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Women’s Equality Day: Hidden Figures From The Suffrage Movement

On Women’s Equality Day, we commemorate the passage of the 19th amendment, which granted women the right to vote on August 26, 1920. With one year until the women’s suffrage centennial and the next presidential election, there’s all the more reason to celebrate the women who changed the course of history (aka herstory). Most importantly, though, we have the chance to reaffirm our commitment to equality.

There are a countless number of hidden figures whose stories have been left largely untold. Suffrage history includes moments of extraordinary discrimination and exclusion of others by white women suffragists. We need to tell the story of all the women and men who helped us secure the right to vote. If we can see ourselves in the past, then each of us will feel like it’s possible to shape our collective future. Diversity is our greatest strength— and our strength is in numbers! Here are just a few of the groundbreaking women who helped paved the way.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911)

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper refused to separate race and gender, knowing that women wouldn’t be liberated until all women were liberated. At a women’s rights gathering in 1866, she challenged her white counterparts, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, telling the audience, “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity.” While Harper’s message was overlooked at the time, it resonates deeply with us today.

Frances Fannie Barrier Williams

Frances (“Fannie”) Barrier Williams (1855-1944)

Like Harper, Fannie Barrier Williams deviated from the gender-centric view of women’s voting rights that her white contemporaries held. She was a member of the black elite who had a profound impact on Chicago. However, her influence on the struggle for women’s rights is far less known. In 1894, after 14 months of debate, she became the first black woman to be admitted to the Chicago Women’s Club, a prestigious all-white women’s group. For more than three decades, Barrier Williams worked tirelessly to advance black women in the world of politics and business, illuminating the need to recognize intersectionality and claiming that “black women had unique needs that were defined as much by race as they were by gender and region.”

 

Maria W. Stewart (1803-1879)

Maria W. Stewart was orphaned at the age of five. She was then forced into indentured servitude for a decade. Her formal education was non-existent, but Stewart was an avid reader nonetheless, consuming almost every book in her master’s library and throughout Sunday school. She married in 1826 and was widowed shortly thereafter. In 1832, after her husband’s death, Stewart became the first American woman (black or white) to speak in public about politics in front of a mixed (gender and race) audience.

 

Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879-1961)

Originally from Orange, Virginia, Nannie Helen Burroughs crossed racial lines to broaden her influence, ultimately becoming a key player in fighting for equal rights for women outside of domestic work. She famously wrote a speech called “How the Sisters Are Hindered from Helping,” which she delivered at the National Baptist Convention in 1900. She then realized her dream by founding the National Training School for Women and Girls in Washington, DC in 1909. The school, one of the first vocational training schools for black women and girls, was later renamed the Nannie Helen Burroughs School in her honor.  

 

Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954)

This Civil Rights activist was on the frontline of change in our country during the suffrage movement and beyond. Born in Memphis in 1863 to former slaves, she was one of the first black women to earn a bachelor’s degree and went on to earn her Master’s. She helped launch Delta Sigma Theta, a sorority for women of color at Howard University that was heavily involved in the women’s suffrage movement. She was invited to speak at meetings for the National Woman Suffrage Association on issues surrounding voting rights and women of color.

Church Terrell was a founder and president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1950 when a restaurant in Washington, DC refused to serve her because of her race, she filed a lawsuit and helped organize a movement that led to a ruling declaring segregation in D.C. unconstitutional. Church Terrell may have been one of the first people to raise awareness about intersectionality, saying, “A white woman has only one handicap to overcome – that of sex. I have two – both sex and race. … Colored men have only one – that of race. Colored women are the only group in this country who have two heavy handicaps to overcome, that of race as well as that of sex.”


There are many other women who fought hard for our right to vote. If you still don’t know them, you can learn more here in our CEO Shelley Zalis’ latest Forbes article.

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For more on standing up for equality, be sure to check out:

What You Need to Know About Black Women’s Equal Pay Day

In Her Words: Is Our Diversity & Inclusion Culture Coming Up Short?

The FQ Equality News 8.23.19