A Hundred Years On
New York recently marked the centennial anniversary of voting rights for women in the state, a tremendous victory helmed by the Women’s Suffrage Movement. From the inception of the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls back in 1848, New York State has been a leader in advancing women’s equality and honoring the tireless fight for women’s rights. By being one of the first states to acknowledge women’s voting rights as equal to men, the passage of the women's suffrage amendment in New York created momentum for the eventual ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – a model for a new, more equal way of American life.
The pillars behind this revolutionary movement were the women who fought and campaigned tirelessly on streets and in courthouses to turn their goal of equality into reality. In 1869, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two women who would later become prominent figures of the suffragette movement, founded the National Woman Suffrage Association. By 1917, New York women had been fighting, braving threats, violence and jail time, for nearly 70 years to gain the right to vote.
While the efforts of these women were indeed integral, it is important to peel back the layers of this movement to consider the silent hypocrisy that lurked in its shadows. Although these women campaigned on the grounds of justice and equality, a lack of representation and lack of acceptance of women of diverse ethnic backgrounds defined the movement’s white privilege.
The suffragette movement was blatantly racist, specifically excluding black suffragettes who had been trying to gain the right to vote since the end of slavery. For instance, Susan B. Anthony, one of the most significant figures of the movement, openly advocated for the forced sterilization of black women. It is ironic then how these women, who were labeled ‘trailblazers for equality,’ attested to similar prejudicial beliefs that they spent so long trying to eradicate.
This election day, many individuals across the country received "I Voted" stickers designed with suffragettes. The stickers read: “Honoring 100 years of a woman’s right to vote,” an initiative spearheaded by New York's new Women's Suffrage Commission. In retrospect, the stickers failed to recognize that while white women gained the right to vote in 1917, Asian women did not receive this same right for another 35 years. It also took until 1957 for Native American women to become eligible to vote; and for African-American women, this right was not recognized until 1965, nearly half a century after white women. A hundred years on, it is vital that this discrepancy does not go unnoticed.
But there were also standout women of color within the suffrage movement who persevered and succeeded in being represented in a fight that was rightfully theirs as well. Sarah J. Smith Thompson Garnet, a Brooklyn-born suffragist and educator, was the first African American woman to have founded a suffrage organization -- the Equal Suffrage League. Mary Burnett Talbert was another prominent educator, suffragist, reformer, and civil rights leader who was hailed as “the most famous black woman in America” during her lifetime. Talbert also was the first African-American delegate to the International Council of Women.
These trailblazers and their indomitable fighting spirit have paved the way for the rights women are afforded today. Indeed, the United States has made huge strides ever since. Today, women make up about half of the workforce and they now earn a higher percentage of college degrees than men. However, the country still rates 28th out of 145 countries in an annual world ranking of equality for women.
It is vital to take stock of the progress made toward gender equality as well as to campaign for issues that have yet to be addressed. There is much to be done in the years to come. A hundred years on, the imagery of women continuing to march and protest for equal rights is powerful. However, it is living proof that the indomitable spirit of women has always, and will always, thrive and emerge victorious in its pursuits.