” and called for women to be granted “all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States.”

Key among these rights was the right to vote and, thereby, to have “representation in the halls of legislation.” One hundred (68 women and 32 men) out of the approximately 300 attendees of the Convention signed the Declaration of Sentiments, including abolitionist Frederick Douglass. This Declaration would set the agenda for the women’s movement in the years to follow.

The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, granted black men the right to vote. It was the final of the three Reconstruction Amendments, designed to ensure equality for recently emancipated slaves. Specifically, the Amendment prohibited the federal government and states from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Suffragettes had differences of opinion about the 15th Amendment. Lucy Cady Stanton had met Susan B. Anthony in 1851. They would go on to found the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA).While they were ardent abolitionists, Stanton and Anthony did not support the 15th Amendment as they believed it did not go far enough because it did not address women’s suffrage. Rifts formed. Lucy Stone and other more conservative members formed the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), supporting the 15th Amendment and lobbying state governments to enact laws to grant or extend women’s right to vote.

Differences were eventually mended and the two organizations merged in 1890 to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), with Stanton, Anthony and Stone serving leadership roles. The strategy was initially to focus on state campaigns to support suffrage, later turning to the push for a federal amendment.

Despite the passage of the 15th Amendment, in practice black men still faced significant obstacles to voting. In the decades following the ratification of the Amendment, Southern states instituted poll taxes and literacy tests, aimed at suppressing the black vote. White voters were not subject to literacy tests thanks to grandfather clauses which allowed anyone who was eligible to vote prior the 15th Amendment, along with their descendants, to vote in elections.

It would be 100 years after the reform groups of the 1820s had gained traction and 50 years after black men were granted the right to vote that the 19th Amendment would be ratified. None of the original leaders of the women’s suffrage movement — Stanton, Anthony, and Stone — would be alive to witness its passage.

Groomed for the role by Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt had taken over leadership of the NAWSA. A new, more militant, group had also arisen to fight for women’s suffrage. The National Women’s Party, founded in 1913 by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, led an all out effort to convince President Woodrow Wilson to support women’s right to vote. The NWP’s Silent Sentinels picketed at the White House from January 1917 — June 1919. During this time, they were arrested, beaten, and many went on a hunger strike to draw attention to their cause.

Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920, completing the approval process to add the Amendment to the Constitution. The 19th Amendment decreed that: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

But the 19th Amendment had its limitations. Many African American women faced barriers to voting enacted through state constitutions. Asian American, Hispanic American, and Native American women faced challenges with respect to voting as well, including barriers to citizenship. And the men and women of the District of Columbia had no voice at all.

As the attendees of the Seneca Falls Convention knew, it’s not just about having the ability to vote, it’s also about having representation “in the halls of legislation”. It is about electing a diverse group of legislators, reflective of the diversity we see in our own society.

Jeannette Rankin of Montana was the first woman elected to Congress. Rankin, a suffragette, was sworn into the House in 1917, three years before the passage of the 19th Amendment. In 1914 Montana had passed an amendment to its state constitution allowing women to vote. Hattie Wyatt Caraway of Arkansas was the first woman to be elected to the Senate in 1932.

The first black woman to be elected to Congress was Shirley Chisholm in 1968. Representing New York, Chisholm was a first-generation American, the daughter of immigrants from British Guiana and from Barbados. Chisholm had a long legislative career and was the first black candidate for a major party’s nomination for President, running for the Democratic Party’s nomination in 1972.

Like Chisholm, Kamala Harris is a first-generation American, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and from India. Harris follows in the footsteps of Geraldine Ferraro (1984) and Sarah Palin (2008) as major party nominees for Vice President and of Hilary Clinton (2016), nominee for President.

So what would a suffragette say? Is 100 years too long to wait for our first black, female VP? The answer is a resounding YES.

From the time of the Seneca Falls Convention, over 270 years ago, suffragettes demanded the right to vote and to be represented in legislature. It has been 150 years since the passage of the 15th Amendment and 100 years since the ratification of the 19th Amendment. It has also been over half a century since Shirley Chisholm was elected to Congress.

The 116th House of Representatives has 127 women (23.7%) and the Senate has 25 women (25%). But the fact remains that there are more women in the general population of the U.S. than there are men. So while the percentage of women in Congress has grown over time, we still have a long way to go. By comparison, the country with the highest percentage of women in Parliament is Rwanda at 61.3% (2020). The U.S. even ranks below the global average of 25.1% for women in national parliaments (August 2020).

Yes, a suffragette would say that 100 years is too long to wait for our first black, female VP. Unfortunately though, our suffragette would likely not be too surprised. As history shows us, change takes time. Shifting the power dynamic is a very long, drawn out effort. Only the November election will tell us if we must keep waiting and counting the years, or if our time for greater representation at the executive level is finally here.

Mary O’Connell is a professional with 25+ years of work experience in public and private companies, for-profits and not-for-profits, global and domestic.

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