Monday, December 2, 2019

100 Years of Suffrage: Cause to Celebrate?

Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, the amendment which finally granted women the right to vote. As organizations and communities come together to celebrate this momentous occasion, a segment of the population seeks to also shed light on the movement’s complexities as varying strains of racism permeated the movement. Suffrage Leaders such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton vehemently spoke out against the 15th amendment which granted black men voting rights before women. These women resorted to the racist rhetoric of the day to explain their horror of “colored men of inferior status” receiving voting rights before they did.  During the fight for the 19th amendment, black women were also often excluded from participation in activist efforts.
During the Suffrage Procession, the first major women’s march to take place in Washington D.C., women like Ida B. Wells were asked to march in the back of the parade rather than with their state delegation as their “colored presence” caused too much commotion among white Southern women. When women of color approached Susan B. Anthony for help in forming a branch of the suffrage association, Anthony refused to help them, using the negative response of Southern white women as justification for excluding the participation of minority groups.
The complex nuances of the suffrage movement continue to remain a mystery for many as society has failed to highlight such complexities. Even in contemporary society, as women continue to fight for gender equality, few recognize the unique experiences among specific social identities. Just this past week, as women from Latinx community were highlighted during Latina’s Equal Pay day, resistance to the holiday was exhibited through social media comments on the internet. When an influencer highlighted the holiday and recognized her own struggle as a black woman to receive equal pay, white women resisted the claims by insisting that the focus should remain on how all women struggle, regardless of race. One commenter likened the holiday as an opportunity for minorities to hide behind excuses. She said, “it’s time black American stop playing the victim card and work hard.”
Why is there continued resistance to acknowledge the varying struggles of both past and present among women of color and all minorities? Why do we continue to shape the narrative of political struggles with sweeping generalizations? The answer lies in our failure as a society; we are failing to recognize the role of intersectionality when it comes to how individuals of overlapping social groups navigate the world around us.
Intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberly Crenshaw, seeks to identify how overlapping social identities contribute to different levels of oppression and discrimination that an individual person may experience. The identities that are typically observed include the overlapping of gender, race, and sexuality. The world we live in favors certain groups of people. The groups that are favored are considered normal or acceptable. Within the categories of race, gender, and sexuality, the identities that are favored are white, male, and cisgender/straight. If you do not identify with each of this categories, you are likely to experience varying levels of oppression. The less you identify with the favored categories, the more oppression you will encounter.
Within the suffrage movement, black women faced additional barriers as their race carried with it another layer of oppression. Even after the passage of the 19th Amendment, all women of color still struggled to fully participate politically by voting until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the fight for gender equality, divisions arise not only between men and women, but also between women of color and white women. Depending on the situation, certain social identities are emphasized over others. Certain identities become more salient.
Robin DiAngelo introduces the concept of saliency in her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Race. She acknowledges that each of us occupies “multiple and intersecting social positionalities.” Depending on the situation or current circumstance, certain aspects of our identity will be more salient than others. In other words, certain parts of our identity will be highlighted or emphasized in certain group dynamics. In the case of the suffrage movement and the discussions on equal pay, race became the more salient social identity. This saliency in turn caused the friction we’ve witnessed within groups working towards equality. As we come to understand intersectional identities, we will begin to grasp the nuances and complexities of social movements. Ultimately, understanding intersectionality reveals the unique and individual experiences  people face as they engage in public life.

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