One uncomfortable reality of history is how much even seismic events are shaped by the personalities of their principal actors. The vanities, prejudices, nostalgias, misguided affections and petty rivalries of historical figures can at times play a greater role in the unfolding of events than we would like to admit, and there are moments when reckoning with the human failings of long-dead individuals can cast a pall on even their most noble achievements. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the ongoing, palpable discomfort of feminists over how to how to mark the centennial of the 19th amendment, the constitutional triumph that removed sex-based restrictions on voting rights.
The discomfort arises in part because of a long overdue popular examination of the partial, fragmented and compromised nature of the amendment. Thanks to the efforts of Black historians and public intellectuals, there is a growing acknowledgement that the 19th amendment did not, per se, grant women the right to vote, so much as it removed the remaining laws that said women could not vote because they were women. But like the 15th amendment, which granted Black men the franchise in theory but often not in practice, the 19th amendment left intact restrictions on women’s enfranchisement that used other pretexts to keep women from voting: women’s race, their literacy, their ancestors’ enfranchisement or lack thereof, and their wealth were left intact as reasons why racists, sexists and others hostile to women’s political participation could justify prohibiting them from voting.
There is also the uncomfortable reality that many of the historical figures who most famously fought for women’s suffrage held values, blind spots and hatreds that are morally repugnant. Though many of the prominent white women who were most vocal in their support of women’s suffrage began their political careers as abolitionists, their recognition of the evils of slavery rarely translated into an understanding of Black people as their own moral and intellectual equals.