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Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All BY Martha S. Jones. New York: Basic Books. 352 pages. $20.
The cover of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All

New York women won the vote just as the Nineteenth Amendment campaign was gaining momentum in Washington. To push their cause over the top, the state’s suffragists met in Saratoga, New York, in fall 1917. With a reputation for spring waters that promoted health, the upstate village had been a fabled meeting place since the mid-nineteenth century, one popular with generations of New York’s political leaders. In 1917, the New York City Women’s Suffrage Party delegates might have taken time to drink in the salutary effects of the spas and they drew breath from the same air breathed by the state’s most prominent powerbrokers.

The suffragists had every reason to think that they were on the verge of victory when they convened in Saratoga. After an extended campaign to win the vote for New York’s women, Anne K. Lewis, who had presided over the Harlem delegation, boasted that “every distinguished speaker from the governor of the State down who was asked to address the delegates accepted . . . men who realize that woman suffrage is one of the vital issues of the day to be given serious consideration.” Members of Harlem’s Colored Woman’s Suffrage Club were among those who made the journey to Saratoga in the early days of September. Although they were united under the auspices of their club, the women were not of one mind. The club was moving toward an affiliation with the Women’s Suffrage Party and not everyone was comfortable with the change. Despite that unease, they packed their bags, boarded northbound trains, and took seats among the hundreds of women committed to pushing New York forward on women’s voting rights.

There was nothing new about Black Americans feeling uneasy when it came to the politics of suffrage. In New York it was, by September 1917, a familiar story. In 1821, as the state opened the polls to all white men, it had imposed a new property qualification upon Black men—$250, a formidable threshold. In 1848 at Seneca Falls, Frederick Douglass had supported Elizabeth Cady Stanton, even as most Black men in their home state of New York remained disenfranchised. Black women in New York, like Sojourner Truth, confronted a mix of racism and sexism that limited their political power. More recently, in 1913, Harriet Tubman, who spent the latter years of her life in Auburn, New York, acted as a bridge between the suffrage struggle of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She stumped for women’s right to vote in New York just prior to her death.

The days they spent in Saratoga exposed differences among New York’s Black suffragists, although press coverage depicted them as a “fine group.” Upon their return to the city, a special meeting was called. The women needed to work through a stinging accusation: Mary Sharperson Young charged some among Saratoga’s white delegates of having snubbed Black attendees. Back in the city, Annie Lewis called upon Young to speak publicly about her experience. When she declined, the meeting went on without her. Lewis primed her membership by refuting Young’s claim: “The colored delegates received the same treatment as the white delegates, having been given delegate badges, were seated on the floor of the convention with the New York City representation, had been allowed a vote on all questions that came up, and were cordially treated in private conversations.” Helen Christian echoed Lewis; she “had not seen the slightest indication on the part of anyone to snub the colored women.”

Young’s accusation went beyond her reception at the Saratoga meeting—it raised an important question, one that went to the heart of Black women’s power within the suffrage movement. White women were attempting to set the terms by which Black women organized themselves. Once the meeting dispensed with Young’s accusation, a Mrs. Goode took the floor to complain “about the colored suffragists of Harlem and their affiliations, advancing the idea that colored women ought to form an independent organization.” Black suffragists disagreed over how closely they should work with their white counterparts. They were uncertain about whether their distinct interests could be served in an umbrella organization that reduced their power to a minority vote. Some Black suffragists wondered what would become of their special concerns about what it meant to vote at the crossroads of racism and sexism.

Anne Wright Watkins, the Manhattan chair of the Woman Suffrage Party, arrived at the Harlem meeting expecting to quell Black women’s concerns, but her remarks only reinforced the fears expressed by women like Young and Goode. Watkins offered a thorny olive branch to Black suffragists. They were welcome in the movement, but only if they conformed “to the rules and regulations of the party.” She chastised Lewis and her members: “You would have been given some such representation [in the Woman Suffrage Party] long ago had you not kept to the club idea.” It was a rough bargain: Watkins and her party demanded that Black women abandon the National Association of Colored Women’s club approach to political organizing in favor of a structure “organized along the lines of the political parties.” In Watkins’s view, “the system we used to have of being a union of clubs has gone out,” and with this Watkins urged the Black women seated before her, “in the same cordial spirit we feel for you,” to reorganize their work to fit a new model that rested upon assembly district leaders and election district captains. Clubs might persist for “sociability and convenience,” Watkins explained, but within the Woman Suffrage Party they had no standing and would exert no influence. It was a steep price for Black women to pay.

Excerpted from Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All by Martha S. Jones. Copyright © 2020 by the author. Available from Basic Books.