Thick Women and the Thin Nineteenth Amendment

AuthorMartha S. Jones
PositionSociety of Black Alumni Presidential Professor, Professor of History and the SNF Agora Institute at The Johns Hopkins University
Thick Women and the Thin Nineteenth Amendment
The Nineteenth Amendment’s centennial year2020got started long before
the calendar date arrived. The staging of laser light shows, the design of floats, the
organization of speeches and symposia, and the unveiling of monuments in that
year required efforts that began long before, all in anticipation of marking
100 years of a Constitution that barred states from using sexas a voting rights
criteria. Along with commemoration plans came debates about how African
Americans would figure in the stories we told.
By 2019, New York City had already slated Central Park to become home to a
pathbreaking memorial, one that would honor the state’s earliest leaders in the
movement for women’s votes. The trouble was, as I saw it, that the plans included
only two figures, albeit noteworthy ones: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B.
Anthony. It was an ominous prospect, representing the entirety of the movement
for women’s votes through two middle-class white women activists, each of
whom had been party to anti-Black racism. The statue’s private sponsors pro-
moted their work as breaking a glass ceiling: It would be the first representation
of realwomen in the city’s premiere park. They envisioned it as a tribute that
girls in New York would look up to. I suspected that not all Black and Brown
girls would see it that way.
See Martha S. Jones, How New York’s New Monument Whitewashes the Women’s Rights
Movement, WASH. POST (Mar. 22, 2019),
new-yorks-new-monument-whitewashes-womens-rights-movement/ [].
A public comment period allowed space for those who were critical and con-
cerned to weigh in. For my part, I recommended that the monument committee
consider adding a third New Yorker, someone who, like Stanton and Anthony,
had also played a pivotal role in the early movement for women’s votes:
* Martha S. Jones is the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor, Professor of History and
the SNF Agora Institute at The Johns Hopkins University. This article is adapted from the 2021 Seventh
Annual Salmon P. Chase Distinguished Lecture, co-sponsored by the Supreme Court Historical Society
and the Georgetown Center for the Constitution. The author thanks the lecture’s sponsors and
commentators at the 2021 Maurice and Muriel Fulton Lectureship in Legal History at the University of
Chicago Law School, the University of Pennsylvania Carey School of Law and History Department
Legal History Workshop, the Minnesota Law Review 202021 Symposium Glass Ceilings, Glass
Walls: Intersections in Legal Gender Equality and Voting Rights One Hundred Years After the
Nineteenth Amendment,and Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African & African American
Research. This lecture is derived from the author ’s 2020 book Vanguard: How Black Women Broke
Barriers, Won the Vote and Insisted on Equality for All (Basic Books, 2020). © 2022, Martha S. Jones.
Sojourner Truth. Born enslaved in upstate New York at the end of the eighteenth
century, Truth took to the national women’s rights stage before Stanton or
But she was more than a symbolic first. Truth challenged a women’s
rights agenda driven by concerns about sexism only. For her, and for the millions
of Black women for whom she spoke, any movement to win political power for
American women would have to combat racism as well. Her perspective, echoed
many times over by Black women suffragists, plagued the campaign for women’s
votes through ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 and beyond.
In the end, its sponsors revised New York’s monument to women’s activism,
and today visitors to Central Park will find a trio: Stanton, Anthony, and Truth
depicted together, a reminder of the many routes that American women took to
political rights. That not one of the three lived to witness ratification of the
Nineteenth Amendment, in and of itself, tells part of the story. Winning access to
the ballot box for women was neither straightforward nor guaranteed in the
United States. The contrast of their life storiesStanton as the daughter of an
elite lawyer who herself fretted over managing servants in her household, and
Truth as a woman once bound by law to serve otherssets the stage for a multi-
faceted understanding of who among American women aspired to political power
and what they aimed to accomplish with it.
See Alisha Haridasani Gupta, For Three Suffragists, a Monument Well Past Due, N.Y. TIMES
(Aug. 19, 2020),
park.html [].
There is also an enduring awkwardness in encountering Truth’s figure there in
Central Park along with Stanton and Anthony. It hints at how Black American
women have long had a vexed relationship to the Constitution’s Nineteenth
Amendment. I do not mean to suggest that Truth would not have regarded that
accomplishment to be a milestone. The Nineteenth Amendment permitted Black
women to clear one hurdle on their way to the ballot box. Still, she would have
understood, as did so many Black women in 1920, that an Amendment which
barred sex as a voting qualification would fail to get her to the polls. This perspec-
tive, one in which the Nineteenth Amendment was regarded as partial, inad-
equate, and even a failure for many Black women, endured through the twentieth
In the 1960s, voting rights organizer Fannie Lou Hamer evidenced this tension
as one among thousands of Black Americans working to secure the passage of a
federal statute that would guarantee them political power, what became the 1965
Voting Rights Act. On the road to that victory, Hamer was an organizer and
dynamic public speaker, and she often shared her personal story. She was a one-
time sharecropper who recalled how, when she challenged disenfranchisement in
her home state of Mississippi, brutality followed. In June 1963, for example,
Hamer was maimed by police who intercepted her and her small team of
3. See id. at 7783.

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