Telling the Whole Story of Woman Suffrage

Published:July 31, 2020 by Patti Miller

Suffragists demonstrating against President Woodrow Wilson, Chicago, 1916
(Photo courtesy of Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)

As Encyclopedia Virginia director Peter Hedlund recently noted here on the EV blog, we are committed to revising existing entries to eliminate racial bias and better reflect new historical understandings of key moments in Virginia history.

One such entry that needed revision was our entry on Woman Suffrage in Virginia, which failed to adequately note the contributions of Black women to the suffrage fight. As Brent Staples noted in the New York Times, white suffrage leaders intentionally obscured the contributions of Black women to the movement and “looked away from the racism that tightened its grip on the fight for the women’s vote in the years after the Civil War.” 

Nowhere was this more apparent than in Virginia, where white suffrage leaders, many of whom identified with the values of the progressive movement, found it politically expedient to distance themselves from Black women who supported suffrage. This had the effect of erasing the participation of women like Richmond banker and civic leader Maggie Walker, who used her paper, the St. Luke Herald, to argue for woman suffrage, and organizations like the Virginia State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, which supported the vote for women, from the history of the suffrage fight. 

When anti-suffrage forces gained traction by arguing that expanding the vote to women, including Black women, would upset the carefully orchestrated suppression of the Black vote, leaders of the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia turned to openly racist tactics to counter them. They argued that giving women the vote would actually “increase white supremacy” because Jim Crow measures like the poll tax would continue to effectively suppress the Black vote, male or female.

Today, thanks to the work of Brent Tarter, Marianne Julienne, and Barbara Batson, who just published The Campaign for Woman Suffrage in Virginia, we have a fuller picture of the Black women involved in the woman suffrage movement in Virginia that helps correct the racial bias in our original entry.

We’re also able to provide a fuller picture of Black women’s participation in the historic 1913 suffrage march in Washington, DC, which included Lynchburg native Jimmie Bugg and Nellie May Quander, who was a descendant of two prominent free Black Virginia families–the Quanders and the Fords–that had been enslaved by George Washington and his brother’s family.

It’s no surprise, of course, that Black women were advocates of woman suffrage. They were keenly aware of the power of the vote. What is astonishing is that it took 100 years to restore them to their rightful place in the woman suffrage narrative.

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