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A century ago, the Senate passed the 19th Amendment, which forbade states from denying the right to vote on the basis of sex.
So, how are local museums and institutions marking the occasion — and addressing some of the suffrage movement’s failings?
We’ll discuss with WAMU’s Arts & Culture reporter Mikaela Lefrak.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll hear from three local chefs on what it takes to start and to sustain a food business in Washington and about the challenges that women in the business face in particular. But first a century ago, this week, the Senate passed the 19th Amendment affirming women's right to vote. So how are local museums and institutions marking this occasion and addressing some of the suffrage movement's shortcomings? Joining us to discuss this is WAMU's own Arts and Culture Reporter, Mikaela Lefrak. Mikaela, good to see you.
MIKAELA LEFRAKYeah. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIWhen you were in school did you learn about suffragist leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton? What about Ida B. Wells? Give us a call 800-433-8850. Mikaela, can you tell us what exactly did the passage of the 19th Amendment do?
LEFRAKSure. So I'm going to answer that by reading the beginning of it. And it says, "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." So basically guaranteed women the right to vote, and it was passed as you said by Congress 100 years ago this week and ratified the year after. Three fourths of state legislatures had to approve it. And it's interesting because it did guarantee women the right to vote. But there were a number of states where women could already vote before it was passed. In particular a bunch of the western states, they were trying to attract settlers out there. So they passed legislation saying that women could vote there, but this guaranteed it for women across the country.
NNAMDIYou wrote recently for WAMU that the history of women suffrage and the landscape of Washington D.C. are inextricably tied. Tell us more about the District's particular connection to the voting rights movement.
LEFRAKYeah. So if you just go Google and Google suffrages or women suffrage of the 19th Amendment you'll get all these amazing black and white photos of women in their long skirts and their, you know, high collars and bunt hair and tight buns marching and being activists in Washington D.C. You'll see them, you know, marching this famous Women's March in 1913 on the National Mall, and picketing outside the White House. There's one great photo that I can see in my mind's eye of these women. They had created like a little bonfire to stay warm in the winter and they were picketing out there.
LEFRAKAnd, you know, they went to the halls of Congress to lobby senators and representatives, and, you know, it is really closely tied to our city. And actually one quick story, One of the most famous suffragist was actually also a very famous abolitionist, Frederick Douglas.
LEFRAKHe lived in D.C. And in the 1870s he was D.C.'s U.S. Marshall and he and his son and his daughter and his son-in-law all signed this famous petition to Congress for women's suffrage. So he was kind of one of those early intersectional advocates, who saw, you know, civil rights and women's suffrage as all tied in together.
NNAMDIAn international nation and D.C. icon.
LEFRAKYes, he is.
NNAMDIWhat were some of the strategic wins of the women's suffrage movement?
LEFRAKYeah, so as I said the movement took decades. It's not something that just, you know, cropped up in 1910 and was passed in 1919. So early supporters, you know, they were starting in the 1840s, 1850s to advocate for the women's right to vote. And in 1878 the amendment was first introduced to Congress. And here's one interesting fact too, another early win. The first woman was elected to Congress -- I didn't know this until today, in 1916. So before women could even vote across the country.
NNAMDIThere was a woman elected to Congress.
LEFRAKThis woman, Janet Rankin, was elected to Congress. She was a republican from Montana. I just think that's a fascinating little win or not so little.
NNAMDIWhere did the movement fall short?
LEFRAKSo unfortunately it fell short in a lot of ways. It was especially in the 1800s, but continuing into the 1900s it was pretty racists and pretty classist. African American women were consistently sidelined by white suffragists. And then another issue with it is that it kind of ended too soon. Sure, the 19th Amendment passed in 1919. But black women in particular continued to be disenfranchised for decades after that.
LEFRAKI was reading one story about a woman in Virginia in the 1920s. She was a black college educated mother of four and she was forced to take a literacy test to be able to vote. It was just a blank piece of paper and the person who administered it said she failed for whatever reason and she wasn't allowed to vote.
NNAMDIAnd you mentioned earlier Frederick Douglas. So I want to go to the phones and talk with Stephanie in Baltimore about the relationship that connects the suffragist movement with the early abolitionist movement. Here's Stephanie in Baltimore. Stephanie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEPHANIEHi. How are you doing today? Thanks for having me.
NNAMDII am well. Stephanie is almost a relative of this show, but go ahead, please.
STEPHANIEI did a little bit of research, because I was interested in some of these early roots of the movement. I saw that Elizabeth Cady Stanton, her husband was an abolitionist and through that connection she got to know Frederick Douglas, who as your guest just mentioned became really critical in the Seneca Falls Convention and speaking of behalf of the women's right to vote and women's rights in general. But that relationship became complicated after the 14th Amendment was proposed after the Civil War.
STEPHANIEElizabeth Cady Stanton and some other early feminists objected to extending citizenship to former slaves sort of with this idea that it would be inappropriate for black men, who were being considered to vote and being considered for citizenship to get the vote before white women. And so that sort of drove a wedge along the lines of race in the movement. There's a lot of really interesting documentation out there through old newspapers that show the way that race was used to galvanize white women in particular to -- you know, there's one white women who says, "I felt my self-respect rise when I saw that black men might get the right to vote before white women."
STEPHANIEAnd so it was really interesting. I know we -- in the way that black women in particular continued to fight for their rights despite all of this. You know, Ida B. Wells-Barnett organized the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago. And when she went to March in 1913 in the District of Columbia she was told by organizers of that march that she would either march in the back with the club or not at all. And she was eventually able to find some allies to march in between, but it was interesting the way that history is not always remembered in our conversations about this.
NNAMDIExactly right. And I'm glad you mentioned Ida B. Wells, because one of the things Mikaela has been doing is looking at some of the lesser known figures in the movement we've learned about. Particularly women of color like Ida B. Wells who championed the suffrage movement and were largely erased from the narrative. Mikaela, any others?
LEFRAKThat's right. There is so many more. Researching this has just, you know, created this whole crop of new lady heroes for me that I now idolize. There's a bunch of people I could mention. One in particular, Ida B. Gibbs was a suffragist and she was a public high school teacher here in D.C. She also founded the first YWCA for black women in D.C. so fascinating. Anna J. Cooper is a powerful intellectual. She was known as the mother of black feminism. And she taught at the M Street high school, which is now Dunbar High School. And it was the first public high school in the nation for black students specifically.
NNAMDIMary Church Terrell?
LEFRAKOh, love her, all the hits. So she was born to former slaves. She was one of the first black women to get a college degree. She went to Oberlin and she was president of the National Association of Colored Women. And she was one of these -- she also actually I think taught at Dunbar or at the M Street School. But she demanded that white allies in the suffrage movement help fight to abolish literacy tests and other obstacles to vote. And she didn't really get a lot of support during her lifetime, but she was another kind of early intellect -- excuse me, early intersectional thinker and leader.
NNAMDISome academics have written, Mikaela, that this century old racial divide and the women's suffrage movement continues into the present day. Did we see this play out in the women's march on Washington here?
LEFRAKYeah, it's actually interesting. It sort of played out in both women's marches. The one from 1913 -- that I mentioned and the one right after President Trump's election -- Back in 1913 organizers of this big women's suffrage march, one of the first major protests on the National Mall. The organizers demanded that the black participants march at the back rather than with their state delegations like all the white women were doing. And, you know, here in present day with the women's march there were a lot of allegations of racism, of antisemitism.
LEFRAKA lot of folks said that the leadership felt overwhelmingly white and, you know, also a lot of folks called out the fact that 53 percent of white women voted for Trump and, you know, something about a movement that was, you know, heavily participated in by white women that was anti-Trump. It just felt a little weird.
LEFRAKIt felt a little icky. So it's still something that, you know, folks are debating to this day, 100 years later.
NNAMDIHere now is Lea in Bethesda, Maryland. Lea, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LEAHi, Kojo. This is my first time calling.
LEAAnd I just wanted to make mention that Delta Sigma Theta Sorority was a part of the march and they were one of the first black sororities. So that was one of our first acts of social justice and I just wanted to put that out there.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us. Before we move on to the exhibits here let's talk with Shirley in Alexandria, Virginia. Shirley, your turn.
SHIRLEYHi. I did a paper on the 1913 march years ago. And I just wanted to mention that the racial piece, it was actually the national leadership that told Alice Paul that she had to include the African American women. She actually did not want to because she felt the southern women wouldn't come for the march, other southern white women. So it was, yes, they had to be in the back. But within the white leadership it wasn't all one way or another. Do you know what I mean?
NNAMDII know exactly what you mean.
SHIRLEYIt was a little more complicated.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us. Mikaela Lefrak, obviously a lot of people have been paying attention to this, but you can pay more attention. For those looking to celebrate this 100 year milestone, what do recommend? Let's start with the portrait gallery.
LEFRAKYes. So the portrait gallery has this great exhibition up right now. It's called Votes for Women a Portrait of Persistence. And it's up through January 2020. So you have tons of time to go. One of the things that I love about it is that it has -- it's filled the halls of the portrait gallery with portraits of women. There is an imbalance there and in a lot of D.C. museums and a number of pieces of art by and of women versus of by and of men. This one is a great place to learn about specific leaders, some of the ones that I mentioned like Anna J. Cooper, you can learn a lot about them there.
LEFRAKThey also -- the curators I think did a really good job of really diving into those issues with race that we've been talking about, and how some of the suffragists that we know so well today like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton really didn't do such a great job at including all women. So that's a great place to start learning.
NNAMDIWhat about Belmont-Paul?
LEFRAKBelmont-Paul is this great little museum. It's just a block from the Capitol. So pretty convenient if you're walking around doing some sightseeing already and it was once the headquarters of the National Women's Party and now it's run by the park service and they operate a museum out of it where you can learn about women's suffrage and the Women's Party. They have -- you should check it out online because they have ranger lead tours, but they're just a couple days a week at certain times.
NNAMDIThe Library of Congress and the National Archives offer quite a few primary sources from the women's suffrage movement. Can you tell us about some of those papers?
LEFRAKYeah, so, I mean, they have just a trove of documents, two things that really stuck out to me, one they have the 19th Amendment itself on display. So if you really want to just go right to that primary source and do some reading, you can do that there. They also at the National Archives they have a patent drawing for what's a gendered voting machine. So it has -- it's like this little contraption that kind of separates people based on gender so they can see, you know, who is a man who is a woman and how they were voting many many years ago, a kind of cool little artifact.
NNAMDIWhat does the National Museum of American History offer?
LEFRAKAgain, so much, there's so much to see right now. But right now at the American History Museum there's an exhibition called American Democracy A Great Leap of Faith. And they also have lots of objects and artifacts related to women's suffrage. The one that's most interesting to me is this thing called a women's suffrage wagon. It's this like black and yellow wagon, kind of looks like an old milk cart and it was made by a suffragist to distribute collateral publications and on the side of it it reads, "All areas pertaining to the home are women's business as well as man's. Mothers need the vote."
NNAMDIBefore we go. The women were granted the right to vote soon after the end of World War I. Black men were given the right to vote in 1870 after the end of the Civil War.
NNAMDIHow did each groups wartime contributions spur on the voting rights movement?
LEFRAKI mean, immensely, as you said, black men got the right to vote through the 15th Amendment in 1870. That was during reconstruction after the Civil War, of course, many black men fought in the Civil War. And then during World War I, women really closely tied in their war efforts with the right to vote. They talked about all the sacrifices that women made and how they kind of, you know, bolstered the U.S. economy while men were off fighting in the war. That was even a key part of how President Woodrow Wilson eventually got on board. He at one point encouraged Congress to adopt the 19th Amendment in this speech and he referenced many times how women's right to vote was vital to the war effort.
NNAMDIMikaela Lefrak, she covers Arts and Culture for WAMU. She's also host of the What's With Washington podcast. Mikaela, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break, when we come back we'll hear from three local chefs on what it takes to start and to sustain a food business in Washington and about challenges that women in the business face in particular. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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