Black Women’s Activism and Suffrage in Oklahoma Territory

A topic often discussed in recent time on progressive, feminist, anti-racist sites is how  the default term “women” refers to white women, while the work, struggle, and issues of women of color are not mentioned, erased, ignored.

One example of this is the discussion in the US regarding this year’s equal pay day. The pay gap number of women earning 77 cents to a man’s dollar is basically true. However, as among others Imani Gandy pointed out in Monday’s episode of TWIB Prime, the gap for women of color is significantly wider – 64 cents for Black women, 55 cents for Latina women.

Another example is the claim that “women” voted Obama in, voted for reproductive rights, for Democrats. This conflation of the broad term erases that it was primarily the votes of women of color who came out for Obama, whereas a large part of white women voted for the GOP.

After listening to the episode, I coincidentally read a terrific essay by Diane Sainsbury, focusing on enfranchisement in Oklahoma territory (then state) at the end of the 19th century. Sainsbury takes a “multicultural” – arguably intersectional – look at the struggle of Native Americans, people of African descent, and women, and the process of suffrage. The paper is quite relevant to today’s issue of  “women” vs. women of color and the vote. In Oklahoma territory, Native American and Black women were very active in the suffrage movement and could vote in school elections. Similar to the 2008 and 2012 U.S. elections, Black women’s votes played a big role, and incited fear in men benefiting from the rule of patriarchal white supremacy :

“African-American women in Oklahoma had long before formed a suffrage association. They also appeared to have voted in school elections more than white women, primarily to ensure black representation on school boards in mixed communities. African-American women’s political activism was repeatedly used by white supremacists as an argument against enfranchising all women.” (p. 173)

It’s striking how many historic structural racisms and sexisms are still perceptible to this day.

In passing, Sainsbury shows how “white” – “race” – is not a fixed category: In Oklahoma’s constitution, the term “colored” referred to “persons of African descent,” everyone else was defined as “white.” Native Americans, in this context, were considered white, which had a number of implications for the solidarity and allegiance between these two subordinated groups.

Diane Sainsbury “US women’s suffrage through a multicultural lens: intersecting struggles of recognition.” In: Hobson, Barbara M. Recognition Struggles and Social Movements : Contested Identities, Agency and Power. Cambridge University Press, 2003 (161-187)


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