League of Women Voters panel discussion examines race and women’s suffrage

by Aaron Burkhalter

Nearly 100 years ago, Congress passed the 19th Amendment, granting white women the right to vote. It took another year for enough states to ratify the amendment, but many people would continue to wait for their right to vote. Jim Crow laws prevented black women and men from participating in the United States’ form of democracy.

The League of Women Voters of Seattle-King County is hosting a panel discussion Feb. 7 at 7 p.m. at Seattle First Baptist Church to examine the complicated history of the women’s suffrage and how it gained rights for some women to vote while leaving others behind in a trail of overt and passive racism.

League of Women Voters Vice President Christy Wood will moderate the discussion with a panel of speakers that includes Seattle City Councilmember Debora Juarez; Jamila Taylor, Attorney and Founding Board Member of BlackPast.org; and La Rond Baker, Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Unit of the Washington State Attorney General’s Office.

Jamila Taylor, who practices law at the Northwest Justice Project, spoke with the Emerald about how women of color, and particularly black women, had to wait some time before getting the right to vote, and what this complicated history can say about today’s feminist movements and the work to protect voter rights. Taylor is a founding board member of BlackPast.org, an online reference center that compiles articles and material about African American history that she helped start with her father, University of Washington historian Quintard Taylor.

The panel discussion, titled “Exploring Racism in the Women’s Suffrage Movement,” takes place at Seattle First Baptist Church, 1111 Harvard Ave., Feb. 7 at 7 p.m. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Click here for more information.

This article has been edited for length and clarity.

Aaron Burkhalter: After the 19th Amendment was ratified, what were the ways that women of color were prevented from voting?

Jamila Taylor: After the suffrage movement, after the 19th Amendment was passed, there were still Jim Crow laws that were affecting African American women and African American men in general. For example, the grandfather clause were laws that stated that if your grandparent had been enslaved, you would not have any voting rights. Your voting rights depended on the state where you lived. So regardless of whether women had the right to vote, many people of color, because of their racial status were not afforded the ability to vote.

AB: Given that, how do you view the suffrage movement in that context? How should we consider it today given that it excluded women of color for so long?

JT: Women of color, and African American women in particular, had to engage in a parallel movement for equal rights while seeking voting rights for the whole of the community. It leads to the tension that comes up now where sometimes folks conflate the viewpoint that the viewpoint of suffrage movement is that it is wholly inclusive of voice of women of color.

AB: What are the challenges that women of color are facing in today’s feminist struggles?

JT: In any progressive movement, especially in the United States, there’s this notion that it’s impossible for someone to be racist and yet a feminist, or for someone to hold prejudices that exclude others while they’re trying to get their rights they’re seeking in the American political system. The continued problem here, especially in Seattle, is that there are a lot of folks who believe that there is very little racism up here [in the Northwest]; and that there is very little systemic oppression that continues to keep folks from exercising their full rights as human beings in this community and as citizens of this community. Until folks, who want to believe that they’re true allies, understand that they are in some ways subsidizing and silent in the systematic oppression of folks of color, there will always be this disconnect or distrust of folks in the majority, if there’s no acknowledgment that there’s a possibility that one could be a so-called progressive but still have prejudices or unconscious bias that leads to the oppression of others.

AB: What can we learn about the work women of color did securing the right to vote as the United States debates voter access and voter rights today?

JT: One of the things that’s really interesting, unique, and dynamic for women — that it is a constant is that women are phenomenal organizers — and organizers who are not always seeking credit to be at the front lines and saying “I am the leader of the entire movement, therefore you must listen to me and no other voice.” I see a different way that feminist leaders and women of color leaders in the global movement. They are engaging in the system in a more inclusive way, that allows for voices of all types to be heard, that they want to have their universal rights recognized. And I think it’s an important shift from perhaps politics of old where it’s like, “OK, we’ll give one group a little bit more rights.” That [divide and conquer strategy] cause conflict for another group and that makes sure that they will fight amongst themselves rather than fighting the folks who have the power.

AB: What will surprise people who attend this event?

JT: I think many people will be surprised at how far and outside of the traditional history of the women’s rights’ movement, how deeply embedded women of color have been in seeking rights for not only themselves but the men and other people in their communities. And by trying to alleviate the racial oppression, they kept the conversation going within feminist ideology and accountability. But they did it in the context of their time. It seems like we are still struggling with that. What does it mean to be a woman involved in politics today when you have notions of, “Well, she’s too pretty” or “She’s not of the certain ilk to run for office” or if the questions are, “Well, she just had a baby. Can she even be involved in politics?” — some of those sexist questions that seem to be lingering. There are things that, even in terms of the internal discourse amongst women, that folks forget that there was not a universal thought or ideology around feminism and women’s rights. And the disconnect between white women and women of color is probably the most prominent separation.

AB: Any particular message you want people to take away from the panel discussion?

JT: I think there is room for growth and healing. And that a part of that growth requires truth telling and allowing folks of color to share their experiences. Whether you’re in disbelief at what happened, it’s that person’s truth. A lot of times, when you’re a person in power, you need to sit and listen. And hopefully you’ll be invited to the table to be part of the conversation. I think that’s one of the unique things I’ve seen about what goes on in Seattle is that there’s so many people who have a desire to learn, a desire to shape a different future for us.

Featured Image: “Tennessee Woman Suffrage Memorial” stands on display in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Photo Credit: “Women’s Suffrage” by tabounds is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0)