On the Anniversary of the 19th Amendment – The Legacy of Delta Sigma Theta

Portrait of Mary Church Terrell. Original at Moorland-Spingarn Collection, Howard University.

Portrait of Mary Church Terrell from the Portrait Collection (PO Terrell M2). Original at Moorland-Spingarn Collection, Howard University.

The elective franchise is withheld from one half of its citizens…because the word ‘people,’ by an unparalleled exhibition of lexicon graphical acrobatics, has been turned and twisted to mean all who were shrewd and wise enough to have themselves born boys instead of girls, or who took the trouble to be born white instead of black. – Mary Church Terrell, Washingtonian and honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta

By Izetta Autumn Mobley

Founded on January 13, 1913, at Howard University by 22 women, the first official public act of the newly formed Delta Sigma Theta Sorority – an organization dedicated to academic excellence, constructive development, and public service – was to send a delegation to the 1913 Suffragist March. Held in March, the protest was timed to coincide with President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. Organizers hoped to use the march as a persuasion tactic directed at Wilson’s vehement opposition to women’s suffrage. Despite the march’s call for equal rights, not all women were invited to participate fully. Organizers told Black women they would have to bring up the rear.

Rather than marching with their state delegations, Black women were segregated to the rear of the march. Despite racial discrimination, the women of Delta Sigma Theta were determined to march for the right to vote. One of those founding members was Pauline Oberdorfer Minor, born in Charlottesville, VA, Pauline would die just two years before African American women were assured full voting rights with the Voting Rights Act.

Pauline, like the other founding Delta Sigma Theta, Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells understood the critical importance of intersectionality – the idea, developed by Kimberle Crenshaw, discrimination based on both race and gender impact the history and experiences of women of color. Wells response to the segregation dictum was to defy the edict openly. Wells waited until the march began before boldly joining the Illinois delegation and two supporters who flanked either side of her. The other Black women decided to march, despite segregation. When violence broke out at the protest, many of those Black women were left completely unprotected.

The struggle over intersectional voting rights had been with the suffragists since the 1848 Seneca Convention. At the convention, in which 11 resolutions were passed unanimously, one resolution stood out: the full enfranchisement of women. Frederick Douglass, who attended the convention on its second day, backed Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s call for full voting rights for women. More than 20 years later when Black men were enfranchised, Stanton’s racist rhetoric decrying that Black men received the right to vote before white women, alienated her from many former allies. But many Black women had been calling for full voting rights for all, for decades – including Mary Church Terrell, Anna Julia Cooper, and Nannie Helen Burroughs, all Washingtonians.

Today on the anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, we remember the legacy of the women who boldly brought their ideas to Washington. We honor all the women who charged forward for voting rights.

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