Excerpted From: Tamar Anna Alexanian, Black Women & Women's Suffrage: Understanding the Perception of the Nineteenth Amendment Through the Pages of the Chicago Defender, 29 Michigan Journal of Gender & Law 63 (2022) (204 Footnotes) (Full Document)

TamarAnnaAlexanianSusan B. Anthony once famously stated, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work for or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” The racism of many early suffragettes has been well documented and discussed; Black suffragettes and other suffragettes of color were, at best, relegated to the margins of the movement and, at worst, scorned and turned away by white suffragettes. Moreover, part of white suffragettes' strategy for passage of the Nineteenth Amendment was based on racist appeals to white men; white suffragettes claimed that passage of the Nineteenth Amendment would help keep white voters in the majority and, ultimately, would help uphold white supremacy. Against this backdrop, Black women much of the Black community more generally--still supported and fought for the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Recent legal and historical scholars have been dedicated to studying the often-overlooked and instrumental role that Black women played in the Suffrage Movement and Black enfranchisement. This Article seeks to look at the coverage by Black--largely male--journalists at the Chicago Defender in the ten years preceding and proceeding the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. In doing so, this Article hopes to better understand the ways that some Black community members understood and viewed the Nineteenth Amendment and how that perception changed. Although in hindsight we understand that the Nineteenth Amendment was not the liberating feat for Black women that it was for white women, what does Black journalistic coverage in the period immediately before and after its passage tell us about the perception of the Nineteenth Amendment and Black women's enfranchisement at the time?

The methodology of this research differs from those used in other historical research regarding Black women's suffrage. Many historians have focused on understanding Black women's suffrage through studying individual women's stories: In her groundbreaking and well-received book Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All, legal historian Martha Jones says that “by recounting the lives of some of the many Black women who engaged in political fights, the picture of a whole comes into view.” These histories rely on a large variety of historical documents left behind by, and about, individual suffragists and events to gain an understanding of “the picture of a whole.” This Article takes a different approach: it looks deeply at only one set of primary documents-- articles printed in the Chicago Defender--to better understand the changes and patterns in community perception revealed through journalistic coverage. This is not counter to the important work of these other historians, who have helped recover the overlooked stories of suffragists of color. Instead, this Article seeks to further our understanding of these stories through a different medium.

In Part I, this Article considers the historical legal framework surrounding Black women's suffrage, especially looking at the intersection of the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Nineteenth Amendments and the subsequent case law. This history sets forth the legal landscape in which Black women's suffrage efforts took place and, of particular interest to this Article, in which the Chicago Defender was being published.

In Part II, this article discusses the Chicago Defender's coverage, readers, and influence. Appreciating the Defender's carefully curated sense of self is important to understanding both its writers and its readers. Eventually boasting itself to be “The Mouthpiece of 14 Million People,” the Defender cultivated a reputation for publishing hard-hitting articles and having a “racially high-minded purpose.” The Black community, like any other community, is not a monolith, and the patterns and understandings that this Article extrapolates from the pages of the Chicago Defender cannot speak for all Black people, even when the newspaper itself claims to be the mouthpiece for all Black Americans. Still, the Chicago Defender was the most-read Black newspaper across the country, and its historical significance is undebated. Therefore, the articles published by the Defender necessarily expose well-received ideas circulating amongst Black communities during the time; at the very least, published articles indicate that people were thinking or talking about particular topics in particular ways while lack of publication implies, if not outright indicates, the opposite. The Defender's massive readership and longevity could only exist if the newspaper was believed to be reputable and if the messages on its pages were valued by its readers. Thus, this historical contextualization reveals the scope and magnitude of the assertions that come from the articles discussed in Part III.

In Part III, this Article analyzes articles published by the Chicago Defender between 1910 and 1930. In particular, this Article tracks the newspaper's shifting use of mockery, coverage of Black women's organizing efforts, and discussion of women's suffrage during this time. While the pages of the Defender between 1910 and 1914 often used mockery or humor to discuss women's suffrage and suffragettes, this derisive tone largely vanished from the Defender's pages by 1914, replaced by praise for women's suffrage and suffragettes and, eventually, by criticism for those who did not believe in women's suffrage. The articles reveal a similar trend regarding women's organizing efforts. Although the articles published beginning in 1910 announce debates regarding the issue of women's suffrage, by the mid-1910s, women's suffrage was rarely “debated,” replaced instead by articles and notices about lectures and citizenship classes to prepare the female citizenry for the vote. By 1919, coverage of these meetings sharply declined, replaced almost completely with concern over and political activism against Jim Crow laws. Taken together, these shifts reveal the changing atmosphere and sentiments of Black men, who made up a large part of the journalists and readers of the Defender. While much of the current research regarding Black women's suffrage concerns Black women's perceptions and oft-forgotten work, this Article discusses Black men's changing perception of women's suffrage. It reveals Black men's early sexism, then support, and finally silence as the fight against Jim Crow absorbed the Black male citizenry and consciousness.

Further, the Article's use of this 20-year period--between 1910 and 1930--is important. The Defender went through a significant shift in 1910, when the newspaper became a “clearly focused organ for racial advancement.” And between 1910 and 1920, the Defender defined and ushered in a new era of Black journalism. In attempting to extrapolate shared perceptions through articles in the Defender, those articles published after the newspaper gained its reputation for racial advancement are most relevant to this research. They also allow for more accurate period comparisons, since the newspaper maintained this reputation throughout the studied period. In doing this sort of analysis, this Article hopes to add to the current research so we better understand how the Black community thought about the Nineteenth Amendment and Black women's suffrage at that time.

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Recent scholarship has started recognizing the important role that Black women played in the women's rights movement, often relying on a variety of primary sources to gain a better understanding of Black suffragettes and organizing during that time. Considering the stories published by the Chicago Defender between 1910 and 1930 offers additional, and thus far largely unexamined, insight and perspective into the thoughts and beliefs of the greater Black community generally--and Black men in particular--during this time. While Defender reporters in the early 1910s relied on sexist tropes to mock women's suffrage and suffragettes, the tone of these articles turned towards acceptance and then outright promotion long before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. A similar trend appeared on the newspaper's pages regarding women's organizing efforts across the country. And by 1919, coverage and discussion of women's suffrage was scarcely found in the Defender, replaced almost completely with concern for and political activism surrounding Jim Crow laws. Tellingly, when the Nineteenth Amendment passed in 1920, the Defender did not even report on it. Though these findings cannot speak for all Black Americans during this period, the paper's reputation and influence indicate that the ideas found on its pages were highly valued by Black Americans. While much of the current research regarding Black women's suffrage concerns Black women's activist efforts, this Article discusses Black men's changing perception of women's suffrage through journalistic coverage. Words and stories have power; listening to the words and stories on the pages of the Chicago Defender--and thinking about all of the Black communities, large and small, that understood the newspaper to be theirs--sheds light on the way that these readers thought about and understood the Nineteenth Amendment.

Skadden Fellow, Children's Law Center of California.