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Transcript: Into Black Women and the 19th Amendment

The full episode transcript for Into Black Women and the 19th Amendment.


Into America

Into Black Women and the 19th Amendment

Joe Biden: You ready to go to work?

Kamala Harris: Oh, my God, I am so ready to go to work.

Trymaine Lee: Kamala Harris is ready to get to work.

Harris: My mother knew that she was raising two Black daughters who would be treated differently because of how they looked. Growing up, whenever I got upset about something, my mother would look me in the eye and ask, "So, what are you gonna do about it?"

Lee: As Joe Biden's VP pick, she'll be the first Black woman to appear on the presidential ticket for a major political party. And if the Biden-Harris ticket wins this fall, Harris will be the country's first female vice president, putting her closer to the Oval Office than any other woman in history. She'll stand on the shoulders of the women who came before her, people like Shirley Chisholm.

Shirley Chisholm: I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States of America. (APPLAUSE)

Lee: And build on the legacy of women like Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton: Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you it's got about 18 million cracks in it. (APPLAUSE)

Lee: Harris's nomination comes the same year that the country is commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which prohibited voting discrimination based on sex. The irony here though is that Kamala Harris wouldn't have really been part of that victory.

I'm Trymaine Lee and this is Into America. Tuesday marks 100 years since the ratification of the 19th Amendment, but that milestone, despite the work done by women of all races for the right to vote, was mostly a win for white women. Today, we're looking at the role Black women played in leading the charge for full voting rights for all Americans and the impact of that work on today's politics.

Martha Jones is one of the leading voices when it comes to understanding Black women's political participation. She's a legal and cultural historian, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, and the author of a new book out this September called Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All.

When we hear about the suffrage movement, we often hear about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, but there are women missing. In particular, Black women are missing. What have you found about the role of Black women pushing and fighting and grappling with the suffrage movement itself and the right to vote?

Martha Jones: The first thing I learned is that if I looked for Black women in suffrage associations like those led by Stanton and Anthony, I would find some, but it would be very few. And so the first lesson really was to follow Black women where they were. It turns out they are in their churches, they are in anti-slavery societies, they are in civil rights organizations.

And when we follow them there, we discover that Black women are as engaged as any American women around questions of political power, are as interested as any in how to win voting rights, among other things. And why did we overlook them? Well, in part, because Susan Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, beginning in the 1880s, write a history of women's suffrage.

And they privilege, if you will, their own story, their own part of the movement, and don't in fact follow African American women into their own organizations. For a long time, we relied upon their history as the history. And we had to come back then and discover new facets of the story.

Lee: So, as they're kind of, you know, practicing some level of erasure in writing the story of it, Black women were pushing and doing their thing. Who were some of these women? And we hear now people talking about women needing, you know, a seat at the table.

Jones: Uh-huh (Affirm).

Lee: And then others are saying like, "You know what? Let's build our own table." (LAUGH)

Jones: Uh-huh (Affirm).

Lee: Were Black women at the time doing that?

Jones: Absolutely building their own tables. Even at the very earliest decades of the 19th century, a woman like Jarena Lee, not a household name, but a Black woman preacher in the AME church who stirs things up in the AME church and really battles for the right to preach, to have authority, to have a license.

This is a beginning for Black women of this story. Maria Stewart, a peer to Jarena Lee in Boston, by the 1830s, speaking at the podium, fiery as any speaker of the era. Calling not only for a more concerted campaign for civil rights for Black Americans, but Maria Stewart recognizes that to be a woman and do that requires she also speak, if you will, a kind of feminist or a womanist rhetoric as well.

By the time we get to the 20th century and Ida B. Wells, the great journalist and anti-lynching campaigner, also a suffragist. Mary Church Terrell, the first president of the National Association of Colored Women. And we could come forward all the way to the modern civil rights era. That is, too, part of the story. Fannie Lou Hamer, Septima Clark, Rosa Parks, all women who cut their political teeth in voting rights even as they did many things as activists.

Lee: So, let's jump to the 19th Amendment. White leadership had a very specific strategy. What was it and how did race play a role in that strategy?

Jones: The open secret of the 19th Amendment is that the language of the amendment will do nothing to interfere with the Jim Crow laws that are already keeping Black men from the polls and are now gonna keep Black women from the polls, poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses.

The premise, the understanding is that Southern states in particular will continue to have the authority to use their laws to keep Black women from the polls. And this is an open dimension of the deliberations around the 19th Amendment. It is what makes it possible, for example, to achieve ratification of the amendment in a state like Tennessee. Tennessee will still be able to disenfranchise Black women even after it ratifies the 19th Amendment.

Lee: Yeah, I wanted to ask that. So, we get to 1920 and the 19th Amendment is ratified. In practice, what did the 19th Amendment actually change? And do we have a sense of how Black women at the time, given all the nuance, view the passage of the amendment?

Jones: So, the-- the amendment strikes the word male from state laws and local laws across the country. No longer must you be a male person in order to vote. That's powerful. It's like the 15th Amendment that had stricken race from the formal laws around voting across the United States.

But Black women know that you don't have to say race and you don't have to say sex in order to disproportionately keep them from the polls. So, even before we get to the summer of 1920, Black women across the country are organizing in citizenship schools and suffrage schools where they are training one another in how to overcome the state law barriers that they are going to confront.

So, how do you pay a poll tax? What is a literacy test? What is an understanding test, right? These are the kinds of things that, in suffrage schools, Black women are going to learn to confront. And by the time we get to September and October of 1920, when the registrations rolls open for the first time across the country to American women, Black women are going to show up throughout the country and test the limits of the 19th Amendment, test their own capacities to overcome the hurdles that are laid in front of them.

And it will lead to a very, very uneven landscape for Black women who, in some cities, will in fact be able to register. I've written about St. Louis in Missouri and Danville in Kentucky. These are places where Black women successfully register and can cast ballots in 1920.

But I've also written about Daytona, Florida, and Florida more generally, where even those Black women who manage to register are going to face violence and intimidation that will mean risking their lives in order to get to the polls. And many of them will miss the opportunity to vote.

Lee: And I want to go back to something I just heard you mention, these suffrage schools. Were they, like, informally set up? How were they funded? Like, let's (LAUGH) jump back into that because I don't think many people have ever heard of a suffrage school. I know I haven't.

Jones: So, some of them are run by branches of the National Association of Colored Women. So, local women's clubs are sponsoring suffrage schools. Black women's YWCAs sponsoring suffrage schools. So, Black women are activating the political networks that they have already built by this time and now transforming them into suffrage schools.

One of the things I love about the school in St. Louis is that men show up also because Black men think, "Well, maybe this is the opportunity for me to learn how to overcome the barriers that have kept me from the polls." And so, while they are founded in the interest of getting women to the polls, Black men also show up and turn out to register in this year.

And so, it is a kind of resurgence. But, to your question, these are old networks, some of which go back all the way to the Civil War and the relief work that African American women had done across the country to support Black soldiers and Black refugees during the Civil War.

It's become part of a national network by the 1890s. And then Black women can activate that network. I'd say it's not going too far to suggest that those networks in churches, in YWCAs, in Black women's clubs, are still the networks, right, on the ground today mobilizing voters across the country.

Lee: You know, when we unpack and dig into all of the movements for rights, there are the names we know, right, and the names that have been lost to history, but played a meaningful role none the less. And in your book, Vanguard, you found a personal connection and the names of some women in your lineage who have been connected to civil rights and voting rights. Tell us about what you found in terms of that personal connection.

Jones: You know, I got very self-conscious as I was finishing Vanguard that the women whose pictures hang on my wall every day, (LAUGH) I didn't know their stories. And so, I take a kind of detour to try and understand my own grandmother, Susie Jones, born in Kentucky at the end of the 19th century, the daughter of a formerly enslaved woman.

And I follow her story. She's in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1920. She's a young mother. I can see her mother as an activist, but I can't quite see Susie. I follow her eventually to Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1926, when her husband, David, becomes president of the Black women's college in that city, Bennett College.

And I still can't figure out if she voted. I go to the state archives and it turns out nobody has saved the records. We can't really tell that early history of women's votes with the kind of detail, right, that I would like to have, which is my question, did my grandmother vote.

But by the 1950s and certainly by 1960, the young women at Bennett College are registering voters in the city of Greensboro. And there's my grandmother recounting that history. The word she uses is she was thrilled. And I realize that by following her story, it was a lesson in how to tell Black women's history of the vote, that it couldn't stop in 1920.

Maybe I'll never know if she voted in 1920, but that in fact, for her, the story continues all the way until the modern civil rights era, until 1960, 1965, and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. And this is a chapter that Black women, like my grandmother and many thousands of others, write on their own because, of course, they are the women who remain disenfranchised even after the 19th Amendment.

Lee: When we come back, Martha explains how Black women continue their fight for full voting rights and the power that comes with those rights. Stick with us.

Lee: We're back with Martha Jones. So, between then, the suffrage schools, and now where we see the structural mechanisms kind of being built and expanded upon, but in the years after the 19th Amendment was passed, how did Black women continue to organize and build around those structures?

Jones: There's a major figure who enters the scene in 1920 and that is Mary McLeod Bethune from Daytona, Florida, the educator who comes to Washington D.C. to found the National Council of Negro Women. Now Bethune is really going to try and create a robust structure that will bring together all sorts of Black women's organizations.

But more importantly, Bethune, who had cut her teeth politically getting Black women to the polls in 1920, is coming to Washington to do a different kind of politics. By the '30s, she is working inside the Roosevelt Administration. She's going to help Franklin Roosevelt establish his Black Cabinet.

Why is this important? Because Bethune knows that there's more than one way to win political power and influence. And she comes from a state where Black people are disenfranchised, Florida, but Roosevelt can appoint her to leadership within the federal government, especially in the new New Deal agencies that are providing relief from the Depression across the country.

So, what I love about Bethune is that she's deeply committed to voting rights, but she's not gonna wait until she has the vote to exercise political power. She's gonna build political power through patronage, through networks, through federal appointments, and bring many, many Black women with her to the nation's capital, where they will use federal resources to help bring Black communities out of the scourge of the Depression.

Lee: I could literally probably name two dozen women who walk in the footsteps of those great women, who are organizing in the front lines today. But how have things evolved? How has the organizing evolved? Or is it the same playbook that had some success in the past?

Jones: Well, I do think those networks, when we observe that Black women vote as a bloc frequently, 94%, 95%, 96% of Black women, that is a reflection, I think, of these old networks and their evolution. They still exist in this time. But of course, once we get to 1965 and the passage of the Voting Rights Act, now we have the polls forthrightly opened to African Americans, including Black women.

We have, by 1968, figures like Shirley Chisholm coming into American politics. So now that grassroots, everyday Black woman voter is a companion to Black women who are going to begin to hold office, shape policy. That is the fruits that I think we are witnessing today in 2020. And that really takes hold undeniably after 1965.

Lee: You know, sometimes we've seen throughout history, and we talked about this a bit, that even our quote/unquote allies are actually racist and working against us. Think about (LAUGH) Susan B. Anthony and such. But I wonder, getting up to the Voting Rights Act of '65, did we begin to see some solidarity or coalition building between Black women and white women in particular?

Jones: Yes. The civil rights era grows out of a long moment of interracial cooperation that begins before the Second World War. So, Black and white women have built new kinds of relationships politically. It's no longer the inequality and the disparities of the suffrage movement.

Now there is the expectation of equality. And we can tell the stories of heroic African American women who do, in fact, have allies in some white women in the modern civil rights movement. I think that's undeniable. And at the same time, I think that there is a persistent question about power and politics inviting the sense that some folks are on top and some folks are in charge, and others are not.

And so, you know, when we read the words of a Shirley Chisholm or a Barbara Jordan, right, these path-making Black women who come to Congress, they are challenged with, if you will, explaining themselves, right, making themselves legible to white Americans generally, but including white women, because these are women who have not come to be subordinate.

These are not women who have come to defer at all. And I think we're still grappling with the reckoning of what it means for African American women to be subordinate to no one in American politics. And as our numbers grow, both as voters clearly, but also increasingly as officeholders, white Americans, men and women, maybe some Black men as well, I'd say, Americans have to rethink their old ideas about what politics looks like and about who should be in charge.

Lee: You know, despite the thorns and daggers of racism, Black women have fought and gained political power time and again. And we often talk about, you know, Black women and Black folks being the base of the Democratic party, but especially built on the backs of Black women. But I wonder if you could explain just how significant a voting bloc Black women actually are.

Jones: We could look, for example, at 2017 and Alabama's special election, where the Democrat, Doug Jones, ran in a very, very tight race. And what we know is not only did 98% of Black women voters vote for Jones, right, and flip that Senate seat from red to blue, they not only voted for Jones, they turned out disproportionately, right. And these are the companion keys to understanding the power of Black women voters. It's not just the voting as a bloc; it's turning out. So, in that case, a state-level election, right, a U.S. Senate seat flips.

Lee: In Alabama. (LAUGH)

Jones: In Alabama. And so, this is the kind of evidence that I think has, you know, led to some very deliberate thinking, analysis, and attention to where Black women are in this 2020 election cycle. This is not incidental. This is essential analysis.

Lee: And not just as voters and bodies pushing to the polls, but actually Black women participating in the electoral process in terms of candidates. There are a record number of Black women running for Congress in 2020. Biden had six Black women on his short list.

Jones: Uh-huh (Affirm).

Lee: Ultimately he selects Senator Kamala Harris as the first Black woman on a major party ticket. What's the significance of all this? Is this just the culmination of all that work over the last hundred-plus years? What does this moment mean?

Jones: I think it is a culmination. In my book, it's a culmination really of 200 years, which is to say Black women have been at this a very long time. And Kamala Harris does not drop from the heavens, (LAUGH) right. She grows out of Black women's politics across many generations.

And when you look at a figure like Senator Harris or Representative Ayanna Pressley or leader Stacey Abrams, these are women, when you ask them, they will tell you, "I come out of a political tradition." And it's not the political tradition exemplified by Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Alice Paul at all.

It is a political tradition that these women will tell you easily comes out of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, Mary McLeod Bethune, Ida B. Wells, Shirley Chisholm, Barbara Jordan. Black women understand their own political history and how we come to be where we are in 2020.

And so, for me, it was important to write a book that helped Americans sort of reset their sense of women's political history through a Black woman's lens be if you don't understand who Shirley Chisholm was or Carol Moseley Braun was, it's hard to understand Senator Harris. So, we need a new political education, (LAUGH) frankly, to go with that to appreciate whatever the outcomes may be in any given election in November, Black women candidates are here to stay.

Lee: As we recenter and reposition not just the narrative, but our understanding of the role that Black women have played in the right to vote for women and keep pushing for political power, do you think America is necessarily ready? What do you expect to come next with this rise of power, with the reimagining and recentering of Black women in this political discourse? What do you think happens?

Jones: My metaphor is catching up. This nation is catching up to the kind of ideals that Black women 200 years ago, as founders of this nation, put on the table, the challenge that Black women set, which is, for example, right, no racism, no sexism in American politics.

They have no role, right, in arbitrating power, access, office holding, votes, and more. Black women have been saying that for 200 years. And I think it's fair to say we might be catching up to that wisdom as a nation, to those political ideals.

And so, what I see is a country that is being led by Black women. I call them the vanguard because they hold a high bar up for this nation for a very long time. That is not an enviable position, but it turns out to be an essential one in a nation that has deep troubles in its past. And I can only hope that we have the opportunity to continue to follow Black women, in politics and elsewhere, to realize the kinds of values that they have long exemplified.

Lee: Martha Jones, thank you so much for your time, your amazing work. The struggle continues. Thank you very much.

Jones: Thanks so much.

Lee: That was legal and cultural historian Martha Jones. Her new book, Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All, comes out on September 8th. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Wednesday.