Blog, Event, Politics, Women's History

#WE WERE THERE TOO! By Dr. Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins

In our latest fascinating blog, Dr Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins examines the role of, and reception to, women of colour in the history of The League of Women Voters of the United States.

On February 14, 2020, The League of Women Voters of the United States (LWVUS) will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding.  In preparation for this celebration, many historic accounts are being written, and a range of tributes are taking place across the US to honour the achievements of this legacy organization in the women’s suffrage movement. As these commemorations gain momentum, what has become abundantly clear is that the history of the League of Women Voters and its relationship with women of colour is a paradox.  This paradox is most evident in the selection of the symbolic references used to represent significant moments which continue to marginalize the notable contributions of women of colour.

The iconic photo (above) of the 1913 Suffrage Parade in New York City is being used in many commemorations as the symbol of the struggle of all women for the right to vote.  This photo, however, does not tell the complete story. It does not reflect the decision of suffragist leaders to have women of color march at the back of the parade, or the courageous action of Ida B. Wells-Barnett to defy that decision.

The New York Times editorial, July 29, 2018, “The Racism Behind Women’s Suffrage”, reinforces this tension between the suffragists and women of color.  It exposes a truth that the suffrage movement “rendered nearly invisible the black woman who labored in the suffragist vineyard…selling out the interests of African-American women when it became expedient to do so.”

Hundreds of women of color made commendable contributions to the women’s suffrage movement and the League of Women Voters, many of whom you may never know  because their involvement has been overlooked or relegated to the footnotes of history. We know the contributions of Ida B Wells-Barnett, Mary Church Terrell, Sojourner Truth and, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, but what about Nannie Helen Burroughs, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Delilah Beasley, Addie Hunton Waites, the Forten Sisters, Anna Julia Cooper, Hettie Tilghman, Dr. Dorothy Height, Dr. Josie Johnson, Mildred R. Madison, the Honorable Shirley Chisholm and the women of organizations such as the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW).

The League of Women Voters was born from the struggle for the right to vote for women.  Women of color were there too, from the beginning. But, for them, the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment was not the universal celebration it was reported to be. Winning the vote for women required 72 years of advocacy, but for most women of colour, it required an additional 45 years with the passage of the Voting Rights Act August 3, 1965. There are lessons to be learned from the history of the League of Women Voters’ exclusion of women of color, and how the presence of these women is ignored in the League’s existing history.

The League of Women Voters and other organizations celebrating the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment cannot continue to marginalize or render invisible the contributions of women of color, or include them as an afterthought in the footnotes of history. These organizations must make sure that the voices of women of color are heard, as their voices offer a unique perspective on these histories.

The League of Women Voters’ unabridged history is complicated, messy, uncomfortable, and sometimes unbelievable, on issues of race.  But to be true to its principles, it is imperative that the organization’s history as recounted in its 2020 commemorations, acknowledges this inequity. Telling the story of the women of color in what history considers a “white women’s” organization, exposes a primarily transactional relationship. It is a story of strategic choices and recurrent themes of controversy, compromise and collaboration.  It is a story of constant tension between practicality and principle.

We live in interesting times, times in which race and gender are still at the forefront of our conversations in society. Considerations of race and gender and how organizations reconcile their actions regarding these issues are more important than ever. Disclosing the stories of women of color in the League of Women Voters, and affirming their unique challenges, allows us to reimagine the organization of the future. One in which the contributions of women of color are no longer an afterthought but an integral part of the past, present, and future. Inclusion which is not tied to a specific moment in time, but is a part of the organization’s fabric that cannot be frayed.

As the only women of color to have served as national president in the League’s 100 year history (1998-2002), it is both my honor and obligation to make sure that the accomplishments of the women upon whose shoulders I stand are also celebrated. I challenge all organizations commemorating the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and the centennial of the League of Women Voters of the United States to do the same

The League of Women Voters of the United States’ centennial represents a major opportunity to acknowledge and honor the organization’s unabridged history, not a romanticized, sanitized version. A history that incorporates and celebrates women of color in their rightful place. It is time. #We were there too!

Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins, PhD, served two terms as the fifteenth president of the League of Women Voters of the United States and chair of the League of Women Voters Education Fund (1998–2002). She is the only woman of color to have served as national president in the organization’s first one hundred years. Since the early 1980s, she has served in a range of capacities at the local, state, and national levels of the league. Her career in public school and higher education spanned more than forty years. At the time of retirement, Dr. Jefferson-Jenkins continues to be an advocate and activist for civil rights, social justice, educational excellence, and stronger citizen participation in the electoral process for underrepresented populations. She actively serves on numerous boards and advises community-based organizations. She has received numerous awards for her contributions. Dr. Jefferson-Jenkins most recently served as is currently an adjunct assistant professor in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Image credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs LOC-B201-3643-12