This is part of an ongoing Washington Informer series about the Women’s Suffrage Movement and an initiative that includes Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes that will use the lens of history, the fabric of art and culture, and the venue of the public square to shine a light into dark places, equipping all with a compass to chart the way forward. The initiative lives in the institutional home of the Washington Informer Charities.
“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation …” — The opening words of the 19th Amendment
This year marks 100 years since the addition of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed women the right to vote.
The measure passed both chambers of Congress in June 1919 and one year later, in 1920, following approval by three-fourths of state legislatures, the amendment was ratified into the Constitution.
“This centennial anniversary is an important marker in the long and unbroken trajectory for power. While it’s the 100th anniversary of passage of the 19th Amendment, it is not the anniversary of the suffrage movement,” said Gwen McKinney, president and founder of McKinney & Associates Public Relations, for which she’s responsible for translating the vision of “public relations with a conscience” into a sustained, bold and tested suite of communications services and activities.
McKinney is also the founder and lead collaborator for Suffrage.Race.Power, a campaigned conceived by Black women, including Washington Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes, which invites multiracial engagement with all who embrace the transformative leadership of Black women, alignment with women of color, partnership with progressive white women and others of goodwill who collectively uphold the power of gender equality in the quest for true democracy.
The group’s goal is to enrich the suffrage conversation by facing the transgressions of the past to build an inclusive future based on truth and reconciliation.
“In fact, the fight for suffrage began 400 years ago when the first Africans arrived on these shores,” McKinney said. “Those who resisted, rebelled and fought to have a voice in who governed their body, their labor and their choices were, in fact, the pioneers of suffrage.”
With that, the anniversary is a milestone. While it was largely viewed as a triumph by White women who pushed for voting rights, the fact is that Black people — Black women in particular — played a major role in the adoption of the 19th Amendment.
“This anniversary is important because we really must know our history, where we have been, to help chart where we still need to go,” McKinney said.
During the struggle for universal suffrage, Black women were a driving force. They participated and even organized political meetings and conventions — many of which took place at their churches where strategies were mapped in the quest for voting rights.
In the 1800s, Black women worked at newspapers, schools and churches and used those platforms to promote their ideas.
“In a nutshell, those three words [suffrage, race and power] are the essence of what separates those who are oppressed from those who are mightily fighting for and achieving self-determination,” McKinney said. “More than democracy, the three words advance a declaration of what all people should and must demand. It is not possible for democracy to thrive in a system where large segments of the population are repressed and denied based on structural racism. True power is the act of determining your time, space and determination.”
To observe the milestone anniversary, McKinney said she’d like Black people — particularly Black women — to reassert their political power and to “throw down the gauntlet in the electoral space.”
“While there’s been a lot of lip service given to the might of black women voters, it is not necessarily reflected in our status,” McKinney said.
Black women are often lumped into an amorphous category of “women of color,” which doesn’t accurately or politically speak to who they are and their voting strength, she said.
“I am hoping as we mark the centennial of the 19th Amendment that there will be a better appreciation of the role of Black women,” McKinney said.
“It would also move our quest for true racial equity forward if well-meaning white women would step up and acknowledge their long and conflicted history between pushing for women’s rights and preserving — even tacitly — white supremacy,” she said.