The right to vote defines constitutional citizenship. A century ago, the long-and-hard-fought victory of women’s right to vote culminated with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on August 18, 1920, thus completing a full circle of citizenship for woman. She could now vote like her (white) male counterparts as an equal and full citizen. On the surface, this is an indisputable narrative, and in fact, has found its way into textbooks and seeped through the nation’s imagination for a century. However, if the constitutional right to vote is a basic definition of a citizen, women of color were still not able to exercise their full citizenship in 1920 but until 45 years later in the era of the Civil Rights Movement, with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. As one of the most far-reaching pieces of civil right legislation, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 addressed manmade obstacles that had prevented African Americans and women of color in general from participating in nation’s political life. The 1965 Act eventually removed literacy tests, poll taxes, and requirement of property ownership among other “tactically” designed obstacles at state level, which had effectively stripped away African Americans and other minority individuals’ rightful right to vote. Granted in the 15th Amendment in 1870, voting rights of a citizen of color had not got exercised until 1965. History seems to have given birth to two Americas—the white one at the center, entitled of a “standard” narrative; the non-white one at the periphery, “unfit” to be counted on equal terms. Then, whose centennial of the women’s suffrage movement is this in 2020? Which America is relevant to the landmark event?

Elizabeth J. Clapp summarizes the characteristics of anniversaries of the women’ suffrage movement:

Traditionally, historians viewed the suffrage struggle as part of the history of democracy in the United States, an effort to widen the franchise to all Americans. They wrote organizational histories of the women’s rights movement, centering on the campaign for the vote, and biographers included suffragists among their projects. These pioneering histories paid attention to exceptional women who operated in the male world. They characterized them as white, middle class, and mostly living on the East Coast, which…reflected little of the diversity and regional variation… (2007, p. 238).

It has indeed been a long-standing tradition and a well-accepted standard to celebrate women’s suffrage based on a single-issue of gender, with a group of iconic suffragists—white, middle class, and from the East Coast. The tradition has institutionalized a widespread cultural perception that the women’s suffrage movement is white or WASP (White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant); a “standard” celebration as such has “reflected little the diversity and regional variation”. So observed Clapp more than a decade ago. In 2020, however, a one-size-fits-all “white” celebration proves to be evidently inadequate, given the twenty-first century demographics, distinctively transformed as opposed to the one a century ago. The centennial of women’s suffrage movement presents a much needed platform to examine these transformations and their impact on the way in which we frame and celebrate each anniversary and now the centennial.

In reviewing Ellen Carol DuBois’ 2020 book Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote, Donna Seaman states, “The story of suffrage in the United States is dramatic, infuriating, paradoxical, and saturated with sexism and racism” (Seaman, 2020, p. 18). It is not a black or white story but a gray one in different shades at different times. DuBois’ book explores in depth the links of the woman suffrage movement to the abolition of slavery and the complex make-up of “foremothers” of the suffrage movement Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth. DuBois points out, “The women suffrage movement had incredible range. It was sustained and transformed through massive political, social and economic changes in American life and carried forward at least by three generations of American women” (DuBois, 2020, p. 2). The meaning of the suffrage for American women has thus never been set in stone; it morphs and alters as “hopes and fears for American democracy rise and fall” (p. 1). From the mid-nineteenth century to the Civil War, the Reconstruction, the Progressive Era, the Civil Rights Movement, the threshold of the global age, the post-colonial/post-industrial time, and the digital/informational universe, what means to be an American woman changes, evolves, and transforms. The word “woman” no longer signifies a white archetypal female who represents all female individuals. Because of demographic changes, sociopolitical transformations, and economic reconfigurations, women’s suffrage victory has never unfolded as a straightforward line, but we are taught to grasp it as a single-issue binary of women-defeating-men or feminism-defeating-sexism. Far from being “neat” and “fit” with our mental frames, women suffrage was a victory of feminism tainted by racism, of a gender-equality accomplishment that rejected racial equality.

Presently, we live in a racially susceptible, culturally divisive, and politically contentious time. 2020 not only marks Women’s Suffrage Centennial but also the year of a high-stakes presidential election, in the thick of an unprecedented Black-Lives-Matter movement. Gender and race are lined up to configure the current sociopolitical landscape; competing voices collide in hatred, bigotry and at times, in violence. Then the question is, are we equipped and ready for a race/gender dialog in the face of disconnect, distrust, and diatribe in 2020?

The answer is, not quite and not yet.

This article digs into historic and cultural depth for a root-cause examination of “why not yet” in 2020. As an interdisciplinary article, its narratives, analysis, arguments, and conclusions in the following sections are anchored in historical studies but for cultural studies engagement and outcome. Historicity, with facts and evidences, lays a tangible foundation for the weaving of cultural narratives and the extrapolating of cultural patterns.Footnote 1 An intimate dialog between gender and race occurs when we recognize familiar fear and bigotry from the past, and trace out similar divisive patterns in the current historical moment and the present sociopolitical landscape. Thus, as methodology, the article engages in research-based interpretations and analysis of context and text. Historicity delineates historical and sociopolitical contexts that have produced iconic figures, landmark events, and influential writings/texts. Conversely, documentations and written works left behind by those who made history provide textual evidence of the contexts that they lived, created, and shaped. In a symbiotic interplay, contexts and texts mirror one another to configure a cultural history that speaks to us today. At the conjuncture of history and culture and society, an intimate dialog between gender and race celebrates the centennial of women’s suffrage and dissects the racial injustice of the present day, as evidenced by George Floyd’s tragic death in May 2020. These events shape and configure American culture for the years to come.

Part 1—the missing link between gender and race in 2020: the binary and the color line

In the present time of political divisiveness and racial injustice, the link between gender and race is missing, let alone the dialog. In fact, it was severed a century ago by the collision between the power center and its periphery, the standard and the diverse, in American culture. Both sides were tripped over the impassable and perennial “color line”, to use W.E.B. DuBois’ term, which divides the nation in two since its inception. As a building block of American culture, the women’s suffrage movement was a gigantic sociopolitical and cultural step for women moving from the gender periphery to the patriarchal power center. However, this gigantic step is ironically not immune to forming an intersectional center/periphery binary within the women’s suffrage movement, with white women at the power center and African-American, as well as all other women of color at the periphery.

In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized the Seneca Falls Convention to launch the movement for women’s rights in the United States. Subsequently, women around the country protested, picketed, and were imprisoned to secure their constitutional right to vote. That was a historic moment when women took on a patriarchal power structure that had been in place against them in the United States. While all men are born equal in this great country, American women of all races have had to fight for the right to vote in order to be a full citizen and an equal human being. The patriarchal oppression takes countless forms across cultures and for millennia along human history. The basic and universal form is however the binary and gender hierarchy of male/female. It takes courage and ingenuity to write history with a female hand. American women did precisely that in 1848 and set the nation on the path to gender equality. After 72 years, on June 4, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was passed by the Congress and granted women the right to vote for the first time in the U.S. history. Many trailblazers of the movement did not live to see the landmark fruit of their enduring struggle and prolonged fight. “Only two women who participated in the Seneca Falls convention were still alive when the Nineteenth Amendment went into effect” (Mintz, 2007, p. 47). At the centennial, nationwide, museums, libraries, schools, and institutions celebrate the passing of the 19th Amendment with forums, exhibitions, seminars, lectures, and parties. Needless to say, this is the occasion of national gender celebration that moves American women in unison to honor the suffragists’ legacy. Everyone is expected to remember or learn what textbook teaches. There is a “standard” and “centralized” version of what happened a century ago and who were the protagonists. Individuals across political spectrums, genders, races, and age groups are brought together to admire the courageous, visionary, and resilient suffragists. The occasion is largely treated as a single-issue victory of gender equality and as a binary engagement of how feminism defeated sexism.

The long-held “mainstream” and “standard” celebration implies a one-size-fits-all assumption. WASP women are assumed to represent all women across races and heritages, embody the gender of the American female, and speak for all women in one voice of gender equality. The WASP uniformity and universality has been established by dismissing diversity and racial inequality within the realm of gender. Not all women were created equal in the U.S. history; the struggle for racial equality is encapsulated and often eclipsed in the struggle of gender equality. Keeping women of color in the periphery, in a support role or in irrelevance to white women’s suffrage, or simply discarding their existence are some of the mechanisms of the racial divide. It is not surprising that there is a canon that regards the WASP women as unquestionably perfect and flawless heroes, leaders, and saviors for all American women. This is the standard narrative rarely questioned and reevaluated in the suffrage history. However, after a century’s immigration and demographic shifting, in 2020, the terms “women” or “American women” expand to previously uncharted territories, while revolving around two reminiscent forces at play to define these terms: the one at the center that universalizes the terms in a vertical direction, and the one at the periphery that diversifies the term in a horizontal direction.

First, let us focus on the universalizing and vertical force. Upon the suffrage centennial, the term “American women” is still largely used in reference to the WASP women as in history. We have rarely pondered its cultural underpinnings. It is a widely accepted or acquiesced in cultural imagination that WASP women are the face and voice of all American women across races and heritages, of the women’s suffrage movement and of the centennial. Statues and monuments of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Amelia Mott and Lucy Stone grace national parks, cities and historical sites, institutionalizing the narrative that the women suffrage is “white”. Sojourner Truth was later included in one of the representations as a response to the criticism of exclusion of black suffragists. The universalizing force has much to do with the cultural “blueprint” that the WASPs set up at the birth of our nation. The “blueprint” has never been altered, in spite of the challenges of new cultural DNA pooled from the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement in particular. The men and women, programed in the initial WASP cultural design, inherit these cultural genes from generation to generation:

The central elements of that culture [American] can be defined in a variety of ways but include the Christian religion, Protestant values and moralism, a work ethic, the English language, British traditions of law, justice, and the limits of government power, and a legacy of European art, literature, philosophy and music (Huntington, 2004, p. 40).

From a long Anglo-Saxon dominated culture and tradition in the United States, these element have been held as essential and fundamental; they are the “American Creed”. WASP women had been victimized by WASP men for centuries; WASP women stood up in the women’s suffrage movement and became a beacon for all oppressed women around the world to look up to. Nonetheless, to what extent do the WASP women share or reject Huntington’s monocutluralist view? Not clear. What is clear is that Huntington’s view has the WASPs’ cultural DNA as the standard, the norm, and the authority to shape and define American culture. In a paradoxical way, the WASP culture DNA left its undeletable print, through the suffragists themselves, in the women’s suffrage movement. Quite a few suffragist leaders themselves were abolitionist but turned to be racially vitriolic in fighting for (white) women’s rights. This paradox has helped with the WASP exclusive ownership of women’s suffrage history, as well as women’s fight for gender equality in general. The sense of exclusivity rejects groups of non-WASP heritages and divides citizens/women into the mainstream and the marginalized. Thus, pivoted on the WASP blueprint, within women rights movement, a culture wall is erected by the WASP elites for exclusion and a power binary of the center/the periphery—WASP women/African American women—is created.

Second, let us shift our focus to the diversifying and horizontal force. After a century of continuous, massive, and non-Anglo/Nordic immigration, which unavoidably sparked social and culture transformations, the year 2020 witnesses a “browner” and “flatter” America. As of the present day, there has been a significant increase of women of color; they now represent roughly 40% of U.S. women.Footnote 2 When American women come together on the occasion of the Suffrage Centennial, the togetherness is far from being the sameness, despite shared interest for gender equality. Throughout suffrage history, women of color were never much of a presence at best and they were discriminated and prevented from exercising their voting rights at worst. Then, what is Women’s Suffrage Centennial to a woman of color?Footnote 3 In the “browner” and “flatter” America of the present day, not only do white women continue their fight for gender equality in their professional and personal lives, but also a much broadened range of marginalized entities, defined by gender, as well as race, find themselves in day-to-day struggle for inclusion, equality, citizenship, and humanity. These include women and men of color, immigrants, LGBTQFootnote 4 citizens, individuals from a non-Christian faith, and members of special needs. An unprecedentedly diverse and all-encompassing population, just like white women a century ago, is fighting to cross the power binary of the center/the periphery separated by the color line. However, their binary is different from the one that their WASP sisters faced; it is a double binary with a double center and a double periphery—racial and gender. A double divide prevents women of color from being a full citizen, as well as a full woman as their rights are alienable on both fronts. If the celebration of the centennial highlights white women’s leadership, contribution and achievements in universal terms, defined by vertical WASP values, then, many contemporary American women of color would certainly find themselves as “unfit” with the narrative of women suffrage; they would remain left out the nation’s history.

The confrontation of the universalizing force from the center and the diversifying force from the periphery not only drives the women suffrage centennial to the crossroads of gender and race, but also reveals a deeper split between the two in our present social milieu. A woman of color in 2020 is no longer in the image of a freedom-deprived slave working in a cotton field in the antebellum South. She can well be a highly-educated individual, a lawyer, an executive, an artist, or a medical doctor. By the Constitution, as white women, a woman of color has equal and “unalienable rights” of education, citizenship, and the pursuit of happiness. She may be from a long line of ancestors who witnessed the inception of this nation or may be a first or second generation immigrant. Either falls into at least one of these categories: Native-African-Asian-Hispanic-Muslim-LGBTQ Americans. These “non-white” and non-WASP identities, after 100 years of the struggle for gender equality, nonetheless, still have not yet crossed “the color line” to be accepted as inherently American. When an African-American woman speaks up, she would invite the perception of “an angry woman”. When a Hispanic-American woman is in charge, how “American” she is to deserve that position would be an unuttered question. When an Asian-American woman acts with self-confidence, she would be labeled as a “banana”—yellow outside and white inside. The notion that being a white is American or more American than a person of color is still prevalent.

Racism and color line in 2020 are not as raw and crude as the ones that characterized the society a century ago. They are well absorbed into institutional systems and continue to dehumanize people of color in the name of law, conventions, patriotism, and American values. Deep in the fabric of the society and in the core of the culture, the center continues to exercise its dominance; the wounds of the periphery reopen and continue to bleed, internally or externally, in the presence of an external trigger. As the latest in a long line of Black victims of systemic racism, George Floyd’s death has sparked racial hemorrhage not only in the US but globally. In a more subtle and covert fashion, the institutional racism has left its undeletable stain not only on women’s suffrage movement but on its anniversary celebrations. “Standard” women’s suffrage anniversaries have always been the celebration of iconic figures like Stanton, Mott, Anthony, and Stone, among others. Indeed, the vision, leadership, spirit, and accomplishment of these remarkable WASP women have transformed our society and reshaped American culture. In many significant ways in the struggle for gender equality, American women across races, ethnicities, religions and heritages are indebted to the history that the WASP women have made. Nonetheless, all this glory does not alter a racialized past and does not heal the internal wounds sustained over a century. The togetherness of American women no longer means gender homogeneity but gender diversity. That not all women are created equal still remains a reality in 2020. Not only the nation but also American feminism is still divided by the color line. The question “what is Women’s Suffrage Centennial to a ‘browner’ and ‘flatter’ America” confronts the “center” and the “standard”, reevaluates the “periphery” and the diverse, and redefines the term of “American women”. A historical examination how racial equality interacts with gender equality becomes indispensable in recasting the centennial celebrations.

Part 2—a blocked dialog between gender and race in history

A dialog takes at least two parties to exchange information and ideas, debate differences or teach/learn from one another in an interactive and generative back-and-forth process. In women’s suffrage, gender and race intersected as the two dialogic parties; instead of moving forward, they blocked each other, thus unsettling the dialogic binary that impacted cultural configuration. Over a century since women’s suffrage, various ideologies on race and gender have been dislodged. In a multicultural and multiracial society, the alignment or the derailment of an ideology never follows a straight line but winding and intertwining. There are always minefields and contingent contexts to be considered and cautioned, so much so that we often have to perform a still-walk, fossilized by fear, distrust, bigotry, and sometimes hate and violence. Intriguingly, as the two building blocks of American culture, gender and race reject or recognize one another other as two competitors in given political circumstances. Often, they are the elephant in the room, never in a comfortable position to acknowledge and articulate each other’s nature, significance, and above all, potential connections between them. They would rather avoid issues and themes associated with the other. Not unlike rivalry twins, race and gender, from the same parentage, compete for social attention, cultural representation, and legal voices at any given moment. While a landmark stride has been made towards equality and social justice, the Women’s Suffrage Movement and the Civil Rights Movement have never been culturally congruent and ideologically harmonious. As much as the ideological tracks associated with gender and race intend or are orchestrated to steer clear from one another, their trajectories in pursuing social justice become paralleled in the same direction sometimes and intersected in collision other times.

Then, what exactly has severed the link between gender and race and blocked the dialog? The question puts us in a soul-search process with historical reflections and self-examination. To search for the root cause, let us be galvanized by the ratifications of 14th and the 15th Amendments to the Constitution that paralleled the trajectory of the women’s suffrage movement. The twists and turns of the movement split, as well as tangled gender and race. Let the long overdue dialog start from where the split occurred.

The Civil War (1861–65) brought two economic systems—the agrarian/plantation in the South and the industrial/urbanization in the North—into a life-and-death confrontation. Slavery institutions were not only the foundation of the southern economy but also a visible-to-the-naked-eye divide of two conflictive mindsets: freedom/equality to all human beings vs. freedom/equality to certain groups. Whether in the North or in the South, the two mindsets waged a cultural war because of the Civil War. The North won the war in the battlefield but left historic wounds unhealed, continuing to bleed for a long time after the war. The Reconstruction era (1865–1877), to the best definition of the word “reconstruction”, saw unprecedented efforts to heal racial wounds inflicted upon African American citizens and bridge cultural gaps created by economic disparity and social inequality. A number of racially egalitarian policies and laws put in place. The 14th and the 15th Amendments stood out as they tackle the issues central to Reconstruction head-on: restoring slaves’ fundamental human dignity, protecting their citizens’ rights, advancing racial equality, and pursuing economic justice in a bitterly heterogeneous society. These are monumental constitutional transformations, designed to evoke and embody the American ideal of freedom and equality. However, as constitutional laws, understandably, these governing documents did not sink into cultural and psychological depth as to provide an effective platform for a national dialog between gender and race. Unfortunately, the link between the two major building blocks of American culture is thus missed.

Let us examine the split between race and gender in the 14th Amendment. It states in Section 1:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.Footnote 5

The 14th amendment was ratified in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War on July 9, 1868; it was a direct echo of the gunfire in the battlefield for the emancipation of slavery in this land. After almost a century, the language of “all persons” resonates unmistakably with “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, signed in 1776 at Pennsylvania State House. The 14th Amendment granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside”.Footnote 6 Recently freed former slaves were the main intended audience and included in “all persons”. In addition, the Amendment oversees and forbids states from denying any person’s “life, liberty or property, without due process of law” or to “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”.Footnote 7 Once again, “life and liberty” coincides with “the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. Laudably, the Amendment granted the civil rights to African Americans and recognized them as equal citizens in the Constitution. In spite of the local states’ political maneuvering to defer African Americans’ constitutional rights, the 14th Amendment stands as the legal harbinger that foreshadowed the Civil Rights Movement a century later. According to legal experts, the Amendment is “the most commonly used—and frequently litigated—phrase in the amendment is ‘equal protection of the law’, which figures prominently in a wide variety of landmark cases”.Footnote 8 This is one of the most cited Amendment to enforce civil rights associated with race, gender, reproductive rights, affirmative actions. Not only African-Americans but all marginalized and dehumanized individuals have a chance to defend themselves thanks to the law of equal protection in the 14th Amendment. It sends a clear and loud message of racial equality.

While Section 1 in the 14th Amendment advocates and experiments interracial democracy by acknowledging African American rights with the clause “all persons born or naturalized in the United States”, it does not mention gender inclusion and equality. Are women not part of “all persons?” Section 2 of the Amendment, by particularly securing the male political representation and male citizens’ voting right, explicitly excludes women:

Representatives shall be apportioned among the several states according to their respective numbers, […] But when the right to vote at any election […] is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such state, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, […] the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such state.Footnote 9

It limits the right to vote to “the male inhabitants of such State, being 21 years of age, and citizens of the United States”. “Male inhabitants” implies the inclusion of African-American males during the period of national healing. Semantically, the document places African American men above (white) women in the suffrage movement. If black men are above black women, it would probably be just “fine” and “logic”. Now they are perceived above white women; white women were the universal representation of the gender at that time. Section 1 and Section 2 in the 14th Amendment together set the stage where the racial equality collides with gender equality. As a result, women suffrage becomes contentious between race and gender. Garth Pauley quoted the argument of the Stanton-Anthony wing in the suffrage movement:

…the cause of human freedom would be set back by an amendment that made it easier for the black man to vote while, by inserting the word male in the Constitution for the first time, it made it harder than before for women to get the ballot (cited in Pauley, 2000, p. 386).Footnote 10

“The 14th Amendment strained the relationship between White women and Blacks” (Pauley, 2000, p. 386). The male-vs.-female gender binary finds itself intersected with the racial binary of black-vs.-white. When African-American women stood in total absence, there was not such a gender equation as white women vs. black women, but a “chiasm” of white women vs. black men, in which two binaries on two different tracks crisscrossed: the gender and the race. This requires a gender/race joint approach to understanding both white female suffragists as well as black male suffragists, as they are situated in a chiasm crossing two different categories.

It is worth noting the invisibility of African-American women during the second half of the nineteenth century. Their absence was largely due to the double hurdle—gender and race—that they always had to encounter in order to enter into an equation and be counted in. They cross both gender and race categories, but neither gender nor race alone can represent a full identity of African-American women or any women of color for that matter. Only when gender and race are in dialog and intersect, can they be defined as a full citizen and a full woman. A simple one-on-one binary in gender or in race reduces their representational complexity and subjugates them to either sexism or racism. Therefore, they were/are the most vulnerable group in identity dismissal, when the dialog between gender and race is blocked. At the intersection of race and gender, the 14th Amendment, in pursuit of racial equality, split race from gender and missed the link between the two.

The split between gender and race become more evident when the 15th Amendment was ratified on February 3, 1870. 2020 marks its 150th anniversary, coinciding with women’s suffrage centennial. The text of the 15th Amendment reads:Footnote 11

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

More explicit than ever, the Amendment stresses an inclusive voting right that includes African-Americans, as well as all citizens of color in broad stroke. However, like the 14th, the 15th Amendment has no mention and no acknowledgement of women, which was perceived by the suffragists as dismissive and discriminatory. Subsequently, the 15th Amendment created a rock-paper-scissors situation that compelled suffragists to choose a position between gender or race, so that they could work towards their political conviction and personal priority, as fit and feasible. This sowed the seeds for the division of the women’s suffrage movement and of the polarization between gender and race in American culture. Some white citizens and politicians who made peace with their conscience and supported black suffrage. “This is the negro’s hour” was a rallying cry of the period and “became the universal response to the women’s appeal”.Footnote 12 Anthony and Stanton were deeply embittered by the “Negro’s hour”; as they strongly believed that a white educated woman was superior, far more qualified to vote than an African American man. As staunch fighters for women’s rights, they refused to support the amendment and founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). On the other hand, Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell, who were more inclined to universal suffrage, supported the amendment and founded the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). The emergence of the two suffrage organizations symbolically and ideologically dichotomized race and gender.

The split between the NWSA and the AWSA brought to light the underlying divide—the color line—in the nation’s psyche: (white) women’s suffrage vs. Black (men’s) suffrage. Which one is the priority of emancipation, gender or race? The omission of gender in the 15th Amendment helped already widespread sexism; this outraged white female suffragist leaders. To fight back sexism, “instead of arguing for suffrage in terms of equal rights” (Mintz, 2007, p. 47), the representatives of the NWSA, and, later, of the National American Women Suffrage Association, resorted to the ugly racism and xenophobia. By giving vote to (white) women, the leaders of these associations argued that “white, native born voters would” be guaranteed and “outnumbered immigrant and non-white voters” (Mintz, 2007, p. 47). On a chiasm that crosses gender and race, neither sexism nor racism/xenophobia can carry out any dialog but harbor bigotry and mutual exclusion, thus blocking the dialog between gender and race.

The notion that the 15th Amendment was regarded to put African Americans’ voting rights before women’s indicated nineteenth-century men’s, black or white, representational power. White men represented all white individuals; in the same way, black men represented the entire black community. Conversely, white women were omitted as non-entities in the same way that black women were erased. These were shared sexist “syndromes” across black and white races. Prior to the 14th and the 15th Amendments, in spite of deeply rooted sexism and racism, black men and white women had made some strategic alliance to win the vote. Garth Pauley made a point of an unprincipled but convenient relation between white female suffragists and black men with a quote from black feminist bell hooks:Footnote 13

Prior to white male support of suffrage for black men, white women activists had believed it would further their cause o ally themselves with black political activists, but when it seemed that black men might get the vote while they remained disfranchised, political solidarity with black people was forgotten and they urged white men to allow racial solidarity to overshadow their plans to support black male suffrage. (Hooks, 1984, p. 3, cited in Pauley, 2000, p. 385)

The 14th and 15th Amendments made it “clear that the franchise would be granted only to African American men, many white suffragists spoke out against the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments” (Pauley, 2000, p. 385). At this intersection, a one-to-one binary, whether white-vs.-black or men-vs.-women, does not hold; it blurs racial divide and deconstructs gender “logic”. If a white female suffragist holds onto racial solidarity, how would she combat her marginalized position by white males who had been the authority, the norm, and the standard to dehumanize her? If she embraces gender solidarity, how would she accept a black woman as her equal? Should she side with white men or black women to win her fight for the vote?

The one-to-one binary becomes destabilized and fluid in the intersection; it is no longer one-to-one but one-to-multiple or multiple-to-one or multiple-to-multiple. The fluidity of the multiplicity could have opened a purposeful dialog, but it did not happen. Prioritizing race over gender by the two Amendments fragments the coalition between white women and black men. Anthony and Stanton took a stand. In 1868, they met with members of American Equal Rights Association (AERA), including the first mayor of Boston Wendell Philips. When Philips expressed his support for black suffrage and explained why he believed the two Amendments offered what could prove to be the only chance for African-Americans, “Anthony objected vehemently” (Pauley, 2000, p. 386). She raised up her right arm and proclaimed: “Look at this, all of you. And hear me swear that I will cutoff this right arm of mine before I will ever work for or demand the ballot for the negro and not the woman”.Footnote 14 Clearly, in Anthony’s vocabulary, “women” means white women only, and “the negro” signifies black men only. Thus, her way of splitting gender and race straightforwardly hierarchizes gender above the race. Anthony’s statement at the 1869 AERA convention vividly reflects the racism of her time, to which she was certainly not immune:

The old anti-slavery school say women must stand back and wait until the negroes shall be recognized. But we say, if you will not give the whole loaf of suffrage to the entire people give it to the most intelligent first. If intelligence, justice, and morality are to have precedence in the Government, let the question of woman be brought up first and that of the negro last.Footnote 15

Evidently, the universal noun “women” is reduced only to mean white women in Anthony and her contemporaries, who were more intelligent, judicious and moral than “negroes”. In the late nineteenth century U.S., white race was widely considered superior to any other races, and therefore, (white) “women” are naturally superior to the “negroes”. The fight for the voting right turned out to be a competition between gender and race. The NWSA not only turned away from Black suffrage, but also regarded African-Americans taking away the chance for white women to win their vote. Although many believed that both women suffrage and black suffrage were just and necessary, the Constitution would only allow one social transformation at a time. Groups that fall into both race and gender categories had no amendments nor social frames to define them and protect their rights. Women of color who cross gender and race boundaries would struggle to figure out if they should fight for women’s voting rights or racial equality? African-American women and women of color in general have been historically boxed into race or gender, but never both. The simple binary boxing mirrors the sociological, cultural, and political “split” of gender and race, institutionalized by the 14th and the 15th Amendments. At the end of the Reconstruction Era, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the reversal wave of interracial democracy wiped out the already faintly visible trace of African American women and women of color altogether from history. In the meantime, the (white) women’s suffrage movement was getting up steam and earning support nationwide. The 19th Amendment, ratified on August 18, 1920, finally granted American women the right to vote, ending almost a century of protest since 1848’s Seneca Falls Convention. The 19th Amendment, effective immediately in the same year as its ratification, is a landmark of the historic victory for (white) women. It defeated voting sexism and shook the U.S. culture at its core, but the core was not shaken hard enough to erase the color line and but continued to keep it intact.

The 14th and 15th Amendments heralded interracial democracy, granted citizens of color the defining and all-important right to vote, and assured them the constitutional protection. As much as the two documents intended to build racial equality, their scope and depth were severely limited as they were not designed to address the visceral color divide in the nation’s psyche. They left room for a retroactive surge of white supremacy in the late nineteenth century to undo the progressive ideal to heal and integrate the nation in the aftermath of the Civil War. Ironically, what blocked the dialog between gender and race is the very effort by the two Amendments to cross the color line, but the effort was limited to a simple racial binary, dismissing a pluralistic chiasm across both race and gender. Further, the cultural meaning of women or gender in the nineteenth century was white-centric. Women of color found themselves in a no-man’s land, regarded as irrelevant to the landmark social transformation, whereas they should have been the catalyst of the dialog between gender and race.

Part 3—at the intersection: Frederick Douglass’ dialog between gender and race

After having identified what blocked the dialog between gender and race, then, how should one engage in the dialog? Four million slaves were freed with the Union victory in the Civil War in 1865. Despite the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, the social and legal status of slaves stayed unchanged in day-to-day life and the slavery institution remained in full operation. Integrating former slaves into the nation’s political and cultural life and bringing the former rebel Southern states back with the Union sparked the need for an urgent sociopolitical and cultural dialog, at a national level, with former slaves, as well as with former slave owners.

As indicated previously, the Reconstruction era (1865–1877) generated a set of new laws and policies towards national healing and interracial equality. The 14th and the 15th Amendments paved the way for former slaves to participate in southern political life, as legal and equal citizens. For the first time the nation experimented an effort at federal level to attain a “black-and-white” interracial democracy. In that particular historic moment, the color line was eclipsed by the desire to reconstruct and reunify; the white world intersected with the black one, not as master-slave but as constitutional equals. However, the intersection was highly unstable and fragile to be pushed around when the KKK and the force of white supremacy reversed the course that the 14th and 15th Amendments were headed to. In less than a decade since the passage of the 15th Amendment, the color line violently cut back to dichotomize the white and the black. Racism continued to take root in both South and North. Neither the Civil War nor the Reconstruction was able to stitch the wound that the color line had cut. Under these complex and fluid circumstances, it was not surprising that Stanton and Anthony responded to the implied sexism in the 15th Amendment with racist outrage. Their prioritizing white women over black men in women’s suffrage movement not only alienated African Americans but also reflected the volatile race relations in the post-Civil War era. In the midst of the racism vented by the white suffragists that he admired, Frederick Douglass (1818–1891) took a different position; in doing so, he personified a dialog rather a diatribe at the intersection between race and gender.

From a mixed racial heritage, Frederick Douglass was an intercultural insider—a staunch supporter for women’s suffrage, as well as for black suffrage. As a former slave, an abolitionist, and editor of the Rochester North Star, he was one of the few men present, together with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, at the Seneca Falls convention in July 1848. It was a convention to champion women’s rights; the 300 women present saw it as a public declaration to fight for women’s constitutional right to vote as full U.S. citizens. Stanton drafted and presented “Declaration of Sentiments”, modeled on the Declaration of Independence; it described women’s grievances and demands. To parallel the struggles of the Founding Fathers, the “Declaration of Sentiments” summarized 11 resolutions on women’s rights, including women’s suffrage. All were resolved but women’s suffrage.Footnote 16 In a patriarchal society like the nineteenth century U.S., a woman could not own property or make financial and reproductive decisions for themselves, and had no equal divorce, education and employment opportunities. The idea for them to vote was met with ridicule and hostility. It sounded abnormal and heretic, hardly appealing to the predominantly Quake audience whose male attendees were dismissive of such an “unreasonable” demand. However, the African-American man, Douglass, was standing by Stanton’s side and defended women’s intellect, skills, and abilities to speak for herself and to stand up for herself. He described Stanton’s document as “the grand movement for attaining the civil, social, political, and religious rights of women”.Footnote 17 Stanton declares women’s rights by asserting gender equality:

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.Footnote 18

Women were part of a patriarchal society, oppressed and suppressed; they were stripped of gender-equal rights and therefore they were never full citizens in a democracy. This was a problem and a bitter irony of democracy. The declaration forcefully argues that women be respected by the Constitution as full citizens of the United States and be granted the same rights and privileges granted to her male fellow citizens. Stanton’s declaration marked the beginning of the women’s rights movement in the country, laid groundwork for the suffrage movement, and galvanized American culture on an untrodden path to the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Although Douglass did not live to see the 19th Amendment in place, he deeply understood the magnitude and the impact of the women’s suffrage movement, perhaps more than any man in his time. At the Seneca Falls convention, when the resolution of women’s suffrage was just about to be defeated, Douglass asked for the floor and delivered a passionate and eloquent plea on behalf of women’s right to the elective franchise (Foner, 1976, p. 14). His compelling words and persuasive power swayed the body into agreeing and adopting the resolution by a small margin. Stanton found an unexpected supporter in a black man.

To come to grips with Douglass’ intersection of race and gender, let’s hear his own voice in the speech “The Women’s Suffrage Movement”. given in April 1888 before the International Council of Women, in Washington D.C. In that speech, after 40 years of the Seneca Falls convention, he reflected upon his role in women’s suffrage movement, “I come to this platform with unusual diffidence”.Footnote 19 What is this “unusual” about? What enabled him to position women as men’s equals was not his “superior” male gender but his “inferior” African-American race. A mixed blood, an escaped slave, and a self-taught cultural thinker and writer, Douglass has firsthand experience of humiliation and dehumanization, and understands the existential need to be accepted and acknowledged as a dignified human being. He finds himself inside the mindsets of both the black and the white, the male and the female. Uniquely capable of relating African-American’s marginalization to the gender marginalization of white woman, he sees clearly that along the course of the suffrage movement, race and gender, two seemingly separate identifiers, have to march on paralleled tracks, together. In between the entwined steps, there has to be a shared dialog on inclusion, equality, citizenship, and humanity. From his black’s vintage point, a mutually recognizable and relatable position is possible. In other words, he identifies his racial struggle with white women’s gender struggle, both equally deprived of the right to be a full citizen and a full human being. Crossing a double boundary of race and gender, he stood up and defended white women in the same way in which he would defend himself and African-American citizens. “I say of her, as I say of the colored people, Give her fair play, and hands off’” (Douglass, 1888; Foner (ed) 1976, p. 110), as such he carried on the fight on both racial and gender fronts.

Douglass’ position exemplifies an intersected dialog between gender and race. Fully aware that he belongs to a different gender and a different race, from a doubled otherness, he becomes “a women’s rights man”, to be precise, a white women’s rights man. He declares in the same speech in 1888, “this is an International Council, not of men, but of women, and woman should have all the say in it. This is her day in court” (Foner (ed) 1976, p. 110). Douglass dismantles the gender binary of men vs. women and sided himself with women. At the same time, he also correlates the oppressed black race with the oppressed gender of the white race, thus demolishing the black-and-white racial binary. He sees a shared humanity undefinable by neither gender nor race, as it transcends beyond both. He asks men (white men) to relate to women by being quiet and listening to their voices as equals,

I believe no man, however gifted with thought and speech, can voice the wrongs and present the demands of women with the skill and effect, with the power and authority of woman herself. … Woman knows and feels her wrongs as man cannot know and feel them, and she also knows as well as he can know, what measures are needed to redress them. I grant all the claims at this point. She is her own best representative (Douglass, 1888; Foner (ed) 1976, p. 108).

When Douglass claims “Her right to be and to do is as full, complete and perfect as the right of any man on earth” (Douglass, 1888; Foner, 1976, p. 110), he touches the quintessential American ideal of true equality. To him, women’s suffrage is not about a women vs. men but a gender-equality vs. gender-inequality movement; black suffrage is not about black vs. white, but a racial equality vs. racial inequality struggle. Douglass has distilled these intersected paradigms from his own African-American and mixed racial combined experience, which had exposed him to many aspects of racial and social injustice as well as to the possibility to live in between the black and the white without having to be boxed in. His paradigm suggests mobility and fluidity, and explains his “unusual” position of race-gender crossover to support white women’s suffrage. In Douglass’ world, gender and race are not mutually exclusive but organically related. He correlates gender and race:

…it was a great thing for humane people to organize in opposition to slavery; but it was a much greater thing, in view of all the circumstances, for woman to organize herself in opposition to her exclusion from participation in government (Douglass, 1888; Foner (ed) 1976, p. 112)

In contrast with Stanton and Anthony’s vitriolic racist rhetoric for the fear that black men would take away white women’s voting right, Douglass presents a relational posture and a visionary engagement. The simple binary deepens the split between gender and race and blocks the dialog; the crossover “chiasm” connects gender and race and opens the dialog. Douglass is gifted with a keen awareness of a shared framework by sexism and racism. He understands that the framework only allows the eye see the tangible and graspable reality in broad strokes and on the surface, not the intangible and nuanced inner world. The mental construct that perpetuates racism pivots on the skin color, not so much “the content of character” (in Martin Luther King’s term); the mental construct of sexism operates with a similar surface perception—the physical appearance and the biological make-up, devoid of intangible qualities. Douglass’ ability to link race and gender comes from an insider’s view of an “inferior” racial, as well as a “superior” gender background. He cautions men the difference between open evils and hidden miseries of women’s oppression:

The reason is obvious. War, intemperance and slavery are open, undisguised, palpable evils. The best feelings of human nature revolt at them. We could easily make men see the misery, the debasement, the terrible suffering caused by intemperance; we could easily make men see the desolation wrought by war and the hell-black horrors of chattel slavery; but the case was different in the movement for woman suffrage (Douglass, 1888; Foner (ed) 1976, p. 112)

Women’s rights movement in the United States did not start like a Napoleonic war nor from a Satanic event. On the contrary, it emerged from domestic “loveliness” and peacefulness (Foner (ed) 1976, p. 112), where

…everything in her condition was supposed to be lovely, just as it should be. She has no rights denied, no wrongs to redress. She herself along on the tide of life as her mother and grandmother had done before her (p. 112)

Because of veiled evil and disguised dehumanization, women’s suffering became silent, virtuous, and ideal. Many men in Douglass’ time failed to recognize the why of women’s suffrage movement. By pointing out the different nature of evil and misery, Douglass intends to create an “intersected” awareness of the intimacy between gender and race. He openly expressed his admiration for Stanton: “Mrs. Stanton, with an earnestness that I shall never forget, unfolded her view on this woman question precisely as she had in this Council” (Foner (ed) 1976, p. 113). From a male and African-American perspective, Douglass’ intimate understanding of Stanton’s cause and mind defies any simple binary that dichotomizes:

She [Stanton] knew the ridicule, the rivalry, the criticism and the bitter aspersions which she and her co-laborers would have to meet and to endure. But she saw more clearly than most of us that the vital point to be made prominent, and the one that included all others, was the ballot, and she bravely said the word. It was not only necessary to break the silence of woman and make her voice heard, but she must have a clear, palpable and comprehensive measure set before her, one worthy of her highest ambition and her best exertions, and hence the ballot was brought to the front (p. 113).

Stanton’s suffering, humiliation, rivalry and criticism are relatable to what Douglass has experienced in his fight for racial equality; her focus and courage echoes his; her ambition to transform culture mirrors his own. Instead of being defined by gender or race, Douglass chooses something bigger than these identifiers:

When I ran away form slavery, it was for myself; when I advocated emancipation, it was for my people; but when I stood up for the rights of woman, self was out of the question, and I found a little nobility in the act (p. 113).

What he stands for is a pure human and humanistic spirit devoid of colors and shapes, outside the bounds of gender and race. With a clear consciousness that he represents something much larger that his own life, Douglass is convinced that the cause that Stanton and Anthony fight for is also much larger than any individual’s life and more enduring than the historic moment. Galvanized by spirituality, Douglass’ dialog between gender and race takes place.

However, the dialog is blocked again due to race tensions. There is a bitter color line between Douglass and Stanton. Stanton prioritizes (white) women’s “wealth, education, and refinement”, and ridicules black and immigrants’ “pauperism, ignorance, and degradation” (Griffith, 1985, p. 124), they are “’Sambo’ walk[ing] into the kingdom” of the right to vote (Kern, 2001, p. 111). She suggests that non-WASP voters would negatively affect the political system and erode American values (Griffith, 1985, p. 124). Therefore, she calls for “an educated suffrage” (Baker, 2005, pp. 122), which helps justify literacy test in later years to exclude African American voters. Stanton’s racism is clearly intended to cut a bleeding wound between race and gender, so that gender (white women) can be placed over race (black men). Douglass publicly disagreed with Stanton and Anthony’s priority of “whiteness” in the name of gender equality. This leads critics to depict Doulgass as an African-American man who “naturally” weighs race over gender, thus the exact opposite of Stanton and Anthony. Such an approach to Douglass may be “neat” and “fit” in a racial dichotomy, but falls out what Douglass represents—a human spirit, not meant to be defined by black or white, gender or race. He is in dialog with both:

…[Women] is the victim of abuse, to be sure, but it cannot be pretended I think that her cause is as urgent as ours (black suffrage). …The principal is: that no Negro shall be enfranchised while woman is not. Now in considering that white men have been enfranchised always, and colored men not, the conduct of these white women, whose husbands, fathers, and brothers are voters, does not seem generous (Douglass, Foner (ed) 1975, pp. 212–213)

What differentiates Douglass from Stanton and Anthony is the ability to go beyond a simple binary and engage crossover chiasms. At various intersections, Douglass integrates black and white, gender and race; trapped by a single one-to-one binary, Stanton and Anthony wage anti-sexist campaign with racist rhetoric. While all three shared the same cause to attain the American ideal of freedom and equality, they are separated by the color line. One side of the line is stuck with the surface differences between race and gender and regards them as mutually exclusive. The other side discerns the underlying similarities and consistencies between race and gender, and connects and intersects them organically. Stanton and Anthony’s vitriolic intolerance towards black suffrage contrasts with Douglass’ unwavering support for women’s rights and suffrage.

Fast forwarding to the suffrage centennial, no one wants to “tarnish” iconic figures like Stanton and Anthony. However, what makes them great is not their perfection but their humanity. When they broke with their abolitionist backgrounds after the Civil War to oppose the 14th and 15th Amendments, they showed fear, anger, territorial nature, prejudice, a shifting sense of white superiority, and vulnerability. They pioneered abolition movement but blocked the dialog between gender and race that Douglass intended. They were full of self-contradictions, humanly and understandably. By acknowledging Stanton and Anthony’s extraordinariness while allowing them to be human with flaws and self-contradictions, many individuals across genders and races can have a human face to relate to. By celebrating an African American man, Douglass, at the centennial, we open a new modality of race as part of gender celebration. This dialog between gender and race needs to take place in 2020.

Part 4—the legacy of the gender/race dialog: the double consciousness

Women’s Suffrage Centennial is an occasion to examine how Douglass’ intersected dialog between race and gender has evolved to become cultural consciousness. It also presents a historic moment for an in-depth look at how the double consciousness has sustained women and men of color in their survival and coexistence in a multicultural and multiracial society during and beyond the suffrage movement. When gender diversity merges with racial diversity, an individual of color finds oneself in a landscape made for a pluralistic identity and “camouflage” skills. S/he is prone to develop a set of instinctive skills to “camouflage” for self-preservation and self-protection in a terrain where his/her skin color stands out, exposed to danger. “Camouflaging” blends one in the background and is capable of multiplicity and simultaneity. Equipped with the ability to “camouflage” culturally, Douglass, while crossing his race and gender, blended himself with white female suffragists, empathized with women’s suffrage and defended it as his own cause.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the cultural camouflaging was theorized with the publication of The Souls of the Black Folk in 1903 by W.E.B. DuBois (1868–1963). Like Douglass, DuBois is also from mixed blood and heritages, leading a personal, intellectual, and cultural life in between different worlds. Throughout the book, the term “double consciousness” is recurrently coined to describe the existential nature and culture of African Americans. To be fit and accepted in the white society, they must develop two mindsets, two fields of vision, two languages, two perceptive modes, and two ways of living, that is, self-knowledge and the knowledge of being perceived. DuBois uses the metaphor of a transparent veil that allows a double perception from both sides so the viewer is viewed at the same time:

After the Egyptians and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world with yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of the others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn sunder (DuBois, [1903] 1964, pp. 16–17).

Douglass’ intersected dialog of race and gender would have not been possible without DuBois’ “doubleness”. A black and a white at once, a feminist and an antiracist at once, he dreamed an American Dream of a just and democratic society for women and black folks. Douglass had already exemplified the double consciousness half a century ago before the term was coined by DuBois. Unlike a fixed and centralized cultural position held by racism or sexism, individuals like Douglass and DuBois leap back and forth in multiple spaces of race and gender, with mobility and malleability enabled by the double consciousness. Their cultural indeterminacy sets them on constant move and constant search for a home in the American narrative. Neither Douglass nor DuBois represents or falls into one single definition; they are self-willed and self-invented, caught between being and becoming.

When it comes to male support for women’s suffrage movement, Valethia Watkins accurately points out:

Douglass “was arguably the highest profile man of any race consistently involved in the suffrage movement, and he was unwavering in his advocacy of voting rights for women from the inception of the organized movement in the United States in 1848 until his death in 1895 (Watkins, 2016, p. 4)

DuBois was also “a woman’s rights man” in the tradition of Frederick Douglass“ (Watkins, 2016, p. 4).Footnote 20 Almost a mirror image of Douglass, DuBois continues the intersected dialog between race and gender with the same cultural agility and the same spirit that set him free from the “curse” of “the color line”, another term repeatedly used in his The Souls of the Blake Folk. He assimilates invisibility and vulnerability in both black people and white women and declares in Douglassian manner:

I am resolved to be ready at all times and in all places to bear witness with pen, voice, money and deed against… the wrong disenfranchisement for race or sex… (Wilson, 1970, pp. 105–106, cited in Watkins, 2016, p. 4)

The dialog between gender and race embodies the double consciousness and crosses the color line “through the revelation of the other world” (DuBois, 1990, p. 8). It is not defined by our biological make-up but our mental horizon. In the dialog, the observer is observed in action. The Douglass/DuBois double consciousness sinks into not only the souls of the black folk but all citizens, men and women, of color.

Sigma Delta Theta—the only organization that black women took part in—carried the dialog of gender and race in women’s suffrage movement on a national stage in 1913’s Women’s Suffrage Parade. Suffrage (white) leader Alice Paul organized 5000 women marching along the Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. on Monday, March 3, 1913, one day before the 28th President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. At the heart of the U.S. government, the women were campaigning for the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote (ratified in 1920). The brave women did it in the face of police’s brutality; many of them were insulted, spat upon and physically injured. What made the event extraordinary was not only white women’s courage and bravery, but also black women’s participation together with their white sisters. Nonetheless, the white-and-black togetherness a la Douglass in no way was a natural come-together but a hard-fought one.

In her Washington Post article “Despite the tremendous risk, African American women marched for suffrage, too”, Michelle Bernard (2013) detailed the participation of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority:

Marching against the status quo was not easy for white women, but it was even more difficult for African American women because of the racist sentiment of the day, as well as white suffragists who did not favor suffrage for black women.Footnote 21

With a double consciousness, the African-American women had to fight for racial equality before gender equality in order to be part of the procession. The racist backlash as a reaction towards the 15th Amendment lingered on in the Women Suffrage Parade. Alice Paul did not like a mixed black-and-white women parade; she preferred an only white parade. She confided her fears to a sympathetic editor: “As far as I can see, we must have a white procession, or a Negro procession, or no procession at all”.Footnote 22 Other white suffragists could not either accept black women, side by side, as equals in their fight for women’s rights. The white suffragists’ feminism was vitiated by racism in a reversed double consciousness. Black women’s right to vote was not considered on an equal footing with white women’s; black women did not belong to the cause of justice championed by white women, who would not comprise their racial superiority for gender equality. Paul’s “negro-exclusion” deepened the split between race and gender. She insisted “that the disenfranchisement of black woman was a race, not sex, matter” (DuBois, 2020, p. 289), and was “uninterested in a racially inclusive women’s enfranchisement” (p. 289). The women’s suffrage movement thus drew again the color line: white vs. black. With white women as gender and black women as race, the dialog between the two was again stagnated. White sisters’ racism proved without failing that not all women were born equal in the early twentieth century America. Nonetheless, black suffragists marched on for both gender and racial equality. Bernard goes on to describe:

So, despite the fact that the right to vote was no less important to black women than it was to black men and white women, African American women were told to march at the back of the parade with a black procession.

Despite all of this, the 22 founders of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority marched. It was the only African American women’s organization to participate.Footnote 23

From the back of the parade—a visual testament to racism, black suffragists led by Mary Church Terrell marched on and sent a message of racial equality to the front, in the same struggle for gender equality. Delta Sigma Theta’s presence showed, although in a compromised way, gender unity could overweigh racism and defeat sexism, not otherwise as preferred by some of their white sisters. In spite of all, women, black and white, although separately, traveled across the country anyway to make their voices heard and showed what is to be an American woman to win gender equality. In action, the dialog between gender and race was carried out by Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. It heightened the awareness that they were “the only group in this country that has two such huge obstacles to surmount… sex and race”,Footnote 24 because of the color of their skin. A race-gender double consciousness in the line of Douglass and DuBois thus lived on.

In black women’s suffrage, Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954) emerged as a pivotal dialog participant on gender and race. Like Douglass and DuBois, Terrell is from a mixed ancestry. A daughter of former slaves, then becoming a well-to-do family, she has financial means, coupled with a well-educated background. In the suffragist circles of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA)—the integration of NWSA and AWSA, Terrell’s path crosses with Susan B. Anthony’s. They developed a “delightful, helpful friendship” (Adams and Keene, 2008, p. 98), which lasted until Anthony’s death in 1906. As discussed in Part 2, early suffragists had hoped to link gender equality and racial justice because of the abolitionist background of leaders like Stanton and Anthony. However, the 14th and the 15th Amendments created a split between race and gender, and forced a rift/competition between women’s rights and blacks’ rights. Towards the later years of Anthony’s life, her goal of women’s suffrage “was eclipsed by a near-universal racism in the United States” (Wheeler, 1995, p. 147). The racism within the NAWSA did not allow black women to create their own chapter with the organization. This propelled Terrell to found an independent organization in 1896 for black women to fight for both gender and race—the National Association of Colored Women. For the first time in history, African-American women found an institutional space for their voice and fight. Terrell served as its first national president. African-American women’s disenfranchisement was a main issue for the Association to tackle. As one of the few women of color in the (white) women’s suffrage circle, Terrell acted as de facto African-American women’s representative and an outside trailblazer in the white world. Well versed and trained, Terrell, like Douglass and DuBois, gave numerous speeches and did numerous writings. Among them, “The Progress of Colored Women”, “What it Means to be Colored in the Capital of the U.S.”, “In Union There is Strength”, and “A Colored Woman in a White World” caught public attention and got her invited back to the ANWSA. Thus, she set a renewed stage for a continued dialog between gender and race. In this dialog, she confessed her racial and cultural ambiguity, personal struggles as an African-American woman, and her way to link both worlds by using her white-passing “camouflaging” skills. In activism and writing, Terrell is a female version of Douglass’ intersection and DuBois’ double consciousness in gender and race.


The 14th and 15th Amendments granted African American men the right to vote but not women, and unwittingly created tension between gender and race. The 19th Amendment granted women’s voting right but with long deferred implementation for women of color. These landmark constitutional measures have indeed reshuffled the deck but have never erased the visceral and indestructible color line in our culture. The Civil War, Reconstruction, the large-scale capitalism and the unstoppable industrialism haven shaken our universe and shattered the ground of sexism and racism. In the present global age and during this particular moment of the Trump era and the Black Lives Matter movement, the color line finds an internalized and systemic space, and perpetuates the division from within and opens the wounds wrapped with the “Make America Great Again” banner. In a “browner” and “flatter” America in 2020, a compartmentalized view on the suffrage centennial and a one-sided approach to its iconic heroes and protagonists further dislink gender and race. As of now, the celebration of the Centennial of Women’s Suffrage bears relevance still largely to a specific group—the WASP and proud women. Then, should women of color, men of color, and all historically underrepresented groups be celebrating the Centennial with the same pride and the same sense of achievement? The split between gender and race remains an open-ended topic for dialog if 2020 promises to be a more integrated society and a more inclusive culture.

Pivoting on the double consciousness, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Mary Church Terrell have construed and sustained an intersected dialog between race and gender. If there is a contemporary carrier of the double consciousness, Simon Gikandi directs our attention to President Barack Obama. “In this regard, Obama is probably the quintessential subject of what W.E.B. Du Bois famously described as ‘double consciousness’” (Gikandi, 2012, p. 211). President Obama, our nation’s first African-American commander in chief also comes from a mixed racial background and multicultural upbringing. Unlike any other white president, he had to endure cultural distrust and racial humiliation targeted by the “Birthers”, because he is on the other side of the color line and thus his citizenship was questioned. “It is ironic that in an age that celebrates cosmopolitanism and rootlessness, Obama is vulnerable simply because he can claim to belong to different worlds, cultures, and traditions” (Gikandi, 2012, p. 213). Between the highest office in the land and his historically discriminated race, Obama has to rely on the double consciousness to negotiate his location and dispel his dislocation in the American narrative. Like Douglass, DuBois, and Terrell, Obama is an insider of both black and white culture circles and operates with a double mindset. Then, the first African American First Lady Michelle Obama faces a similar double consciousness in her dialog of gender and race to deal with vitriolic racism towards her persona and sexism towards her professional identity.

In our postmodern era, the double consciousness does not only pertain to politicians and presidents, but it also has been making inroads to the still-defining field of Cultural Studies. Kimberlé Crenshaw is one of the earliest theoreticians on race/gender intersectionality. She questioned the convenient binaries of black/white, male/female, and theorized the “multidimensionality of Black women’s experience” (Crenshaw, p. 139) in her 1989 paper, written for The University of Chicago Legal Forum, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics”. Her entire scholarship consistently argues about a modern-day double consciousness—that the experience of being a black woman cannot be understood in terms of being black and of being a woman considered independently, but must include the interactions between the two, as they “diverge from the standard” and “present some sort of hybrid claim” (p.145). Lawmakers are not quite equipped with such cultural sophistication and nuances yet, in Crenshaw’s view.

Back to the “browner” and “flatter” America in 2020, the position of African American women opens a broader question: does Women’s Suffrage Centennial belong to women of color in other racial groups? Is it another reminder of the double oppression of sexism and racism? Chinese-American women had never been considered citizens on equal terms with white women either; they just started their fight for racial justice with the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, when they were allowed to become citizens to enjoy the voting right. Women’s suffrage had been one of the remotest topics for their citizenship and constitutional rights. The Chinese exclusion act, implemented in 1882, spurred later the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 to effectively ban all immigrants from Asia. Japanese, Hindu and East Indians, Middle Easterners were deemed to be exotic and unfit groups for a WASP dominated nation and heresies for American culture. Today, do Asian-American women own Women Suffrage Centennial? Do they have a comparable victory to celebrate like WASP women? Then, Native American women are another group of ambiguity. The 15th Amendment, passed in 1870, granted all U.S. citizens the right to vote regardless of race, but Native Americans were prevented from participating in elections because the Constitution left it up to the states to decide who has the right to vote. Native American men and women had endured brutality, segregation, and discrimination not unlike African-Americans. After the passage of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, it would still take over 40 years for all 50 states to allow Native Americans to vote. Native American women had long been denied citizenship prior to 1920 when white women became equal citizens like their male counterparts. Women from these racial groups had been systematically denied the citizenship that grants the right to vote; they had to fight against racism first before they could fight against sexism. Mexican/Hispanic-American women had to go through a triple struggle in order to be franchised—racial, gender, and linguistic barriers. The linguistic barrier for Hispanic voters did resonate with the literacy test that African Americans and underprivileged white citizens had had to take in order to be eligible to vote. For women of color, being franchised was more than a basic civil right; it meant an acknowledgement of her gender and race as a full human being. The African-American men and women’s fight culminated in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which led to landmark legislation that transformed American voting rights. Together with African-Americans, other groups and individuals of color gradually gained their full citizenship by participating in elections. In the long journey of women’s suffrage, while working in tandem, African Americans set up a cultural model for other minority groups, men and women of color, to emulate in their struggles for racial and gender equality.

In a “browner” and “flatter” America in 2020, when racial and gender diversity collides with sexist and racist establishments, the “whiter” and “vertical” America still reckons with perpetual division and exclusion, so much so that white nationalism, nativism, and right-wing populism have reemerged in an attempt to pull the country back to the antebellum era, so that they can “make America great again”. It has become increasingly difficult to ignore the attempt to restore a WASP centered America, to “purify” American values, and to guard racial homogeneity. The attempt stokes fear, widens division, and fuels hatred and intolerance. George Floyd’s death is the latest of a long line of racial injustice. During Women’s Suffrage Centennial, a cultural war has ensued while a new awakening to the American ideal of equality is on the horizon. In a context like this, singing a centennial celebratory symphony highlights the heroic and extraordinary side of the story and makes it “standardized” and “perfect”. This approach runs the risk of creating a female version of Anglo-centrism and WASP-centrism within twenty-first century feminism. A one-sided celebration also reduces suffragists’ humanity to a single-dimensional abstraction and denies their flesh-and-blood complexities. At the intersection of gender and race, the double consciousness however gives fluid and relatable meanings to the words “women” and “American women”, and resonates with women across races and cultures. Nowadays in the nation’s political life, female mayors, Cabinet secretaries, members of Congress and governors—black, white, Latina, Asian, American Indian, and of all religions—are a fact of life. All of the changes and transformation occurred because of the brave women, black, brown and white, who have fought for their constitutional citizenship before and after the passage of the 19th Amendment. Let them be at the centennial table for a dialog.