3 Women of Color Suffragists You Should Know
The following is an edited and condensed excerpt from Finish The Fight: The Brave and Revolutionary Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote.
Three generations of women, and their male allies, worked tirelessly to make the Nineteenth Amendment—which decreed that states could not discriminate at the polls on the basis of sex—a reality. We call the right to vote “suffrage,” but for a long time, that word was a kind of shorthand for women’s rights. Without the vote, suffragists argued, women had little say over their lives and their futures and certainly much less when it came to the larger political questions that shaped the nation.
For a long time, the story of suffrage has been told mainly as the story of a few famous white women, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. It’s true, they were among the most important leaders of the movement in the nineteenth century. They were some of the first to call for votes for women, and they spent more than half a century tirelessly fighting for suffrage.
But there are tons of women beyond Susan and Elizabeth’s demographic who helped make suffrage a reality for all women. And these stories aren’t just about the Nineteenth Amendment. As important as that was, it wasn’t enough to guarantee that every woman, everywhere, could vote. There were still many barriers for women of color in many places. It took more laws and many more years of activism for all women to really win the right to vote—and the fight continues.
Here are just a few women of color who all fought for the vote as part of a broader struggle for equality, but whose stories still aren’t nearly as well known as they should be.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
Frances was born in Baltimore in 1825 to parents who were free blacks. Frances was one of the first African American women in the United States to publish short stories and novels. She joined the abolitionist movement — the house she lived in was a stop on the Underground Railroad — as well as the suffrage movement.
At the 1866 National Woman’s Rights Convention, Frances said, “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.”
In the 1890s, Frances led the American Association of Educators of Colored Youth and was a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women—alongside Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. She died in 1911, less than a decade before the Nineteenth Amendment became law.
The Idár family weren’t just journalists, (Jovita’s father, Nicasio, was the publisher of a newspaper called La Crónica) but also activists. In 1911, they helped organize El Primer Congreso Mexicanista (the First Mexicanist Congress), a meeting of activists concerned with issues facing the community. As part of the congress, Jovita also helped found the League of Mexican Women, which may have been the first Mexican American feminist organization.
In the early twentieth century, anti-immigrant sentiment was rising across the country, and laws changed so that only Americans citizens could vote. In 1923, Texas passed a law creating what is called a “white primary”— meaning that only white voters could choose a party’s candidate. Under the law, Mexican Americans were technically considered white. But they were often kept away from the polls by literacy tests, poll taxes, and other exclusionary practices.
Some people challenged this system, including the Idárs. But even before that, in the period after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, Jovita was active in the Democratic Party. She even worked as a precinct judge—in other words, she became one of the people running the elections.
Susette La Flesche Tibbles
Susette was born in 1854, a member of the Omaha tribe in what is now the state of Nebraska. In her early twenties, the government arrested Standing Bear, the chief of the Ponca tribe, and locked him up in a military fort. Many people saw this as horribly unjust, and a newspaper editor named Thomas Tibbles suggested that Standing Bear bring his case to a judge. But there was one big problem: the chief didn’t speak English. So Susette agreed to translate for him, even though she was very shy at the time.
With Susette’s help, the chief delivered an emotional speech about how Native Americans were just as human as white Americans. Amazingly for the time period, Standing Bear won his case.
In 1879, a judge ruled that a Native American counted as a “person” under the law—a right that hadn’t been recognized until then—and that Native Americans were entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The victory was not explicitly connected to voting rights—and it didn’t mean that they were citizens—but it was a big step in that direction.
But for all the success and recognition Susette achieved, the struggle for Native Americans and Native women continued. While Native women were active participants in their own tribal governments long before other women in America had even dreamed of winning equal representation, it would be another generation before full recognition and suffrage was granted to Native Americans.
For many more stories of amazing activists who fought for women’s right to vote, check out Finish The Fight: The Brave and Revolutionary Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote.