Opinion: Suffragettes of White Supremacy
Ashley Cheng, co-host of the Rabble podcast, looks at the history of racism in Austin’s suffrage movement
"Dead tired, but happy! Worked prohibition and suffrage all day until 5 p.m. Attended 2 prohibition rallies, changed petition and...did I say tired? Never felt better in my life." Aside from the prohibition part, this could be from any number of feminist Facebook posts leading up to Super Tuesday. Alas, this is a 1918 diary entry of Jane McCallum, leader of the Austin Woman Suffrage Association and Texas' longest serving secretary of state (yes, that McCallum of McCallum High School, after her husband).
This year, we celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing nice white ladies the right to vote. Before that, Jane championed women's suffrage in primary elections, in a fight equal parts perseverance and racism. Feminist history is complicated, y'all.
Here's the Texas history I wish I got in 7th grade. Savvy suffragettes knew white men needed white women's votes, so they backed the reelection of Governor William Hobby in exchange for the emergency special session that would grant voting in primaries.
That same bill also ushered in Texas' first literacy test, with the aim of disenfranchising Black voters. In only 17 days, they registered 5,856 women in Travis County, rivaling the number of male voters, and 386,000 women statewide. The proposed amendment granting women's general election vote included a clause that removed voting rights from immigrants being naturalized.
The segregated Texas Equal Suffrage Association, now the League of Women Voters, canvassed Austin during the 1919 election to promote the viral message that women deserved full citizenship more than immigrant "aliens." One poster, currently in the archives of the Austin History Center, addressed "to the men of Texas" read: "The door to citizenship to loyal American women ... is closed unless your chivalry opens it for us." The patriarchy has always pitted marginalized communities against one another.
Women like Jane have been complicit in white supremacy for centuries. Not much has changed.
After white women successfully gained suffrage, thanks partially to women of color, the fine print still blocked millions of Black women through poll taxes and literacy tests. Other populations were culled by denying citizenship entirely. Native Americans received citizenship in 1924 but weren't guaranteed voting nationwide until 1962. My own family, along with all Asian Americans, wouldn't have been eligible until the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, and even then only if you were one of the lucky 105 Chinese permitted to enter per year.
Today, voter suppression is replaced with Texas' strict voter ID law, the most poll closures of any state, gerrymandering, the infamously botched voter purge of 2019 – all of which are targeted at Latinx communities but disproportionately impact all communities of color.
So what is a white woman (or gender nonbinary [person] or human of any kind) to do?
First, just listen. The next time someone talks about systemic racism, please don't immediately pivot to how women have also been wronged. Just listen first. Second, tell everyone you know to fill out the April 1 census. We have one shot every decade to ensure historically underrepresented groups like immigrants, people of color, and children are counted. Paperwork is boring, but it decides who can feel seen through power and funding in our systems. Third, learn about gerrymandering and how to stop it. If you're not sure, basically our majority white male leadership in the Texas House must have been taught never to color outside the lines and took that to mean they should diminish the power of all people of color by drawing legislative maps that divide communities and maintain the patriarchy. Do some proverbial smashing by supporting these organizations focused on passing fair maps through redistricting next year: All on the Line, League of Women Voters, Texas Civil Rights Project, Common Cause, and Flip the Texas House.
As a young Austinite first learning about the women's movement, I always thought "suffrage" had something to do with "suffering." I wasn't wrong. A hundred years later, who really has suffrage and who's still just suffering? I don't want generations of little girls looking back at me saying I too was complicit. Do you?
Ashley Cheng is the co-founder of the creative civic engagement company Rouser and co-host of The Rabble podcast (@TheRabbleTX), a weekly helping of Texas politics with a side of this-is-how-you-get-stuff-done. Plus, glitter and friendship bracelets for dessert.
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