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Our view: Who benefited from the 19th Amendment?

The centenary of the 19th Amendment brings questions along with celebration
Carrie Chapman Catt, suffragist and founder of the League of Women Voters, circa 1912 (Library of Congress)

Colorado advanced well beyond the rest of the nation in 1893, when it amended its constitution to allow women to vote in state elections. The rest of the nation caught up to Colorado 100 years ago this week when Tennessee was the last of the necessary states to ratify the 19th Amendment, recognizing the prerogative of women to vote. It is a big anniversary with a caveat nearly as big.

In practice, only white women in the U.S. gained the right a century ago, as only white women did in Colorado in 1893. That was no accident. There is a good argument the 19th Amendment consolidated white supremacy – not least because it was put forth by some of the amendment’s proponents. “Historians are rightly warning groups involved in suffrage commemorations not to overstate the significance of the 19th Amendment,” Brent Staples wrote in The New York Times in 2018, in one of a group of editorials (“How the Suffrage Movement Betrayed Black Women”) that won a Pulitzer Prize.

In 1903, the Mississippi suffragist Belle Kearney gave the keynote address to the convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, then on its way to becoming the country’s largest voluntary organization. “The enfranchisement of women,” Kearney said, “would insure immediate and durable white supremacy, honestly attained.” There is no contemporary record of her being rebuked or corrected on this point.

As the association reached the apogee of its membership, between 1915 and 1920, its president was suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt, of Iowa, one of the best-known women in the U.S. in the first half of the 20th century, and one of the most influential. Congress passed the 19th Amendment in June 1920 and it went to the states for ratification. Catt, who also founded the League of Women Voters, as the successor to NAWSA, lobbied for the amendment in the Deep South, where it was the hardest sell. In a speech she gave to the legislatures in Mississippi and South Carolina, she said, “White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.” There is, again, no evidence that she did not truly believe this, or that it did not happen. Black people were effectively barred from voting in the South, as she knew, before (and after) 1920. So were most Indigenous Americans throughout the country. So were Chinese and Japanese Americans.

On the 75th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, Iowa State University renovated a building and renamed it Carrie Chapman Catt Hall. Even then, there were calls from some to reconsider the choice. In 1996, The Associated Press interviewed one, an Iowa State sophomore, Meron Wondwosen, who said, “People treating people with dignity is not something that is bound by time. It’s a basic principle.” But the name remained and there is now the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at the university. In June of this year, the Des Moines Register noted protesters on campus chanting “Change Catt Hall” – but so far, nothing, still, has changed.

The League of Women Voters, to its credit, has not been heedless. In 2018, in a blog post, “Facing Hard Truths About the League’s Origin,” its CEO, Virginia Kase, said flatly that Catt was a racist. Elaborating, she said, “Our organization was not welcoming to women of color through most of our existence.” The League took no role in the Civil Rights movement, she noted, when Black men and women struggled to secure the right to vote four decades after the 19th Amendment.

“We will do better,” Kase said then. The centenary of the crucial amendment is the time to do it.

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