Wednesday, October 13, 2021
Ann Tweedy, Book Review, Uncovering the Little-Known History of Suffragists of Color, JOTWELL, reviewing Cathleen D. Cahill, Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement (2020).
The book rightfully complicates the notion of women’s suffrage, revealing that a singular focus on women’s suffrage both obscures the larger struggles that these women were engaged in to secure the voting rights of all members of their communities and elides the contributions of these women to the suffrage movement. As Cahill explains, “[t]he suffrage histories of women of color bridge 1920, so to see that year as an end point leads us to tell a story that inevitably ignores them and truncates our understanding.” (P. 205.) Another invaluable aspect of this book is that Cahill refuses to shy away from the complexities of the important history she is unveiling. Thus, as readers, we are forced to reckon with the fact Native and Latina activists, for instance, sometimes drew distinctions between themselves and African-Americans to demonstrate the worthiness of their own communities for voting rights. More broadly, we are faced with the shameful history of exclusion within the women’s suffrage movement. White suffrage parade organizers, for instance, tried to relegate Ida B. Wells (then going by Mrs. Wells-Barnett) to the portion of the 1913 Washington D.C. suffrage parade reserved for African-Americans, rather than allowing her to march with the Illinois delegation as planned. As a consequence, she had to jump into the parade after it had already started in order to march with her fellow Illinois citizens. (P. 104.)
It is tempting to the think of the history of voting rights, like other histories, in linear terms, with African-American males getting the vote in 1870 upon the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment; white, African-American, and Latina women receiving the right to vote in 1919 with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment; and Native American men and women securing the right to vote via statute in 1924 (although many Native persons had obtained the right to vote prior to that).
Recasting the Vote shows that this progression was nowhere near so simple. Cahill, for example, reminds us that, post-1920, widespread lynching of African-Americans continued to be utilized to dissuade African-Americans from voting and that, as a consequence, activists like Carrie Williams Clifford organized campaigns for anti-lynching legislation. (P. 226.) Racist whites also prevented Native Americans from voting even after the Indian Citizenship Act was passed, with “States with large Native populations borrow[ing] heavily from . . . southern examples while also using Native people’s unique relationship to the federal government to keep them from voting.” (P. 261.) And although activists like Mabel Ping-Hua Lee fought for women’s suffrage in the United States, under the Chinese Exclusion Act, “the Chinese were the only people in the world whom the United States restricted due to their nationality and made ineligible for naturalized citizenship.” (P. 149.) Thus, until the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, Chinese-born women could not become naturalized citizens and could not vote irrespective of the Nineteenth Amendment.
Cahill thus renders her history of suffragists of color in all of its undeniable complexity. As such, Recasting the Vote is bound to be an indispensable resource on the subject for decades to come.