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Is it OK to Celebrate the 19th Amendment?

Posted by Luke on Aug 12th 2020

Some say that the historic campaign for women's votes is too tarnished by racism to celebrate today. I respectfully disagree.

National Woman's Party activists watch Alice Paul sew a star onto the NWP Ratification Flag, representing another state's ratification of the 19th Amendment (Source: Library of Congress)

Just in case you've developed an insatiable addiction to pandemic news and baking banana bread during 2020, it might be worth me reminding you that the centennial of the 19th Amendment is around the corner (18th August).

We've been gearing up for this for a while at Radical Tea Towel, writing blogs about radicals like Ida B Wells and the lesser-known Crystal Eastman, and of course releasing new tea towel designs inspired by the Progressive Era.

Click to see our 19th Amendment designs

While the reaction has been mostly positive, there have been those on social media who think we shouldn't be celebrating 100 years of women's constitutional right to vote. 

It's a really interesting debate.

Sure, there are the usual suspects deriding progress and equality in all its forms. Radical Tea Towel is no stranger to a bit of frothing-at-the-mouth anger from online trolls.

But there are also those who - rightly - want to point out some of the racism of the movement for women's votes of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Our in-house historian, Pete, wrote about how Alice Paul - such a crucial figure in coordinating the national US Suffragist movement - opposed the participation of African American women in the iconic 'Woman Suffrage Procession' of 1913.

There were certainly plenty of people back then who were willing to trample over other groups in the stampede for equality.

Some were outright racists. Others at the time believed that distinguishing women's suffrage from other causes - however legitimate - was a regrettable but necessary tactical step towards any type of victory.

We certainly can't hide from this darker side of progressive history.

But is it right - as some of our social media critics seem to be saying - to simply dismiss the campaign for the 19th Amendment as racist, scrap the celebrations and distance ourselves from its memory entirely?

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." - wording of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution

I have no truck with this viewpoint, for two reasons.

[wait... just checking that 'no truck' works in American English too... it does, relief! What a weird metaphor.]

Firstly, it overlooks the very strong links that existed between suffragists and American campaigners for racial equality going back to the mid-19th century at Seneca Falls and beyond.

Tomorrow (13th August), for example, is the birthday of Lucy Stone (1818-1893), an organizer on behalf of both women's rights and abolitionist causes.

Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and countless other lesser-known figures saw the causes of sexual and racial equality as naturally allied and interdependent.

The fact that they were opposed by more malign forces should not be a reason to dismiss the cause of an entire movement.

Our historian Pete has pointed out to me that the early 20th century women's rights movement was arguably a lot more racist than the earlier abolitionist generation, with key figures like Ida B. Wells systematically marginalised.

Still, my point is that voting rights for women was a goal backed by many civil rights campaigners as well as women themselves, and therefore the 19th Amendment was an achievement for all progressive campaigners.

(Alice Paul, interestingly, having distanced herself from the cause of civil rights in the early 20th century, by the 1960s saw it as an opportunity: she helped include protections for women in the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.)

Above: not quite ready yet, but we're in production with a 'Heroines of the 19th Amendment' design - stay tuned!

Click to view our current 19th amendment designs

Secondly, by demanding perfection from our historical campaigns and individuals, I think we denigrate those who made real sacrifices to bequeath us the freedoms we have today.

History teaches us that progressive change faces many obstacles. People had to work and fight, sometimes singlemindedly, often for decades, to do the right thing.

The personal sacrifices made were immense (I find it telling, for example, how few of history's great campaigners and changemakers seem to have had children, let alone happy marriages).

Individuals were flawed and more than a little misguided at times.

But if we agree that the principle of women voting is a good thing and should be enshrined in the Constitution, as it was in 1920, then we surely owe the people behind that achievement a debt of gratitude, and can take a moment this month to celebrate it.

Without that important victory for women one hundred years ago, you could probably make a case that the Civil Rights movement of the second half of the 20th century would have faced an even greater struggle.

Let's be clear: the movement behind the 19th Amendment had a big problem with race.

And the victory in 1920 was not the end of the fight for Progressive America.

But the 19th Amendment itself was a significant step forward for anyone who valued democracy.

It's a step that next week we should celebrate openly, while continuing to learn about our flawed, fascinating and unfinished history.

Click to see our 19th Amendment designs