Panel spotlights "Stanford and the Fight for Women's Suffrage"

photo of suffragists

On December 1st, 2020, hundreds of people tuned in from around the world for  “Stanford and the Fight for Women's Suffrage,” a virtual panel hosted by the Stanford Historical Society, and co-sponsored by American Studies, to commemorate, deconstruct, and build upon the suffrage movement on the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Over the course of the event, which was moderated by Stanford Professor Estelle Freedman, panelists Nancy Tate, Kemi A. Oyewole, and Joan Marie Johnson threaded through the complicated layers of women’s suffrage activism to illuminate the century-old campaign’s resonances with the present day.

Tate, a co-chair of the 2020 Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative and former executive director of the League of Women Voters, began the panel by guiding viewers through the 70-year path to the passage of the 19th amendment. She traced the movement’s growth from its inception at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, to the 900 local, state, and national campaigns waged against their respective legislatures, to marches and relentless picketing in Washington D.C. Emphasizing that the broad movement was comprised of a large network of local organizing efforts, Tate shared an image of a hand-painted poster advertising a meeting of Stanford’s own chapter of the College Equal Suffrage League to be held in Roble in 1910. While the suffragists’ story was certainly one of perseverance—meeting failure, “they just dusted themselves off and kept on working”—Tate also highlighted the movement’s limitations, including its implicit and explicit exclusion of Black and immigrant women.

Picking up this thread, Oyewole, a doctoral student and Institute of Education Sciences Fellow at Stanford’s School of Education, turned the focus to Black women’s suffrage activism. Black suffragists were rejected in the movement’s most critical demonstrations, even relegated to the back of the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s 1913 march down Pennsylvania Avenue. Nevertheless, Black suffragists were not deterred from their activism. Like Tate, Oyewole highlighted regional efforts by suffrage activists, which also included promoting voter registration, turnout, and the election of Black individuals to local government. Throughout their activism, Oyewole explained, Black suffragist organizations strove to embody their common motto, “lifting as we climb.” This refrain translated to activism focused not only on voting, but also on meeting the basic needs of the community; the suffragists “saw the vote as a means to liberation, certainly not an end.”  Tracing a through-line between the Black suffragists’ multifaceted approach and a latter-day activism by Black women at Stanford, Oyewole described student efforts in the 1960s and 70s to organize Black students, work with the local community, and successfully establish the curriculum which would become the African and African American Studies program. Oyewole concluded with a reminder that while issues persist at Stanford, including the ongoing struggle to departmentalize the AAAS program, so too does powerful student activism.

Finally, Johnson—a co-founder of the Newberry Seminar on Women and Gender and author of the book Funding Feminism: Monied Women, Philanthropy, and the Women’s Movement, 1870-1967—rounded out the event with a focus on the role of wealth in the suffrage movement.  Highlighting the stories of several key figures, Johnson carefully unpacked wealthy women’s complicated relationship with the movement.  She explained that suffragist leaders recognized wealthy women’s potential to advance their cause and thus courted their involvement, finding success among many women, including Jane Stanford, who were frustrated with the restrictions they faced in spite of their status. However, such women were also known to exercise outsized influence in movement decision-making by promising or withholding large donations. Ultimately, Johnson concluded, “their stories challenge us as feminists today to avoid inequality in a movement for equality.”

After a round of Q&A allowing audience members to dig further into details of the scholars’ work, Professor Freedman ended the evening with an invitation for each panelist to share a lesson that burgeoning activists could draw from the suffragists’ organizing efforts. In a time of great uncertainty, challenge, and potential, the panelists’ parting calls for courage and persistence, multifaceted community activism and solidarity must certainly be heard. 

 - Sol Martinez, American Studies '22