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Americans are Honouring Suffragette Icon for Kamala Harris' Win. But Susan B Anthony Was Racist

Kamala Harris wore white to honour the suffragette movement led by women like Susan B Anthony, who have often been accused of ignoring the rights of women of colour | Image credit: Reuters

Kamala Harris wore white to honour the suffragette movement led by women like Susan B Anthony, who have often been accused of ignoring the rights of women of colour | Image credit: Reuters

Kamala Harris became the first woman of colour to become Vice President-elect of US. A suffragette leader who tried to deny African-Americans the right to vote is being celebrated for it.

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Rakhi Bose

In her victory address, the United States' new Vice President-elect Kamala Harris wore a white pantsuit to express her gratitude toward the suffragette leaders who fought for women's right to vote.

But even as media outlets compared her to feminist icons like Susan B. Anthony who was instrumental in the fight to secure women's enfranchisement, women of colour are reminding the world that Anthony was, in fact, racist.

The outrage comes after women from across the United States flocked to the suffragette leader's grave in New York in the aftermath of Joe Biden's election win.

Hundreds of women visited the grave in Rochester to pay their respects to Anthony, who was arrested for voting in 1872 in violation of laws permitting only men to vote. Hundreds of American women flocked to the grave and stuck 'I voted' stickers on the tombstone to mark senator Kamala Harris' historic win as the first woman and also first woman of colour to become Vice President of US.

A report in Forbes even compared her to the controversial leader, stating that she "carried the spirits of Susan B. Anthony, Ida B. Wells, Shirley Chisholm, Hillary Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg".

But even as tributes for Anthony kept pouring in, many women of colour took to social media contest the adulation. Many pointed out that while Anthony did play an integral role in securing women the right to vote, she did not really fight for the rights of women of colour.

Was the Suffragette Movement Racist?

Anthony was part of the soon to be disbanded organisation American Equal Rights Association (AERA), headed by abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, which demanded voting rights for "women and African Americans". But not specifically Black women.

Hundred Years Ago on This Day, US Women Finally Got the Right to Vote

Racism within the ranks of AERA became visible soon after Douglass came out in staunch support of the 15th Amendment, that gave Black men the right to vote. The Amendment led to serious disagreements within the organisation, which ultimately split into two factions for an against the right for Black men to vote.

Anthony joined the faction that did not support the 15th Amendment. Influential leaders of the faction like Elizabeth Cady Stanton used arguments laced with racial stereotypes to deny African-American, immigrant and formerly enslaved males from voting in an 1869 speech.

"Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung, who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic, who cannot read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling book, making laws for…Susan B. Anthony," she said at the pivotal Seneca Falls convention.

Stanton also stated that the "amendment creates an antagonism everywhere between educated, refined women and the lower orders of men, especially in the South". Her and Anthony's faction was also known to pander to white women from Southern American states, arguing that the white women's vote would be enough to drown out the black male vote.

While the move was purportedly meant to help women secure enfranchisement, black male votes were already being harmed by white male voters who used various tactics such as lynchings and violence, racist tests and discriminatory polls taxes to deny Black men the right to vote. In 1892, for instance, the South recorded a record 161 Black persons who were killed in lynchings.

Despite the violence, Anthony is known to have distanced herself from Douglass, an African-American himself, and asked him not to appear on stage with white women at a women's rights meeting as that could scare them.

Antony is also known to have infamously said, "I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman".

Unequal Benefits of 19th Amendment

That the efforts of both Douglass and leaders like Stanton and Anthony were instrumental in giving women the right to vote with the passing of the 19th Amendment, nearly a decade after Anthony's death, cannot be denied. But not all women reaped equal benefits.

Contemporary historians and suffragette leaders such as Douglass and others have often argued that apart from being tainted with racist undertones in its opposition to the black man's enfranchisement, the suffragette movement was also negligent of Black women and did not prioritise the rights of women of colour while working for the emancipation of women.

Women in the US were granted the right to vote in 1920. That same year, black women voters in several states were restricted from exercising their right to votes using discriminatory state voting regulations. According to History.com, the women tried reaching out to the suffragette movement for help but found no support.

Even as Americans celebrated the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment in August this year, it must be remembered that it took women of colour in several US states nearly five more decades to truly get the right to vote.

Over a century later, a woman of colour has become the second most important person in the United States. But even as adulation and admiration pour in for the efforts of suffragettes that made Harris's historic victory possible, women of colour have been asking American women, voters, to look back on the racist past of the suffragette movement, despite active the role many of its leaders in the anti-slavery movement.

Many took to social media to educate women's rights activists and activists about the whitewashed parts of suffragette history and point out the irony of honouring the legacy of a racist women's rights champion to commemorate the victory of a woman of colour.

Others tried to highlight the role of African-American suffragettes such as Harriet Tubman for their uphill fight in not just fighting systemic sexism while also fighting racism from white other women.

Time to change the narrative?

The Biden campaign heavily relied on African-American woman's vote and picking Harris as his running mate greatly increased his favourability with the demographic.

But now that Harris has become the first Black and Asian-American woman to become US VP, perhaps it is time to take a closer look at the real legacy of the suffragette movement and the real faces behind the fight for equality for women of colour that paved the way through the 20th century for Harris to become VP in the 21st.


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