vision 2020

We’ve Had a Hundred Years to Tell a Better Story About Women’s Votes

On an Election Day with voting rights in peril, history can be our blueprint.

“I Voted” stickers on Susan B. Anthony’s gravestone. Photo: Katherine Taylor/KATHERINE TAYLOR/The New York Ti
“I Voted” stickers on Susan B. Anthony’s gravestone. Photo: Katherine Taylor/KATHERINE TAYLOR/The New York Ti

Christine Adams, 102, insisted on voting in person. On Election Day 2016, she put on her pale-yellow pearls and a white eyelet sweater. At the polling site near her home in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, she was given an “I Voted” sticker. It was hard-earned.

I was with Adams that morning on a hasty assignment to mark the election of the first woman president. Or at least that was the outcome most everyone in the newsroom where I worked had assumed without much sentiment.

A bitter Democratic primary and the then-fresh terror of Donald Trump leading chants of “Lock her up!” had dampened the public displays of enthusiasm for Clinton. But in the days before the election, my feed began to light up with cautious excitement. Pantsuit Nation, which began as a secret Facebook group in late October of that year, started getting attention. Women were putting those same “I Voted” stickers on Susan B. Anthony’s grave. People were sharing the hopeful faces of women in their 90s and 100s who said, on a site of the same name, that they had waited 96 years to vote for a woman. Born before the 19th Amendment, those who submitted to “I Waited 96 Years!” were unabashedly thrilled to vote for Clinton and said things like “This election is about hope, optimism, respect, and qualifications.”

Adams, though a committed Clinton voter, didn’t participate in the project. I know I had found her by reading about her in the Poconos Record, but I don’t remember what I typed to find the article, except that I was vaguely hoping to tell a fuller story of women’s votes. On Election Eve, a video journalist and I sat in Adams’s living room, where she was surrounded by her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

“Men want to stay on top, in my way of saying it,” she said of her vote for Clinton. “They don’t think you’re capable. You’re capable of bringing them in the world, helping them go to school, keeping them clean and this, that, and the other, but you’re not capable of ruling over them?”

I mentioned the 1920 milestone, and she gently shook her head. In North Carolina, where her grandmother had been enslaved, where she herself cooked for and cleaned the homes of white people, Adams had been unable to vote because of a poll tax. “Black men could vote,” she said. “You made trouble, you might not live to talk about it.” She knew enough of what that trouble looked like: Before she was an adult, Adams saw firsthand two innocent men brutalized by white mobs.

The 96-year mark was at best incomplete — that much I knew. What I hadn’t known was that my home state of New York, where Adams had moved as an adult during the Great Migration, had a literacy test to vote, not coincidentally passed in 1921. Adams had been forced to leave school in her early teens because, I wrote back then, “the only high school for Black students was a 36-mile walk away from her tiny town.” But she remained a reader, and when it was time to take the literacy test, she studied the Constitution and whatever she could get her hands on, and she passed.

“I felt like a first-class citizen,” she told me that night, “even though most times you’re not treated like that.”

She was 34 years old, and it was 1948, almost three decades after the 19th Amendment had supposedly given the vote to all women. And Adams was one of the lucky ones.

Susan B. Anthony’s grave has recently acquired PPE. The new plastic sleeve over her headstone at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Rochester, New York, protects the marble not from the virus but from more “I Voted” stickers. The roughly 12,000 people who came in 2016 had taken their toll. More are expected this Election Day, when voters can fill in a bubble for a woman, this time a woman of color, as vice-president. It’s a year that has more symmetrical anniversaries than 2016 did — the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, the 200th anniversary of Anthony’s birth.

But who has felt like celebrating? We have scarcely mourned, at least collectively, the hundreds of thousands dead from COVID-19, and the accelerated horrors of the past four years have been exhausting. There is the lingering hangover of 2016 — the image of women weeping in the Javits Center for the victory party that never happened — and the fact that so many vastly different women competed for the top job in 2020 only for Democrats to settle on a comforting older white man. More recently, the pseudo-feminist treachery of Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court has made a mockery of the desire to have a more representative polity.

And that historic centennial of the 19th Amendment? The museums were shuttered, temporarily and permanently; the parties were canceled; the in-person conferences went virtual. But maybe that part has its silver lining.

“The commemoration went on,” the historian Lisa Tetrault told me last week, “but it transformed. I think big public events might have reinscribed an old narrative that is doing more harm than good at this point.”

This would be a narrative Tetrault has spent a good chunk of her career debunking: “that, in 1920, women triumphantly won the right to vote,” as she puts it. Tetrault’s book, The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848–1898, documents how Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton literally rewrote the story of women’s suffrage in terms that, as she put it, “women are always coded as white. It continues to look at white women as the women’s story. It erases entirely the story of disenfranchisement. It says, ‘We don’t care.’”

That standard, postage-stamp history leaves out some inconvenient facts: that Black women were often excluded lest the prospect of their political power alienate southern whites; that white suffrage activists and the abolitionists with whom they initially made common cause split over Black men gaining rights on paper before white women; and the zero-sum racism reflected in the text of the famous Declaration of Sentiments at Seneca Falls, which reads, “He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men, both natives and foreigners.”

I asked Tetrault what she thought of the women leaving hopeful stickers on Anthony’s grave. “There’s no reason we can’t recover and celebrate the work that people did in the past,” she replied. “But we shouldn’t heroize them and sanitize them to the extent that we repeat a kind of exclusion.”

Meanwhile, Tetrault said, the non-celebratory observances actually did account for that inconvenient past, though given the competition in the headlines from breaking-news catastrophes, you would be forgiven for missing them. There were myth-busting articles in the New York Times and Time magazine and, in March, an unflinching conference at the New-York Historical Society that was the last in-person event I attended before perpetual quarantine. You should check out the Amended podcast. And if you go to the digital version of the National Archives exhibit “Rightfully Hers,” you’ll see that it declares, “The 19th Amendment is a landmark of voting-rights victory, but it did not open the polls to all women. Millions of women remained unable to vote for reasons other than sex.” There too you can find a reminder that progress has never been linear, that in 1807, after 30 years of suffrage for people with property, already a narrow category, New Jersey explicitly limited the vote even more to taxpaying white men.  

The historian Martha S. Jones, whose most recent book is Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All, also did not lament the canceled parties. “I’m not someone who has done a lot of celebration,” she told me when I called her a few days ago, “neither in 2016 nor in 2020. For me, the histories of voting rights and voting suppression are too intimately linked to celebrate.”

She watched those tributes to Anthony in 2016. “I can’t say that in 2016 I thought that was an audience that was ready and eager for a retelling of Anthony’s life and work and, more generally, the history of women’s votes,” she said, “that would allow for a considered thinking about how that is intertwined with the history of racism.” This year, she added, audiences, mostly virtual now, seem readier to hear what she has to say. And Jones is prepared to teach.

“The first lesson is one that I think people get almost axiomatically when you say it out loud, which is ‘not all women,’” said Jones. “But that’s oftentimes where people’s insight ends. Well, of course not all women, but what’s the next chapter?” The story she has to tell isn’t just about the racism of white suffragists but the strategic, substantive vision of Black women in history and how the failure to heed it not only harmed Black Americans but poisoned our current politics.

In Vanguard, Jones describes the Black women’s rights activist and poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper arriving at a suffrage meeting on May 10, 1866, where Anthony, Stanton, and Henry Ward Beecher also spoke. When it was Harper’s turn, she said, “I do not believe that giving the woman the ballot is immediately going to cure all the ills of life. I do not believe that white women are dewdrops just exhaled from the skies … The good would vote according to their convictions and principles; the bad, as dictated by prejudice or malice; and the indifferent will vote on the strongest side of the question, winning the party.” The attainment of the 19th Amendment, nicknamed the Anthony Amendment and ratified 14 years after her death, underscored Harper’s prophecy. “Black women come to the moment of the ratification of the 19th Amendment with their eyes wide open,” Jones told me. “They understand that the debate about ratification has turned on the assumption that they’ll still be disenfranchised, like their husbands and fathers. They quickly learn that they do not have allies among the white suffragists. They don’t have women who will link arms with them to enact federal legislation to override Jim Crow laws and let them vote universally.”

This was the world that deprived Christine Adams of her vote until she could overcome what most white women didn’t care to fight. It’s also the enduring reality that Clinton faced and that Trump exploited in 2016, which is that for all the excited Clinton voters who submitted to “I Waited 96 Years!” at least a plurality of white women that year were not dewdrops just exhaled from the skies. They voted in solidarity, not by gender but by race. They voted for Trump.

People who live for a century probably preselect for optimism, a kind of evolutionary trait. Their longevity alone dares you to be cynical: After what they’ve been through? After the election, “I Waited 96 Years!” became a book, We the Resilient. Its editors, Sarah Bunin Benor and Tom Fields-Meyer write, “This book had its roots in the excitement of a historic moment. That moment didn’t transpire in the way many had hoped and dreamed it would. But disappointment is nothing new to these women. In their nine or ten decades of life, they have learned and grown from personal loss, communal crises, and national challenges.” The bulk of the book seeks advice from these women on how to survive what came next.

At least one of the women included on “I Waited 96 Years!” never got the news. Margaret Ann Thompson, 100, of Stockton, California, asked her daughter the same morning I was with Adams, “Are they dancing in the streets? Are they singing because she won?” According to We the Resilient, her daughter was so sure Clinton would win that she told her mother they were. “Before the day was over, Margaret went into a deep sleep.” She died within two days, never having learned of Trump’s win. You could say she was lucky.

I don’t know how Adams took the results. I do have an email from her grandson, sent a few days after the election, reminding me of a conversation we had in which, in my memory, he warned me that it was too soon to celebrate a vanquishing of the old prejudices. Public records suggest that Adams died a few months later; I emailed her grandson recently but haven’t heard back. But some of the women in We the Resilient have lived long enough to vote against Trump a second time. Chicago Teachers Union Activist Bea Lumpkin, 102, was photographed last month dropping her ballot in the mail. Benor told me she had been emailing with Juliet Bernstein, who is an eye-popping 107.

On our way to Pennsylvania in 2016, we stopped at the Queens home of one of the women on “I Waited 96 Years!” Elizabeth Pula was then 97. “I’m sure if Hillary was a man, she would have been president a long time ago,” she told us that day. “She had to fight for every minute to get where she is now. And I can’t wait until they declare her the winner.”

This past weekend, Pula was up for an energetic phone call. “Do you still live in Brooklyn? I’m very lucky that I have these young girls who want to talk to me because I’m so old,” she said gaily. But Trump’s presidency has weighed on her. “My stomach has been upset for four years,” she said. “I couldn’t see how they turned on Hillary, who was a better woman, secretary of state, president’s wife, governor’s wife, and very smart. And they voted him in, this guy who was on the TV, never read a history book, doesn’t know what he wants to do about foreign affairs.” Only after the election did she learn, to her surprise, that people she knew and considered friends had voted for Trump.

What does she think of the current candidate? “Joe Biden is a good man,” she replied, and moved on: “Another thing about that man in the White House. The country has become more biased. It was biased before but not vicious bias like this.” And Kamala Harris? “I don’t know much about her, being that she’s from California, but I understand she’s a brilliant woman.” If they win, she said, “I’m going to see if I have a bottle of red wine.”

We the Resilient notes with regret that there aren’t many women of color in the volume despite appeals to various organizations. There is Vernice Warfield, 101 at the time of publication, who had been a pastor at Harriet Tubman’s former church and was the daughter of a man born into slavery. Louise “Auntie Lou” Rucker, 99, was born in San Francisco to immigrants from Mexico and is quoted as saying, “Trump can kiss my ass. Wait a second, on second thought, I don’t want him near my ass.” Benor, a professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College, co-founded the original site after a photo of her 98-year-old grandmother voting went viral. I asked her if that 1920 anniversary looks any different now that more time has passed to consider the limits of that milestone. “That might have been a reason why we didn’t get a lot of submissions to the website from people of color,” she replied. “But when Black women did submit, they didn’t mention that in their blurbs. But we’re certainly aware of that.”

When Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the Democratic primary race earlier this year as the final female contender left, Benor followed up with some of the women from the project who were still alive. Did they have any opinions, later on, about Harris as vice-president? “I did talk to one woman, and she was very excited because her caregiver is from the Caribbean, so her caregiver was very excited,” Benor said. (Harris’s father is from Jamaica.)

Harris launched her presidential campaign by invoking the legacy of Shirley Chisholm’s history-making one. Jones told me she is less excited for Harris’s nomination as vice-president than the fact that a half-dozen qualified Black women were also considered, from Karen Bass to Val Demings. “That tells you that Black women have readied for this moment.” Jones feels ambivalent about Harris’s status as the first. “You’re the first because so many women before you couldn’t — were barred, were prevented,” she said.

If it took until now for many white Americans to notice the enduring, corrosive force of white racial solidarity, it was likely due to the shock of Trump’s win and the less polite racism he performed. This year, the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police, amid a pandemic that disproportionately afflicts people of color, made it altogether impossible to ignore.

Today, as voters navigate an election during the coronavirus, the president and his allies are openly trying to make sure that not every vote is counted. But for Black Americans in particular, this is a much older story, intensified by the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to gut the Voting Rights Act in 2013. As Tetrault put it, “Voting in the pandemic has elevated voter suppression to the level of white attention.”

Revisiting the history that got the country here is less self-flagellation than a process of illumination. On the Amended podcast, the historian Bettye Collier-Thomas recalled, “My first experience teaching in the white academy in 1970, I received several evaluations, and one said, ‘She seems to think that Black history is American history.’” Without a clear-eyed sense of that history, Americans are destined to continue to be surprised — and to keep repeating the mistakes of 1920.

“We live, in a sense, with the legacy of the shortcomings of that moment,” Jones said. “Because that moment, in a sense, affirms and condones voter suppression as a regular feature of American political culture. It marks a further distance between Black and white women when it comes to politics in the United States. It leaves the work of anti-racism undone.”

There is still time to listen to the people who are telling a richer, if more difficult, story. “There’s a lesson in my work about the long game of politics, about the ever-present struggle for voting rights, about fixing your gaze toward the generations,” Jones said. “About not measuring your politics in any given election cycle.”

We Can Tell a Better Story About Women’s Votes