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Black Women, the ERA, and How We Talk About Suffrage History

On February 15, 1921, suffrage advocates gathered in the nation’s Capitol to dedicate a statue of the whitest marble to three white women who represented the start of the women’s rights movement in the United States: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott. The gathering took place on the 101st anniversary of Susan B. Anthony’s birth, and none of the three women memorialized lived to see women in all states gain the right to vote with ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment just six months earlier in August 1920. With the statue presented to Congress that February day in 1921, the suffragists hoped to secure the place of the women’s rights struggle - and honor its founders - in the nation’s history of democratic progress.

Portrait Monument to Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1921) by Adelaide Johnson, as it sits in the United States Capitol today.

The 14,000 pound Portrait Monument statue was carved from Italian marble by American sculptor Adelaide Johnson and was commissioned by Alice Paul of the National Woman’s Party, who worked in close communication with Johnson throughout the summer of 1920 - while the state-by-state ratification process was happening - to complete the sculpture in Italy and plan for its return and dedication in the United States.

We associate the statue with the suffragists of 1920, then, but Alice Paul was not the one who chose Anthony, Stanton, and Mott as subjects for the statue. Adelaide Johnson first came up with the idea of creating a bust of Susan B. Anthony in 1886, and Anthony herself had a role in setting Johnson on the path to the Capitol statue.

In 1886 a young Adelaide Johnson attended the annual convention of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in Washington, D.C. and met Susan B. Anthony, founder & leader of the NWSA. At that time, Stanton and Anthony were in their late 60s or early 70s and were already the grand old dames of the women’s movement in the United States. The National Woman’s Party did not exist. Alice Paul was just a baby.

Johnson came up with the idea to create a bust of Anthony for the Women’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition to be held in Chicago in 1893. Anthony agreed, excited to have a woman sculptor recreate her likeness, but Anthony had a suggestion: “I cannot think of having my bust go to the World Fair without Mrs. Stanton’s.” Stanton agreed but then Anthony went on to propose that they could not exclude Lucretia Mott: “She ought to stand there between us.” So, in this case, it was a matter of a subject herself directing the subject(s) of the art.

  • Mott had passed away in 1880, so while Johnson scheduled live sittings with Anthony and Stanton in 1890-91, she designed the bust of Mott based on photographs.

Artist Adelaide Johnson (left) arriving at the U.S. Capitol in February 1921 with her crated sculpture, accompanied by NWP representative Dora Lewis and noted suffragist and pacifist Jane Addams, who presided over the sculpture dedication ceremony. Records of the National Woman's Party, Library of Congress.

The 1921 monument featured the busts of the three 19th-century reformers seated side-by-side, with a large unchiseled piece of stone emerging behind the busts. Some speculated that the unfinished extension of marble represented some future leader in the movement. Much later, in 2004, members of the U.S. Senate proposed to carve the likeness of 19th-century abolitionist and women’s rights orator Sojourner Truth into the original marble, but that proposal failed; instead, Congress commissioned a separate bronze bust of Truth, the first sculpture of an African American woman represented in the Capitol.

Sojourner Truth (2009), by sculptor Artis Lane, located in Emancipation Hall in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. The Truth bust was financed and donated by the National Congress of Black Women (NCBW).

The story of the 1921 Portrait Monument comes full circle, then, from Anthony to Truth, from exclusion to acknowledging Black women’s place in the history of the women’s rights movement from the very beginning, in the 1840s and 50s, to the Black suffragists and clubwomen of the 1900s and 1910s. Black women were present at the statue ceremony not necessarily to commemorate Anthony on her birthday, but to attend the subsequent National Woman’s Party (NWP) convention, which gathered in D.C. from February 15-18, 1921 to decide the future direction of the national women’s movement now that the vote was won.

The question on everyone’s mind as the statue was unveiled and the convention began:

  • Would the National Woman’s Party take “official action and effort” in pursuit of enforcement legislation protecting the voting rights of African American women?

The answer would be No.

“Negro Women Seek Vote,” New York Times, February 13, 1921.

This article was published six months after passage of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing all women the right to vote, and just days before the National Woman’s Party statue dedication and convention, reporting the NAACP’s intention to call upon the NWP to protect Black women voters.

The choice of subjects and the date for the 1921 suffrage monument was glaringly disrespectful to Black women in the context of this issue coming up for debate, especially in light of Anthony and Stanton’s own legacy of racism, and in the explicit way that Black women were eclipsed from the history of the movement in the choice of three white women as representative of that history.

After the Civil War the women’s movement was split between the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), founded by Anthony and Stanton, and the rival American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), founded by Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and others. The split occurred as a response to the post-Civil War 15th Amendment (ratified in 1870), extending voting rights to African American men.

Both of the new organizations would focus on gaining the vote for women, but AWSA wanted to continue the pre-Civil War alliance between advocates of gender and racial equality, seeing black male suffrage as a step forward in the overall equality struggle, while Stanton and Anthony were angered that African American men gained the vote before white women, and formed the NWSA to focus exclusively on a female suffrage amendment. The two organizations finally merged in 1890 as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), but Stanton and Anthony’s racist arguments (they were also upset that illiterate or immigrant men could vote as well), and the early split among white women over the rights of African Americans, would have long-lasting ramifications for the feminist movement in this country, even to this day.

In more ways than one, Paul’s generation of white suffragists took over where Anthony’s left off. In 1916, the National Woman’s Party (NWP) formally split from NAWSA. Alice Paul, founder of the NWP, not only took over leadership on the strategy of pursuing a suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution (originally called “the Anthony Amendment), but continued to see women’s rights and black civil rights - or gender equality and racial equality - as two separate issues.

Time and again white suffrage leaders chose a strategy of appeasing white southerners - especially white southern male Congressmen and state legislators - over solidarity with and protection of Black women as voters. The NWP asked Black women not to march alongside them in suffrage parades and repeatedly refused to take on the problem of the disenfranchisement of all African American voters through strategies such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and violent intimidation.

In the months between ratification of the 19th Amendment in August 1920, and leading up to the February 1921 convention, a faction of both Black and white women within the NWP lobbied for opening up discussion of the need for enforcement legislation and proposed a committee to investigate the disenfranchisement of African American women voters in the southern states. As with the 15th Amendment after the Civil War, some saw the need for legislation to not only enforce Black women’s new voting rights in the South, but to use the 19th Amendment to secure other political rights for women, including the right to serve on juries or to hold political office. These rights were not guaranteed by the 19th Amendment, but the 19th Amendment could be used as a basis for women’s expanded political participation as citizens. By abandoning this platform, the NWP left the question of application of the 19th Amendment to a broader range of rights up to the individual states, where progress would only slowly advance on a state-by-state basis over the course of the 20th century.

  • It is worth noting that other groups and individuals wanted to use the momentum and leadership of the post-suffrage NWP to take up a range of issues that Progressive women reformers had committed to in the early 1900s, including protective labor legislation, pacifism and disarmament, ending child labor, and supporting the birth control movement.

But Alice Paul chose once again to stifle those debates at the convention, and to focus instead on broad equality through another constitutional amendment - the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) - rather than through legislative enforcement of the 19th Amendment.

  • Here is a short video and update on the ERA, which has yet to be ratified nearly 100 years after Alice Paul first proposed it:

“Woman’s Party Will Work for Feminism Only,” New York Tribune, February 19, 1921.

This headline dated at the end of the NWP convention week seems humorous at first, because of course the National Woman’s Party would work for “feminism,” but the telling detail is use of the word “only,” and the statement that “Miss Paul Wins Triumph,” acknowledging that Paul had pitted herself against members of her own party on this issue. The reference to “Equality and Removal of Legal Disabilities” as the focus of the new post-suffrage party is a reference to the ERA.

It is a sad paradox that Alice Paul’s single-minded, single-issue leadership that led to success with the passage of the 19th Amendment ultimately limited the radical potential of that victory. Once again, the NWP sacrificed solidarity with African American women in favor of the assumption that broad equality measures would ultimately “trickle down” to all women.

I want to end with remarks by First Lady Michelle Obama at the unveiling of the Sojourner Truth bust in April 2009, connecting the historical arc of women’s rights activism with that of black civil rights, and connecting both statues:

Just as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott would be pleased

to know that we have a woman serving as the Speaker of the House of

Representatives, I hope that Sojourner Truth would be proud to see me, a

descendant of slaves, serving as the First Lady of the United States of America.

Sculptor Artis Lane (far left) at unveiling of the Sojourner Truth bust with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, First Lady Michelle Obama, Senator Hillary Clinton, and Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, April 28, 2009.

Further Reading:

In addition to many wonderful biographies of individual figures, I relied upon the following highly recommended books if you are interested in the history of Johnson’s marble statue and the history of black and white women in the suffrage movement:

  • Laura E. Free, Suffrage Reconstructed: Gender, Race, and Voting Rights in the Civil War Era (Cornell University Press, 2015)

  • Martha Jones, Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All (Basic Books, 2020)

  • Paula A. Monopoli, Constitutional Orphan: Gender Equality and the Nineteenth Amendment (Oxford University Press, 2020)

  • Richard F. Novak and Catherin Novak Davidson, Adelaide Johnson’s Portrait Monument (SW Publishing, 2013)

  • Sandra Weber, The Woman Suffrage Statue: A History of Adelaide Johnson’s Portrait Monument at the United States Capitol (McFarland & Co. Publishing, 2016)

Thank you for reading! Please subscribe to my email list at the bottom of this page if you want to receive my newsletter & advance notice on future blog posts!

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Bella Bettencourt
Bella Bettencourt
16 лют. 2021 р.

This was a great little slice of history. I was recently talking to my brother about the Women's Rights movement in this era and he was surprised by the racism that was circulated by women who were considered to be shrouded in a cloud of progress. Visiting that bust of Sojourner Truth has also become a staple to all of my visits to D.C. ;)

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