BIPOC Suffragists

Madi Michaels

American women have been voting since 1920.

August 26, 1920 was a monumental day: the day the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was certified. While this was an important step in the right direction, it wasn’t as if some magical switch flipped overnight. Women continued to fight for the right to vote for many decades to come. More than 60 years elapsed before the final state (Mississippi) ratified the amendment. In addition, immigrants, indigenous women, and women of color were not explicitly included or protected in this amendment. Their fight for suffrage continued for decades. Activists in the BIPOC community are often overlooked in conversations about the women’s suffrage movement. They played crucial roles in this era and deserve to be honored for their diligent efforts. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, a Chinese immigrant, helped lead a women’s suffrage march in New York City in 1912 (at just 16 years old). While attending college, she wrote articles and gave speeches about the importance and value of extending the right to vote to women. After finishing her master’s degree, she became the first Chinese woman to earn a PhD in economics. When the 19th Amendment was certified, Chinese immigrants were not permitted to obtain U.S. citizenship, and they therefore could not vote. Mabel continued to be a voice for women’s rights. The New York Times regarded her as “the symbol of the new era, when all women will be free and unhampered.” While it is unknown if Mabel was able to vote before she passed away in 1966, it is certain that her efforts contributed towards many, many other women exercising their right to do so. Racism was a difficult roadblock for women’s suffrage. Many Black women created their own organizations after being weeded out of mainstream (read: white) groups. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper wasn’t afraid to call white suffragists out for their racism. She was one of the first African-American women to become a published author. She was a prominent orator and author, and she donated many proceeds from her books to the Underground Railroad. At the 1866 National Women’s Right Convention, she confronted the white women for their lack of solidarity for women of color. Frances is a strong example of someone who is brave enough to hold leaders accountable.
BIPOC Suffragists
Helen Hamilton Gardener, Carrie Chapman Catt and Maud Wood Park (from left to right) on the balcony of Suffrage House, the Washington headquarters of the National American Woman Suffrage Association

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Zitkala-Ša was born on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1876.

Zitkala-Ša was born on the Yankton Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1876. When she was eight years old, she went to Indiana with Quaker missionaries to attend school. While there, she learned to play the violin. She later became a music teacher and wrote “The Sun Dance Opera” (the first American Indian Opera). Zitkala-Ša was a prominent member of the Society of American Indians. This group fought for the preservation of indigenous traditions as well as Natives’ right to become U.S. citizens. In 1924, the federal Indian Citizenship Act was passed. It granted Native Americans citizenship but did not guarantee their right to vote. In 1926, Zitkala-Ša and her husband founded the National Council of American Indians. She worked as president, founder and speaker of this organization until her death twelve years later. The Council worked to unite tribes across the country to gain suffrage for all Native Americans. Zitkala-Ša worked diligently to promote and secure rights and improvements for Native American communities throughout the entire country. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Zitkala-Ša came from three different cultures. They led completely different lives, but they all valued and fought for the same cause. Despite their differences, they all knew that every American, regardless of sex or race, is entitled to exercise their right to vote. These three women represent many other overlooked suffragists in the BIPOC community. The United States would not be where it is today without the sacrifices of women like them. We surely owe them a great deal of respect, recognition, and gratitude.
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BIPOC Suffragists

Madi Michaels

Madi wrote for Edition 2, Forgotten Women of History.
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