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Okay, Rochester, Let’s Talk About Susan B. and White Feminism
February 15th marked what would have been the 200th birthday of Susan B. Anthony. We were reminded in many ways including a prominent Google Doodle, which was the landing page for millions of internet users throughout that day:
The Google Doodle page also featured a snippet of her Rochester history: “On November 5th, 1872, Anthony walked into a voting station in Rochester, New York and cast a vote in the presidential election, defying the law at the time, which denied women the right to vote.” As history reveals, Anthony went on to be fined and ultimately arrested after refusing to pay the “unjust penalty.” Her subsequent battles with the judge in court were documented and enshrined as exemplary acts of protest. Six years later, the Susan B. Anthony Amendment was introduced, but wasn’t ratified until the eventual 19th Amendment in 1920, which came fourteen years after she passed away in her home on Madison Street. Her final resting place at the Mount Hope Cemetery became another local landmark that brings visitors to town. All of this taking place right here in Rochester. Surely Rochesterians can smile knowing we’re on the map for such historic moments, right? Right?!
Not so fast. Our city’s history suggests that we continue to shine a light on Anthony for her 200th birthday, which is smack dab in the middle of Black History Month, but can we at least talk about her impact with more detail? I get that my life in Rochester will continue to feature her face painted on buildings and bridges, “failure is impossible” quotes everywhere, the “I voted” stickers covering her gravestone, etc., but I find myself frustrated with each year that we ignore the glaring fact that Anthony didn’t get the vote for all women. Worse, she created many rifts in the movement in partnership with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and their lack of support for the 15th Amendment, which would grant Black men the right to vote ahead of women. The disagreements resulted in powerful voices like Frances E. W. Harper to highlight how she could not rely on white women to prioritize the concerns of their nonwhite sisters. Fortunately, for the sake of historical integrity, other historians surfaced the ugly and harmful moments so that we can absorb the reality of the movement aside from the hero-worshiping versions we’re often told. One of my favorite pieces to share is the 2018 NYTime’s Opinion piece, “How the Suffrage Movement Betrayed Black Women,” which holds no punches and presents a clear case study of white feminism in action.
I know what comes next: “…but Kristen, they were women of their time! They were doing their best.” I hear this line from people, usually white women, whenever I bring up this topic. I’ll never understand how that’s even close to a defense because white feminism is alive and well today. I see it in companies trying to market solutions “for everyone,” in the women’s advocacy groups that feature all-white board members, and in the nuanced threads of social media where white women ask, “Why does everything have to be about race? Can’t we all just get along?” One of my favorite examples is the reaction to an iconic photo of Angela Peoples, taken by Kevin Banatte, at the Women’s March in Washington:
The perfectly-captured image of pink pussy hats in selfie mode with Angela’s glaring reminder hit me like a sack of bricks the first time I saw it. The photo went viral and I, merely a day after my walk through Minnesota’s march, felt my high-energy buzz shift to “ugh, this is a white feminist move, isn’t it?!” I quickly got my answer once I dove into the responses. So much aggression and defensiveness despite the statistically unanimous voting patterns of Black women in 2016.
I carried that tension in my chest for a while and poked at my conditioning as a white woman in this country because I knew I needed to do more. I had to step it up and catch these patterns sooner to spare the Angelas of the world from sitting in that noise with a hefty message to carry. Thankfully, 540WMain featured classes and workshops on intersectional feminism, which I attended and absorbed another example of the impact of these feminist movements. We went around the room, introduced ourselves, and shared our thoughts on feminism. At one point, a woman told the room how she does not identify as a feminist because “feminism always leaves [Black women] behind.” I remember being taken aback at first mainly because I, naively, thought attendees were there in support of feminism in some capacity. She continued to explain her reasoning and I felt my head nodding along with all of the clear examples of movements that ultimately benefited white women. She was absolutely right. Not only was she right, but she was explaining these failures in modern-day Rochester, NY, the home and final resting place of Susan B. Anthony. Sit with that one for a minute. Thinking back, the scenario mimicked the observations made by Frances E. W. Harper when she cautioned people from trusting the movement led by Anthony and Stanton. This is precisely why I roll my eyes at the “women of their time” line; we’re still struggling to include all women in our movements a century after the 19th Amendment passed. Brutal cycle.
So what can we do? This brings me back to Rochester and our unique obligation to amplify the realities in these movements. We have so much history and documentation in our city in the form of Susan B.’s house, the Susan B. Anthony Center at the University of Rochester, the written works of Susan B. and Stanton preserved in special collections, and all the accompanying information gathered about these women over the past century. Through a little bit of homework and a breakup with hero-worshiping behaviors, we can shift the dialogue away from the false notion of “all women” and help end (or at least chip away at) the cycle of white feminism. Everything we need is here. We can’t change the past, but we can certainly change how we talk about it. So, Rochester, let’s actually talk about it!
About Kristen Seversky
Kristen Seversky is an easily-excited, high-energy, and deeply-curious Software Developer and writer focused on poking and prodding status quo, particularly in tech. Follow her content on twitter and her blog www.k-studies.com
About 29 Days of Little Known Facts About (Black) American History
29 Days of Little Known Facts About (Black) American History is an annual blog campaign curated by 540WMain that has a mission to promote and share little known facts about Black Americans everyday throughout the month of February. Now in its 3rd year the campaign highlights the life and work of past and present day Black Americans that are overlooked or underrepresented in our conversations about American history.
540WMain will celebrate its 4 year anniversary with a party and extravaganza on Saturday June 20, 2020. In just four years the organization has become a pillar in the Susan B. Anthony neighborhood and a convener and curator of important and vital community conversations, classes, and programs. Your financial support helps us scale up this work in 2020 and beyond with a year long fundraising goal of $40,000