by Min Straussman
Women in the United States fought long and hard for the right to vote, also known as suffrage. It was a critical step in gaining more rights for women in general—having a say in democracy gave women the opportunity to advocate for policies that give them greater independence, like owning property or opening bank accounts. The women who fought for suffrage were known as suffragists or, for the more militant faction, suffragettes (a term that was originally meant to be insulting but was embraced by some).
The history of women’s suffrage often focuses on the contributions of white women, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. However, there were many Black, Latina, Asian, and Native American women who fought just as hard for the right to vote in the United States. While the 19th Amendment guaranteed the right to vote for women in 1920, barriers such as lack of recognition of Native rights, poll taxes, and taxation without representation, as in Puerto Rico and Washington, DC, were and are persistent barriers to universal suffrage. This Women’s History Month, we want to focus on quotes from women of color whose voices continue to inspire the ongoing fight for suffrage and women’s rights to this day.
I want women to have their rights. In the courts women have no right, no voice; nobody speaks for them. I wish woman to have her voice there among the pettifoggers.
—Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree), Address to the First Annual Meeting of the American Equal Rights Association, 1867
The word pettifogger has two meanings, both of which are suggested here. It literally means “a lawyer of inferior status who conducts unimportant cases, especially one who is unscrupulous or resorts to trickery.” However, it is also used figuratively to mean “any person who quibbles or fusses over details.”
The tendency of the present age, with its restlessness, religious upheavals, failures, blunders, and crimes, is toward broader freedom, an increase of knowledge, the emancipation of thought, and a recognition of the brotherhood of man; in this movement woman, as the companion of man, must be a sharer.
—Frances E.W. Harper, “Woman’s Political Future,” 1893
One of the key civil rights and women’s rights issues is that of emancipation, meaning “freedom from restraint, influence, bondage, or slavery.” Here, Black suffragist Frances E.W. Harper is referencing the emancipation of ideas that would have previously been considered taboo.
The crowning glory of American citizenship is that it may be shared equally by people of every nationality, complexion and sex …
—Mary Ann Shadd Cary, to the House Judiciary Committee on the Rights of Women to Vote, 1871
The phrase crowning glory means “the greatest or most noble aspect of something.” The phrase has religious implications, as glory comes from the Latin gloria, which is often used to reference the greatness of God. A crowning glory is the (here, metaphorical) halo or crown that represents holiness or quality.
America entered upon her career of freedom and prosperity with the declaration that “all men are born free and equal.” Her prosperity has advanced in proportion as she has preserved to her citizens this birthright of freedom and equality.
—Zitkála-Šá (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin), “Side by Side,” Indiana state oratorical competition, 1896
The word proportion has a variety of meanings. Here, Native American activist Zitkála-Šá uses it in the sense of “relative size or extent.” In other words, America’s prosperity (wealth) increases as its commitment to freedom and equality increases.
Did you ever know that the Indian women were among the first suffragists, and that they exercised the right of recall? The trouble in this Indian question which I meet again and again is that it is not the Indian who needs to be educated so constantly up to the white man, but that the white man needs to be educated to the Indian.
—Marie Bottineau Baldwin, interview, The Washington Times, 1914
When talking about elections, recall means “to withdraw the office from.” Native American suffragist Marie Bottineau Baldwin is referencing the historical rights and power of Native women, which inspired the first white suffragists.
The idea that women should ever wish to have or be anything more than their primitive mothers appears at first thought to be indeed tragic enough to be comic; but if we sit down and really think it over, throwing aside all sentimentalism, we find that it is nothing more than a wider application of our ideas of justice and equality.
—Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, “The Meaning of Woman Suffrage,” 1914
Mabel Ping-Hua Lee was an Asian-American suffragist who had no patience for sentimentalism, a “predominance of sentiment, or emotion, over reason.” She felt there was no reason why women should not have the right to vote.
We do not want the men to get the idea that suffrage is a new fad with us … We are working all together, and we want the legislature to know this.
—Wilhelmine Kekelaokalaninui Widemann Dowsett, quoted in Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 1919
A fad is “a temporary fashion, notion, manner of conduct, etc., especially one followed enthusiastically by a group.” The word comes from the obsolete verb fad, which means “to busy oneself with trifles.” Hawaiian suffragist Wilhelmine Dowsett wanted to impress upon the men that her group was not going to give up the fight for the right to vote.
The present way of life for women may be a beautiful education in patience and self-sacrifice. But it is not fair that women should be asked to sacrifice all the time, to bury themselves and their individualities … Yet in order to have the power to right this and other wrongs which exist for women, we must gain the vote.
—Komaku Kimura (木村 駒子), interview in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1918
Dancer Komaku Kimura advocated for women’s suffrage in the United States and her birth nation of Japan. She felt that the societal pressure for women to self-sacrifice, or the “sacrifice of one’s interests, desires, etc., as for duty or the good of another” stood in the way of their gaining the right to vote.
Consumed by their supposed superiority, conceited in their ignorance, men believe they can achieve the goal of human emancipation without the help of women.
—Blanca de Moncaleano, Pluma Roja, trans. Clara Lomas, est. 1913–15
Colombian-American anarchist journalist Blanca de Moncaleano advocated for women’s rights in her newspaper Pluma Roja. She described men as conceited, meaning “having an excessively favorable opinion of one’s abilities, appearance, etc.”
Working women recognize their rights, proudly raise their chins, and face the struggle. The times of humiliation have passed … They are no longer men’s servants but their equals, their partners.
—Astrea (likely pseudonym of Jovita Idár), “Debemos trabajar,” La Crónica, 1911, trans. Clara Lomas
Jovita Idár was a Latina journalist who felt women should no longer face humiliation, “the act or instance of losing pride, respect, or self-dignity.”
It is just today that the other half, after generations of silent submission, has awakened with the one hope to gain permission to participate in the performance of a duty which is the true essence of that spirit for which our forefathers fought and bled—the spirit of America—a democracy.
—María Guadalupe Evangelina de López Lowther, “Equal Suffrage of Most Vital Moment,” Los Angeles Herald, 1911
María de López was a Latina journalist who advocated for women’s suffrage in California. She describes the true essence, meaning “the inward nature, true substance, or constitution of anything,” of America as “democracy.”
Peaceful revolutions are slow but sure. It takes time to leaven a great unwieldy mass like this nation with the leavening ideas of justice and liberty, but the evolution is all the more certain in its results because it is so slow.
—Bright Eyes (Susette La Flesche Tibbles)
Native American activist Bright Eyes uses a baking metaphor to describe the process of change. Leaven is a verb meaning “to add leaven (yeast) to (dough or batter) and cause to rise.” It can also mean “to permeate with an altering or transforming element.”
I also know it was people like Andy Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney that gave their lives in the state of Mississippi so that all of us would have a better chance. And when they died there they didn’t just die for me, but they died for you because your freedom is shackled in chains to mine. And until I am free, you are not free either.
—Fannie Lou Hamer, speech delivered at University of Wisconsin–Madison, January 1971
Fannie Lou Hamer was a Black civil rights activist who continued the fight for universal suffrage long after the 15th and 19th Amendments were passed. She turns the metaphor of slavery on its head here, describing the freedom of all Americans as shackled, or “to fasten or couple with a shackle.” A shackle is a locked ring.
Lifting as we climb, onward and upward they go, struggling and striving, and hoping that the buds and blossoms of our desires will burst forth into glorious fruition ‘ere long.
—Mary Church Terrell, “The Progress of Colored Women,” 1898
In this quote from Black suffragist Mary Church Terrell, she uses a metaphor of growing, flowering plants to describe the struggle for equality. Fruition literally means “state of bearing fruit,” but it is used figuratively to mean “attainment of anything desired; realization; accomplishment.”
You cannot be neutral. You must either join with us who believe in the bright future or be destroyed by those who would return us to the dark past.
National Council of Negro Women leader Daisy Lampkin here is arguing that people need to take sides in the fight for equality. Neutral is an adjective with a variety of meanings, including “not aligned with or supporting any side or position in a controversy.”
The power that coerces, that controls without consent, is unjust. Such is the status of most American women.
—Adella Hunt Logan, “Woman Suffrage,” The Colored American magazine, v.8-9, 1905
The verb coerce means “to compel by force, intimidation, or authority, especially without regard for individual desire or volition,” from Latin coercēre “to hold in, restrain.” Black suffragist Adella Hunt Logan is saying women are intimidated into not having rights.
When the ballot is put into the hands of the American woman the world is going to get a correct estimate of the Negro woman. It will find her a tower of strength of which poets have never sung, orators have never spoken, and scholars have never written.
—Nannie Helen Burroughs, “Black Women and Reform,” 1915
An orator is “a public speaker, especially one of great eloquence.” Black activist Nannie Burroughs is arguing that giving Black women the right to vote will give her the opportunity to speak more freely.
The white woman could at least plead for her own emancipation; the black women doubly enslaved, could but suffer and struggle and be silent.
—Anna J. Cooper, address to World Congress of Representative Women, 1893, quoted in Ain’t I A Woman (bell hooks), 1990
Plead is a verb with various meanings, including “to use arguments or persuasions, as with a person, for or against something.” Black activist and journalist Anna J. Cooper is saying Black women were discouraged from even making the case for their rights.
In this dawn of enlightenment … women are doing nothing but taking advantage of an opportunity by an age which is new born and very much alive.
—Agueda Aponte, “No desmayemos,” La Mujer del Siglo XX, 1918, quoted in María de Fátima Barceló-Miller’s essay in Puerto Rican Women’s History: New Perspectives, 1998
Puerto Rican suffragist Agueda Aponte described the movement for women’s rights as a new enlightenment, or “the act of giving intellectual or spiritual light to.” It is an expression of hope for change.
If you are feeling inspired by these women’s words and want to learn more about the fight for women’s rights and feminism, check out our article “From Suffrage to Sisterhood” here. You can also learn more about Women’s History Month in our article here.
Min Straussman is a freelance writer and educator from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A frequent contributor to Dictionary.com and Thesaurus.com, his work has also appeared in Hey Alma, beestung, and other publications. He lives in Paris. For more by Min, read: Terms For Understanding The Diversity Of Jewish American Life | A Language Of Pride: Understand The Terms Around LGBTQ Identity |7 Meaningful Ways To Express Your Gratitude