The National Portrait Gallery will celebrate the centennial of U.S. women winning the right to vote with the exhibit “Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence.” This exhibit makes history not for its commemoration of suffrage, but for the recognition it finally gives to African-American women such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Julia A. Foote, Ida B. Wells Barnett, Mary Church Terrell and Alice Dunbar-Nelson.
It is about time.
Commemorations of suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Carrie Chapman Catt have begun to address the racism embedded within their political campaigns. White suffrage organizations allied with white Southerners to pass the 19th Amendment, ultimately distancing themselves from black support, even trying to segregate black women into special sections of suffrage parades.
But black suffragists such as Dunbar-Nelson persisted, reaching out to a constituency that national white suffrage organizations had often ignored or even pushed away. In the process, they framed black women’s activism as intersectional rather than pulled by divided loyalties, and showed how black women’s electoral participation could benefit black and working-class communities.
Along with being an activist, Dunbar-Nelson was an accomplished short-story writer, poet, political organizer with the NAACP and public speaker. As the Pennsylvania suffrage campaign heated up in 1915, she took time from her position as an English teacher at all-black Howard High School in Wilmington, Del., to deliver speeches to suffrage clubs, black men’s clubs, black women’s clubs and public rallies attended by men and women of all races. She was strategic, using the name of her late ex-husband, the respected and revered poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, to gain attention from a media that rarely covered the activities of black suffragists.
It worked. Although the resolution did not succeed in Pennsylvania, the areas where she concentrated her efforts supported it.
She persisted despite resistance from all corners. Black anti-suffragists saw a racial threat in women’s suffrage. Some worried that women’s suffrage would magnify existing inequalities and “increase the number of our civil and political oppressors,” since only white women would really gain the vote in Jim Crow localities. Southern white anti-suffragists, on the other hand, ignored black disenfranchisement and declared that if black women had the vote, they would muscle in and outvote demure white ladies, who would not leave home to vote.
Dunbar-Nelson and other black suffragists rebutted such arguments to advocate suffrage among black communities. Speaking to black audiences, Dunbar-Nelson argued that black women’s votes would add to the strength of the black community. She explained to a black church in Harrisburg: “When the rights of the race are an issue, the women will stand with the men on the matter and by doubling our vote we will then be able to show to the oppressor that we are a factor that should not be despised.” She told men at Pittsburgh’s black elite Loendi Club that “the race with double political power could be potent to protect itself.”
African-Americans developed distinctive arguments for suffrage. When anti-suffragists said that women should not leave their home duties to vote, African-American suffragists such as Harper pointed out that black women already worked outside the home and could balance public and private duties.
Dunbar-Nelson took Harper’s argument further to explain repeatedly that black women’s work outside the home benefited the black community as a whole. She argued to a black audience: “Our women have literally built up our race in domestic service, which keeps them out of their home all day long; that means that the majority of our women are out of their homes every day helping the men to accumulate wealth. If we are good enough to help in all this, it looks as if we are good enough to cast a vote.” When anti-suffragists claimed that politics was too “dirty” for women, Dunbar-Nelson responded, “Politics is the only dirt we don’t get into at present.”
Dunbar-Nelson used the experiences of black women in the workforce as an asset to handle new social issues government ought to engage with. She argued that voters could address the needs of black families coming north in the Great Migration, who lived in overcrowded ghetto housing. In one talk to a black women’s group, she “denounced in emphatic terms the fact that colored families in many cities of this country were living in congested sections and that there was not ample room in their homes for the family.” Suffrage was first about the vote, and then about what African-American women could change with the vote.
And so, when women finally won the vote, Dunbar-Nelson was more than ready for it. She organized black women to cast their votes effectively and not be limited by party loyalty. Her activism was costly. In 1920, when she returned from a “social justice pilgrimage” to Ohio with thousands of women to talk to Republican presidential candidate Warren G. Harding, she learned that her principal and Wilmington’s Democratic Board of Education had fired her for attending.
But this did not deter her activism. When it came to party loyalty, she practiced what she preached. She first worked arduously for Republicans, then the more progressive party. Yet, when white Republican politicians failed to support an anti-lynching measure, she switched her party affiliation to Democratic, and worked for Al Smith in 1928.
Despite her costly and consequential work, Dunbar-Nelson is missing from the historical narrative because black women were written out of news stories and historical accounts about suffrage. But today, in the National Portrait Gallery, Alice Dunbar-Nelson is represented by a glamorous studio portrait used during her 1915 campaign.
The inclusion of Dunbar-Nelson in the National Portrait Gallery is an important step in our commemoration of suffrage history. The show highlights the importance of organizations such as black churches, black educational institutions and the African-American women’s club movement in women’s rights struggles. The visual riches of the exhibit include photographs and engravings of familiar figures such as Stanton, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony and Frances Willard.
The official program of the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington, which had attempted to keep black women from marching, is displayed alongside the work and portraits of educator Mary McLeod Bethune, freedom fighter Harriet Tubman and abolitionist lecturer Sarah Parker Remond — all women’s rights activists who fought for suffrage and better lives for African-Americans.
By portraying women’s suffrage in an extended historical context — with a photo of 1960s civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer and a presentation of Native American and Puerto Rican suffrage issues as well — the exhibit recasts the suffrage struggle beyond the familiar narrative with its 1920 endpoint. As a result, it insists we see the multifaceted strands that wove together to ensure that all women can vote, and how extended that struggle has been.
Ellen Gruber Garvey is a professor of English at New Jersey City University and author of “Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance.” She wrote this article for the Washington Post.