Friday, May 22, 2015

Check It Out

African American Women and the Vote, 1837-1965 
(available in print or e-book formats)

Edited by Ann D. Gordon with Bettye Collier-Thomas and others
University of Massachusetts Press, 1997
Call number: JK 1924 A47 1997
Available for check out for four weeks with your SWC photo ID.
To read the e-book, follow the on-screen instructions.

Nine of the ten essays in this book were papers presented at a 1987 conference, Afro-American Women and the Vote: From Abolitionism to the Voting Rights Act. The people behind the conference were trying to create the first “comprehensive political history of African American women” so they sent out a call for studies which would “lay the groundwork for such a history when presented in chronological order.”

The primary accomplishments of this book are bringing this almost unknown history to light and showing how much the history of suffrage (especially women’s suffrage and political participation) changes when it is limited by gender and race. In fact, even the beginning date of the women’s suffrage movement changes from 1848 to 1837 when the subject is limited to African American women’s suffrage! The turning points in these histories also differ.

One divergence I found intriguing was the way white and black women perceived the right to vote. Elsa Barkley Brown discusses this in her paper, To Catch the Vision of Freedom: Reconstructing Southern Black Women’s Political History, 1865-1880. She states that “… African American women and men understood the vote [the black males’ right to vote] as a collective, not an individual, possession and, furthermore, the African American women, unable to cast a separate vote, viewed African American men's vote as equally theirs.” p.82 This was evidenced by the women carrying weapons as they accompanied their husbands to the polls, abstaining from sex with men who voted Democratic, and even leaving their Democratic husbands! Some women went as far as forming groups “to enforce these sanctions collectively”.

I also enjoyed the chapter which was the “...first full-length, analytical essay to examine the life of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper as an abolitionist and feminist reformer.” Although she was the most important female leader in both of these movements and was a major influence on public opinion most people have no idea of how influential she was. Harper was in the very unique position of being an African American woman who had a national reputation as a lecturer and was someone people from various races and all walks of life could relate to. She was even able to become a leader in a major white reform organization. While her career piqued my interest so, too, did its end: the author states Harper’s loss of her press following might have been partially caused by the “Tuskegee Machine”.

Another surprise in this book was the essay discussing how (from 1867-1890) African American women used the courts to fight for their rights and privileges. Despite “…the time commitment, the confusing legal jargon, and the risk of failure… they hired lawyers, presented evidence, called witnesses, and subpoenaed documents”! p. 101 While I was aware of some of their court cases I never thought of some of the women doing everything themselves. One reviewer stated that, “Students and scholars will develop a contagious desire to learn more about African American female liberation after they read this text.” That certainly held true for me.

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