Racism as a Political Tool in the Southern Suffrage Movement

In 1870, the 15th Amendment stated that “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.” This amendment gave many men of color the right to vote, though racist state and local governments almost immediately drafted new laws to disenfranchise them. 

Across the American South, racist politicians scrambled to restrict Black votes and maintain white supremacy. As soon as the federal government stopped enforcing the 15th Amendment after Reconstruction, Southern states successfully disenfranchised most Black men with Jim Crow laws and violent intimidation tactics. 

However, as the women’s suffrage movement regained popularity, Southern politicians feared not only that the proposed Susan B. Anthony Amendment would enfranchise Black women voters, but that it would re-enfranchise Black male voters as well. As Congress debated the Amendment in 1919, South Carolina Senator Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith argued that “the southern man who votes for the Susan B. Anthony Amendment votes to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment.” 

Senator Pat Harrison of Mississippi proposed limiting the franchise to white women, while others argued that the 19th Amendment would be useless because Southern states would inevitably void it, as they had with the 15th Amendment, by mandating poll taxes and literacy tests. Some Southern politicians went as far as calling for the repeal of the 15th Amendment as the women’s suffrage movement grew. 

Thus, white women decided that the only way to get the Susan B. Anthony Amendment through congress would be to focus on white women’s enfranchisement. Suffrage leaders acknowledged that Black women in the South would be disenfranchised by the same means as their husbands. While some accepted this fact as an unfortunate truth, others welcomed it. Carrie Chapman Catt famously noted that “If the South really wants White Supremacy, it will urge the enfranchisement of women.”

While most white women in the South fought for suffrage along the same lines as those in the North– gender equality and progressive reform legislation– one group of Southern suffragists used different methods. The Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference (SSWSC), headed by Kate Gordon of Louisiana, pressured state legislatures to enfranchise white women but rejected the notion of a federal amendment. Its motto was “Make the Southern States White.” SSWSC actively opposed Black enfranchisement and advertised state-level suffrage laws as a way to ensure a majority-white electorate in the South. 

Gordon was one of the most blatantly racist of all the suffrage leaders, evidenced by this claim:

“The question of white supremacy is one that will only be decided by giving the right of the ballot to the educated, intelligent white women of the South. Their vote will eliminate the question of the negro vote in politics, and it will be a glad, free day for the South when the ballot is placed in the hands of its intelligent, cultured, pure and noble womanhood.”

Despite these views, she held high status in NAWSA–the preeminent American suffrage organization– for several years until she dismissed it as a pawn of the Republican Party and created SSWSC. Though a controversial figure even then, Gordon’s influence demonstrates, at best, a tolerance for racism in the suffrage movement; at worst, it demonstrates an endorsement of white supremacy.

The upcoming UMD Libraries’ exhibition Get Out the Vote: Disenfranchisement and Suffrage in America explores the long and turbulent history of voting rights expansion in the United States, featuring items that illustrate the struggles and successes in the battle for equitable and full suffrage over the past 250 years. Learn more by exploring the exhibition


Post by Rigby Philips
 History, specializing in women’s history and the history of sexuality (2021)

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