The Suffrage Centennial: How, Why, and on What Terms Should We Mark this Moment?

The Suffrage Centennial: How, Why, and on What Terms Should We Mark this Moment?

Peitho Volume 22 Issue 2 Winter 2020

Author(s): Jessica Enoch

Jessica Enoch is Professor of English and Director of the Academic Writing Program at the University of Maryland. Her recent publications include Domestic Occupations: Spatial Rhetorics and Women’s Work; Mestiza Rhetorics: An Anthology of Mexicana Activism in the Spanish- Language Press, 1887-1922 (co-edited with Cristina Ramírez), Women at Work: Rhetorics of Gender and Labor (co-edited with David Gold), and Retellings: Opportunities for Feminist Research in Rhetoric and Composition Studies (co-edited with Jordynn Jack). Her next book project, “Remembering Suffrage: Feminist Memory and Activism at the Centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment” examines centennial memorializations and contributes to the conversation generated by this Peitho cluster.

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The year 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment—the amendment that pronounced 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 sex.” This anniversary is at once an opportunity and a concern for those interested in intersectional feminist politics and coalition building. Indeed, there is an opportunity because this anniversary moment could galvanize and embolden present-day feminists by remembering a moment of collective action and political triumph. And, of course, such memorializing could offer real dividends in terms of electoral politics and voter activism as the centennial also happens to fall on a critically important election year. There is, however, a very real danger. The suffrage movement and feminist politics from that time on, in fact, have been riddled with exclusivity and racism. For example, black women were not invited to the first Women’s Rights convention in Seneca Falls, and they were routinely segregated from suffrage activism and events. Furthermore, and even more disheartening, white suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Carrie Chapman Catt courted the Southern vote by overtly expressing racist remarks, with Catt infamously stating that “White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage.” These are all examples—and there are more—of how, as Angela Davis has written, “the woman suffrage campaign accepted the fatal embrace of white supremacy.”

Given the stakes and complexity of this moment, public figures from Brent Staples to Ann Gordon have called attention to this issue, urging the American public to think critically about what a centennial celebration should look like and do. For example, in her New York Times opinion piece titled “How to Celebrate a Complicated Win for Women,” Gordon asks, “Can we celebrate a transformation that broke men’s monopoly on political power while we simultaneously face up to ways that the ugliest aspects of American history influenced how citizens achieved this victory and how they behaved afterward?”

The conversation the scholars here contribute to helps to address this question and calls Peitho readers to consider their own responses. They push us to consider a range of ways to mark this moment as the authors think about how, why, and on what terms we should mark this moment. Nancy Small starts the discussion by directing us away from traditional, masculinist memorialization and towards what she calls “feminist co-memoration.” Building on the work of such scholars as Jacqueline Jones Royster, Gesa Kirsch, Aja Martinez, and Cheryl Glenn, Small sets out that feminist co-memoration work is defined by multivocality, active engagement, counterstory, and critical imagination—strategies that challenge us to reimagine how we engage the centennial. Amber Buck places the women’s arguments for Nineteenth Amendment within the larger discussion of voting rights. Through personal narrative and critical reflection, Buck links (and complicates) the victory in 1920 both by viewing it alongside the Bloody Sunday March in Selma and Voting Rights Act of 1965 and by considering how concerns regarding voting rights remain significant today. As Buck argues, the “limits” of the suffragists’ “tactics and achievements made the activism of the marchers in Selma necessary,” and she concludes her essay by arguing for intersectional, feminist activism that focuses on “true ballot access” in the 2020 elections.

Rachel Daugherty uses the exigence of the centennial to explore feminist archival practices by analyzing the curation of the Sister March archives—the archives that collected materials from the January 21, 2017 Women’s March and the 653 Sister Marches that happened worldwide that day. Daugherty examines the construction of these archives, paying special attention to how the archive both invites collaboration and discourages critique through its submission guidelines. Daugherty argues that as the centennial unfolds and we (re-)consider our history-making activities, we must understand how our “submission and selection criteria for archival materials frame memories of feminist activism.” Reva Sias and Katie Bramlett each use their contributions to highlight suffrage histories and memory that might go unnoticed during a moment when figures like Susan B. Anthony and Alice Paul likely take center stage. Reva Sias presents Peitho readers with the activism of Mary Eliza Church Terrell, arguing that Terrell’s work for “women’s suffrage, racial equality, and human freedoms…should demand ourattention.” Examining Terrell’s rich rhetorical repertoire, Sias makes clear that “Terrell’s presence in the centennial celebration is an acknowledgment and reminder of the racism, prejudice, and biased treatment that marked the women’s suffrage movement.” Calling readers to remember the racism of this moment, Sias also makes clear that in spite of these barriers, African American women like Terrell “helped to deliver the Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution.” In the final contribution, Katie Bramlett invites readers to consider voting rights activism within and beyond the U.S. borders as she examines the memorial exhibit “The Washington Home of the Phillipine Suffrage Movement.” Bramlett sees this exhibit as one that centers gendered experience within the history of Filipino voting rights—a history marked by “inconsistent and prejudicial policies perpetuated by the U.S. government concerning American colonial subjects.” Through her analysis, Bramlett argues that the exhibit foregrounds the multiple ways Filipina activists were marginalized and the many fronts on which they were fighting during and after the 1920 U.S. victory. In so doing, the exhibit, Bramlett asserts, “challenges viewers to think broadly about connections between suffrage and other forms of women’s activism within the Filipina community.” Bramlett thus ask readers to memorialize this centennial moment by taking on a transnational perspective.

The scholars in this conversation have inspired me to think capaciously, critically, and creatively about what it means to mark the 1920 passing of the Nineteenth Amendment. I hope they are inspirational as well to Peitho readers, prompting us all to consider how this moment could catalyze feminist intersectional memorial practice and present-day activism throughout and beyond 2020.