Problematizing “Bad Romance: Women’s Suffrage”

Earlier today I posted this video at the end of a post on women and the vote:

YouTube Preview Image

I am reposting it because in searching it on youtube and embedding it in the post I was suddenly confronted with something that I had not noticed before. Something I should have noticed before. Something I shouldn’t have had to only realize after my eyes strayed to a youtube comment.

The video has no women of color. 

While some white suffragettes believed in racial equality and at least verbally spoke in support of black women’s suffrage and their desire to include black women in the movement, others denied women of color a place at the table, either explicitly or implicitly, and the majority were racist. In fact, one tactic common during the last decades of the nineteenth century was to use blatant race-baiting as an argument for giving (white) women the vote. W. E. B. Du Bois himself called the women’s suffrage movement out for being less-than-friendly toward African American women—and for being willing to throw African American women under the bus when campaigning in the South.

But don’t think women of color were absent from the struggle for suffrage. They weren’t. Ida B. Wells immediately comes to mind, and she was one of many. Women of color formed and joined suffrage groups and marched at suffrage rallies. As is so often the case today, women of color were doing double duty. Lynching and the disenfranchisement of black men (who technically were guaranteed the vote after the Civil War) were pressing concerns. This sort of dynamic continues today, as many feminists of color want attention given to the racial targeting of black men by the criminal justice system or the problem of poverty among people of color in general, men as well as women, issues that often seem less pressing to white feminists.

I hope that women of color were left out of “Bad Romance: Women’s Suffrage” on accident. It’s possible of course that women of color were excluded for racist reasons. It’s also possible that they were left out because the producer didn’t want to deal with the way race can problematize the victorious narrative presented. But as problematic as these options are, women of color being left out on accident is problematic as well. White feminists, including myself, are quite often operating with blind spots—but given all of the opportunities we have to educate ourselves on this issue and to listen, invoking blind spots is no excuse. We can do better—we must do better. And the fact that I didn’t notice the absence of women of color from this video until my eye lighted upon a random comment on youtube reflects that I, too, can do better.

I want to finish with some images from the era of the women’s suffrage campaign. The first image is of Ida B. Wells:

Sources for the information presented here: herehereherehereherehere, and here.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • John Kruger

    Many thanks to Angela for pointing that out. My privileged white guy eyes failed to notice how monochromatic the video was as well. This is the kind of better perspective I hope to find when going through comments of blogs that can help me educate myself.

    Some quick googling revealed that a lot of women of color fought hard to be part of the suffrage movement, but were largely left out in the cold by the Jim Crow voter suppression efforts that targeted them by race. All the images in my head were about white women, and it is pretty sad that I had to go looking to find a more inclusive narrative. Lady Gaga seems like a fairly inclusive person in general, so hopefully she just fell prey to the same blind spot I did. It is a real shame if nobody close to that project had the perspective to call her out like the last blog post comments here did.

    • j.lup

      ‘White eye privilege’ is very much a product of habituation, and thus can be easily treated with better representation in media of all kinds. When I was much younger, I would notice the absence of men in an all-female panel on TV, but not really notice when there was an absence of women in a panel made up only of men. Over the past few years especially I get most of my American news from MSNBC programs, and I love the panel discussion shows, and it’s gotten to the point for me where when I do see a panel of all white people or all men, I really notice it and it seems very odd to me. Same goes for other TV programming.

    • Ráichéal Silverkiss

      For the record, Lady Gaga didn’t make the above video. She made the *original* song, not the modified one used in the video.

      GaGa herself is pretty darn inclusive, at least in the eyes of this closeted white lesbian. ;)

      • John Kruger

        I guess I just assumed she had something to do with it, the song being so close to the original.

        I stand corrected.

  • Ibis3

    I just watched the “behind the scenes” video. Ida Wells and Frederick Douglass were mentioned by name. The makers didn’t say anything about why there were no black women represented in the actual video.

  • AlisonCummins

    “There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about colored women, and if colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, you see the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before. So I’m for keeping the thing going while things are stirring; because if we wait till it is still, it will take a great while to get it going again.”

    (Sojourner Truth speaking at an 1867 meeting of the American Equal Rights Association. Black men would be granted the right to vote by the Fifteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution in 1870; the Nineteenth Amendment, granting the same right to women, would not take effect until fifty years later.)


  • JJ

    I highly recommend the PBS documentary “Not for Ourselves Alone.” Because the women’s rights movement was so intimately intertwined with the abolitionist movement, there was a lot of really deep racial issues being dealt with, and some of that came out of women thinking their former black male allies had turned their back on the women’s issues once they received the right to vote:

    “It was only in the aftermath of the Civil War, when Republican politicians introduced the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution extending citizenship and suffrage to former slave men, that suffrage gained the central place in the battle for women’s rights. Then former abolitionist allies, including those who had long advocated women’s rights, divided over the movement’s priorities. Many abolitionists initially advocated universal suffrage, for both African Americans and women. When that was made impossible by the insertion of the word male in the 14th and 15th amendments, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, with support from African Americans like Sojourner Truth, campaigned against any amendment that would deny voting rights to women. Among their opponents were former allies like Lucy Stone, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Wendell Phillips, and Frederick Douglass, who argued that it was “the Negro’s hour” and that women’s suffrage would have to wait.

    As a result of this division, Stanton and Anthony founded the National Woman Suffrage Association, a women-only organization, in 1869 to promote a federal amendment guaranteeing woman suffrage. Stone and Blackwell formed a rival organization—the American Woman Suffrage Association—that included men as well as women and advocated a state-by-state campaign for female enfranchisement. Not until 1890 would the divisions created by the battle over black men’s enfranchisement heal, allowing suffragists and former abolitionist allies to work together again in the National American Women’s Suffrage Association.”

  • stacey

    Yeah, there is really non excuse for no WOC in that video.

    Before I watched it, I figured it was just a You Tube video made by an individual, and in that case I could see it. Not everyone has diversity in their friends, and even those that do might not have one willing to be in such a video. But this was professionally made, so its kinda blind to leave them all out.

    Although the way it exists is a perfect critique of modern feminism and why WOC are unsure whether white feminists are allies, or not. I have heard WOC say that they too often feel they have to pick from unity with their race or with their gender, and their gender is not always so welcoming.

    We white feminists MUST do better. We cannot continue to be totally blind to intersectionality and multiple forms of oppression.

  • Ibis3

    The video’s writer does say in the “behind the scenes” video that, given the 100 years or so of the suffragist movement, they decided to make the focus the National Women’s Party and Alice Paul. I don’t know if the NWP was integrated, but that might have been the reason for the decision. It may have been seen as anachronistic and therefore insulting tokenism or “whitewashing” history to put women of colour in the representation of those particular events when they were not allowed or welcome at the time in fact. (<–Mere speculation offering another possible explanation).

    • Alix

      At the same time, though, it feels like there ought to have been a way to represent WOC suffragists, y’know? Hell, even cameos in the background would’ve helped to at least remind people they existed. They already get forgotten enough.

    • luckyducky

      Not sure about NWP itself but Iron Jawed Angels (HBO… not exactly a documentary, does include an obligatory and ahistorical romance between Paul and a political cartoonist and numerous “composite characters”) does include a series of scenes dealing with the issue of including WOC in the movement — Paul was told the Southern contingent wouldn’t march with the NWP if WOC were allowed to and a WOC rep challenged Paul on it. IIRC, Paul declined to admit the WOC and they joined the march anyway, jumping in from the parade route, which was — in the film — what sparked the attack on the marchers by unsympathetic observers. Even so, the participation of working class Eastern European women was featured far more than the existance of WOC.

      • J-Rex

        It kind of bothered me that they showed Alice Paul telling black women not to march, but it showed her smiling when they joined in. It seems like they were trying to make sure we didn’t think she was *really* a racist when she probably was.
        Hmm…That was very racist of her when she told black women not to march.
        Oh never mind! She’s smiling about the black women marching! She’s not racist! We don’t have to think about all that race stuff anymore!

      • luckyducky

        I don’t know, I really don’t. Paul was a Quaker and Quakers have long been progressive in terms equality, generally speaking. On the one hand, they were key in starting and maintaining the abolition movement. On there other hand, there was some resistance to integration of freed slaved in the context of abolition.

        I thought Paul was portrayed as having a singular focus willing to sacrifice pretty much everything for that one goal. Because Paul was shown as ready to subsume everything to gaining suffrage, I read that sequence as Paul being eminently pragmatic/political, revealing little other than that her views on race, one way or the other, are secondary to suffrage.

        In her words, movements need people, marches need bodies. The inclusion of WOC would bring fewer women out to march than the number of white women who would choose not to march (and alienate more people than it would bring into the movement*). So, it was win-win when they joined mid-march, the white women were already there and committed and the WOC got to march — thus maximizing the number of women publicly participating.

        *I think there is a good argument to make that the Democratic Party falls into this… POC, particularly African Americans, are marginalized in party politics so as to not scare off Blue Dog Democrats but where are they going to go? WOC represented a liability — they could scare off people who supported suffrage for white women and attract additional ire from Jim Crow-enforcers — and didn’t bring anything to the table in terms of political clout. But those WOC did have other avenues either thanks to the combination of sex and race so there is no risk in treating them poorly.

      • luckyducky

        *In other words

      • luckyducky

        *But those WOC didn’t have other avenues either thanks to the combination of sex and race so there is no risk in treating them poorly.

        Jeez, maybe I should sign in so I could edit.

      • J-Rex

        I can see that. I hope that’s what they were going for. It just bothers me how often the faults of our American heroes of glossed over because how could we idolize someone who also did or said horrible things? But when we ignore the racism of our heroes to keep them heroes, we also erase how widespread racism was and we assume that anyone who is “good” in a lot of ways couldn’t possibly be racist, including ourselves.

      • Feminerd

        We watched that in college. It was mostly for the ‘female gaze’ aspect of it- the political cartoonist was sexualized (lingering camera shots of his butt, etc) and shown in mainly nurturing/caretaking roles, while the women were shown to be agents of action and change. And in the end, the romance didn’t go anywhere.

        I believe the warning the professor gave was that the movie was historical-ish; it got the broad outlines right, but the details were changed to fit the story HBO wanted to tell.

  • Octavo

    The history of white feminism is depressing. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony seem like really heroic figures until you read about how they reacted to the efforts to pass the 15th amendment. There’s just no excuse for it.

    • Gillianren

      No excuse? How about being thrown under the bus by their male allies, who were perfectly okay with the word “man” as a limitation on who could vote. That was the issue–that it limited the vote to men. Deliberately.

      • Octavo

        That’s no excuse for all the racist stuff they said, such as “The old anti slavery school says women must stand back and wait until
        the negroes shall be recognized. But we say, if you will not give the
        whole loaf of suffrage to the entire people, give it to the most
        intelligent first. ”
        ~ Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in The Revolution, February, 1869

      • Conuly

        Bad behavior from one party doesn’t excuse bad behavior from the other.

      • Gillianren

        Their struggle against the Fifteenth Amendment was not because they didn’t want black men to have the vote. It was because they did not want the Amendment passed with the word “man” in it. Yes, some of what they said on the subject was racist, and there were two reasons for that. First is that they were speaking and writing in 1869, and that means that, no, their attitudes on race weren’t what we think of as appropriate today.

        The second is that they were speaking and writing in 1869, and sometimes, they used rhetoric with which they didn’t entirely agree because it furthered their cause. It’s unfortunate, but it happens. However, it assuredly happened in black men trying to get their cause advanced over white women, too. And heaven help the poor black women, who weren’t considered as important by either group.

        The history of suffrage is fascinating and complicated, but it does require a certain amount of delving in order to understand it completely. “Those women were racist” doesn’t really fit the historical facts as an explanation for their actions.

      • Alix

        they used rhetoric with which they didn’t entirely agree because it furthered their cause.

        That … in some ways, that’s so much worse than honest racism. “Sorry, but we need to throw you under the bus so we get what we want” goes a bit beyond “unfortunate.”

    • Leigha7

      There were many women actively involved in the abolitionist movement. In a way, it kicked off the push for women’s suffrage. The reality is, society at the time WAS racist. That doesn’t make it okay, but it’s reality. If you’ve been raised since the day you were born to see white people as superior to blacks, and suddenly black men have the right to vote but you, a white woman, do not, how do you think you’d react? Even if you strongly believe that slavery is wrong, that black people are people, and that they should have rights, the fact that they got the right to vote first (at least on paper) must have felt like a slap in the face to many white women, because it suggested that they were inferior to the people they’d been taught were barely human, whether they believed that or not (I can only imagine how it must’ve felt for black women, having to prove that they had worth twice, both for their race and their gender).

      Again, I’m not saying that line of thinking is okay, but it isn’t surprising given the environment in which they lived. The very idea that black people were human beings with rights was radical at the time, and they were still being taught that black people were naturally less intelligent well into the 20th century (it’s stated outright in textbooks from the era), so while many of the suffragists WERE racist, they weren’t any more racist than the majority of the people around them.

      Racism being the norm doesn’t make it okay or excusable, but I do think the standards of the time need to be taken into account, especially for those who were actually significantly more tolerant than most people at that time (which doesn’t necessarily apply here, but speaking generally).

      As a side note, I know very little about Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B Anthony beyond what I was taught in school (which, now that I think of it, was not much). Most of my knowledge of the overlap between the abolitionist movement and women’s suffrage comes from the research I did in college while writing a paper about Lydia Maria Child (very little of which is on Wikipedia). That said, she was primarily an abolitionist, having gotten too disillusioned from that fight to participate overly much in the fight for women’s rights.

  • Rosa

    Bravo! Ida B Wells is one of the great heroines of American history, and the schism between the suffrage activists who felt they needed to continue to support antiracist work and those who didn’t has had a huge effect on feminist work ever since.

    It wasn’t just racism, or only racism – some white suffrage leaders with quite racist views argued for unity for strategic or justice reasons, and some with quite progressive views for their time argued for using racism as a pragmatic tool.

    • Alix

      …One of the things I dabble in, though I’m nowhere near polished enough to publish this stuff, is writing historical counterfactuals.

      This whole post gives me the burning urge to write an alt-U.S. history where the suffragist split over racism never happened – for the right reason, because the white suffragists actually stood with their black sisters.

      I know nowhere near enough to actually write this, but hot damn, researching for it would be fun.

      (Also? If anyone has any favorite books/resources on any of this, or actually knows of historical fiction on the subject, PLEASE SHARE.)

      • Rosa

        not quite this subject but have you read any of Marge Piercy’s historical fiction? She has a kind of choppy but still very good book about the battles over abortion, birth control (people made condoms to sell, at home in their tenement kitchens!), Comstock, and “free love” (sex outside marraige) in late-19th-century New York.

      • Alix

        No, I haven’t! Thank you for the recommendation – I’ll have to track that down.

  • Rilian Sharp

    I assumed it was a group of friends making it. although people only having friends the same race as themselves seems indicative of a problem too.
    BTW, what all counts as “color”? I’ve heard people say Jewish and Irish are “not white”.

    • Saraquill

      From what I can tell, it depends on marginalization. Irish and Jewish people were once heavily discriminated against in the US, making them “non white.”

  • Saraquill

    I figured that the monochromatic casting was deliberate. The way that the masked dancers are all wearing white while in a white room gives that impression.

  • Anon

    it’s by acciedent, not “on accident”.