Women won the right to vote 100 years ago. Who played key roles in the suffrage movement?

One hundred years ago today, the 19th Amendment was ratified, guaranteeing that the right to vote in the United States wouldn’t be denied on the basis of sex. It was the culmination of a fight that took decades.

History books recount the sacrifices of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott. But other women — who weren’t white or straight — played key roles and weren’t recognized.

KCRW speaks with Veronica Chambers, an author and the editor of the New York Times’ archival project “Past Tense,” and Sally Roesch Wagner, a historian at Syracuse University and author of the anthology “The Women’s Suffrage Movement.

KCRW: There is a deep connection between the suffrage movement and the abolitionist movement. Many of the early suffragettes found a voice in the movement to abolish slavery. Why did it take another 50 years after Reconstruction for women to earn the right to vote? 

Veronica Chambers: “One of the things that we see really early on is that the 15th Amendment splits the movement. Just to put it in the plainest terms, a lot of white women are super unhappy that Black men are going to get the vote before them. And that causes a huge split between the movement. It was a complicated time. And I think many people felt that Black men needed the vote, to not have slavery return. And what you see again and again, right after Reconstruction, is that free Black men and women are kidnapped and sold back into slavery. So it becomes a really thorny issue.” 

How did that figure into the fight for suffrage in the South?

Sally Roesch Wagner: “Later, in 1890, the movement has split. And it's really more a move toward a vote-only movement. Before that they’re raising every issue that we're still raising today from equal pay to reproductive justice. 

But by 1890, what they begin to do is use racism as policy. They say give women the right to vote if you want to maintain white supremacy. Because look, there are more white women than there are people of color. And there are more white women than there are immigrants. So you give us the vote and we white women will give you white native-born supremacy continuing.”

Meaning If white women voted, they would empower people who would preserve policies ensuring discrimination and racism? 

Sally Roesch Wagner: “That was the dog whistle underneath the argument.”

Did they sideline some of the non-white activists in the movement?

Veronica Chambers: “I think that one of the things that we found as journalists was how many women of color were involved with the suffragists movement. And I think that their voices and stories aren't told as much as they could be, partly because I think that people didn't want to talk about racism within the suffrage movement. I think they wanted to look at these women as heroes, and really focus on the gains and wins for women without looking at the messiness of the race stuff.”

One woman of color that has been overlooked is Mary Church Terrell, tell us about her. 

Veronica Chambers:Mary Church Terrell is definitely one of our favorites, one of our heroes. She was born to enslaved parents. She became one of the first Black women to graduate from Oberlin. She spoke multiple languages. … It was hard for people to really engage and appreciate, within the lens of the time they were in, the super well-educated, middle and upper class Black women like Mary Church Terrell and see them as the equals that they were. 

… One of the things that you learn is that for women of color, their suffrage is never just the only thing on the agenda. So after abolition, they're fighting anti-lynching. They're fighting for child labor laws. They're fighting for temperance and fighting against domestic violence. And Mary Church Terrell is someone whose life really shows that. She came up with the phrase ‘lifting as we climb’ and really that idea that if suffragists are going to do their best work, they have to open the door to equality to as many people as possible.” 

What was the reception to that argument? 

Veronica Chambers: “It's important to say that the move for suffrage starts before Seneca Falls and Sally's work on the Haudenosaunee women and how Native American women were central to the suffrage story is so important. But if you think, it starts way before Seneca Falls in the 1840s, and 1920 is really the beginning and goes through the Voting Rights Act. 

Even if you just look at the 19th Amendment, from the early 1800s to 1920, there was this feeling that it took three generations of women to get the vote, it was never promised. 

And so I think there was a feeling among some, particularly white women, suffragists that they had to be single minded about suffrage. Whereas I think for women of color, they felt like we can't lay down some issues like lynching, while we focus on suffrage. We have to keep all the issues going. And there's a kind of a multiplicity of activism that really marks their work. That becomes really important.”

Sally, you've spent a lot of your career studying the Native American influence on this movement, and specifically the Iroquois women of upstate New York. Tell us about their role in this. 

Sally Roesch Wagner: “There were connections between the suffrage leaders in this region. I am in the indigenous territory of the Onondaga Nation, which is the center of the Haudenosaunee, sixth nation confederacy. And the clan mothers have for 1000 years at least been nominating, holding an office and removing, if necessary, the chiefs that they choose to sit on the Grand Council in the decision-making body. 

So I think the suffragists, they saw women who had their own authority, their own political voice, who were economically independent, who were part of a community that was based on balance and harmony. And they saw a vision of a transformed world that made it possible for them to demand their rights.”

It’s inspiring and yet tragic when you think of the modern day plight of so many Native American women. Many are victims of domestic violence, their murders often go unsolved or are not investigated. 

Sally Roesch Wagner: “The irony is that at the same time that settler colonialists women were learning from the Haudenosaunee, the government and the churches were systematically trying to destroy the sovereignty and the culture of Native Americans. And the result of the systematic violence against them, the regimentation, the lack of love is an intergenerational trauma that continues today.”

Veronica Chambers: “I think that history becomes really important because it is a reminder of the power that women have had and a reminder that … this is a second wave on this land. … The second tongue that we're speaking is really important. And suffrage is actually an opportunity to look at that in a concrete, not a theoretical way.” 

What about women who are not heteronormative? What role did they play in this movement? 

Sally Roesch Wagner: They're everywhere in the movement. Women who could afford not to marry, they form partnerships and live together for years and years, their whole lives, sometimes their whole adult lives. And they were emotionally devoted to each other. I think when we look at lesbians, we think, ‘What were they doing in bed?’ And I think that's not the question. The question is: What was the nature of their emotional relationships? And that's where we see them everywhere.”

As we're celebrating the 100th anniversary and facing another historic election, what should women be thinking as they head to the ballot box and consider the gains that they have won and things that they still need to win?

Veronica Chambers: “One of the things that we thought a lot about, which turned out to be really tricky to show in a visual way, was what is the correlation between when women won the vote and when women in different countries have been able to extend to the highest offices in the land? 

And I think a lot about a quote that Emmeline Pankhurst, the British suffragist said, ‘We're not here because we want to break laws. We're here in our attempt to become lawmakers.’ 

And as we look at Kamala Harris' historic nomination, we realize she's one of 26 women serving in [the] Senate, 101 representatives in the House, governors of just nine states, as well as the territories of Puerto Rico and Guam. These numbers are so low, but they would also be unimaginable if women had not won the vote.”

Sally Roesch Wagner: “What I'm thinking about is the African American women who organized on a lot of different issues. And I think the message for us out of the suffrage movement, at least for me, one of them is that it's the people who are the most oppressed, who have the most leadership to offer. 

The rich white guys, they only see their own interests. It's very hard for them to see beyond that. But the queer women, poor, of color see all of the different issues and all of the interplay that needs to be corrected. 

So I feel celebratory. I also feel the sadness at seeing the extraordinary voices of women of color coming forward today and speaking truth to power and showing a leadership that we lost for over 100 years. Because African American women really didn't get the vote until 1965. 

And when I was listening to Michelle Obama's speech, I thought that should have been with us 100 years ago. We should have been hearing those voices all that time. And we haven't and that's the terrible loss we must make up for now.”

— Written by Jennifer Wolfe and Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski



  • Veronica Chambers - author and the editor of the New York Times’ archival project “Past Tense”
  • Sally Roesch Wagner - historian at Syracuse University and author of the anthology “The Women’s Suffrage Movement”