Thick Women and the Thin Nineteenth Amendment

Published in the Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy

The Nineteenth Amendment’s centennial year—2020—got started long before the calendar date arrived. The staging of laser light shows, the design of floats, the organization of speeches and symposia, and the unveiling of monuments in that year required efforts that began long before, all in anticipation of marking 100 years of a Constitution that barred states from using “sex” as a voting rights criteria. Along with commemoration plans came debates about how African Americans would figure in the stories we told.

By 2019, New York City had already slated Central Park to become home to a pathbreaking memorial, one that would honor the state’s earliest leaders in the movement for women’s votes. The trouble was, as I saw it, that the plans included only two figures, albeit noteworthy ones: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. It was an ominous prospect, representing the entirety of the movement for women’s votes through two middle-class white women activists, each of whom had been party to anti-Black racism. The statue’s private sponsors promoted their work as breaking a glass ceiling: It would be the first representation of “real” women in the city’s premiere park. They envisioned it as a tribute that girls in New York would look up to. I suspected that not all Black and Brown girls would see it that way.

A public comment period allowed space for those who were critical and concerned to weigh in. For my part, I recommended that the monument committee consider adding a third New Yorker, someone who, like Stanton and Anthony, had also played a pivotal role in the early movement for women’s votes: Sojourner Truth. Born enslaved in upstate New York at the end of the eighteenth century, Truth took to the national women’s rights stage before Stanton or Anthony.2 But she was more than a symbolic first. Truth challenged a women’s rights agenda driven by concerns about sexism only. For her, and for the millions of Black women for whom she spoke, any movement to win political power for American women would have to combat racism as well. Her perspective, echoed many times over by Black women suffragists, plagued the campaign for women’s votes through ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 and beyond.


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