History lessons

Dear President Trump,

In the midst of all my imagining of a democratic society that finally fully embraces empowerment for all of America’s diverse peoples, it occurred to me that I needed a better historical handle on what motivated White men to enfranchise Black men and then eventually men to enfranchise women. All I knew about this was that women weren’t granted the vote when African American men were. Basically, I was totally clueless about the political contexts that finally broke the white male hegemony on the vote and thought it would be a good idea to correct my ignorance.

I think the easiest place to start is with the 15th Amendment, which says that citizens have the right to vote regardless of race, color, or previous conditions of servitude. Before I address the critical “citizens” piece of this I’ll tell you that the Republican party pushed for this Amendment.

Super magnanimous of them, right?

Uhm, no, not really.

Why not is somewhat convoluted so bear with me. The Constitutional Rights website says that Black men were granted suffrage in Southern states in 1867 as required by Congress and they largely voted with White Republicans. This led White Republicans in the North to assume that adding Black men to eligible voters in their states would help them retain power since their hold on Congress was slipping. It wasn’t an easy thing to pull off, but the Republicans prevailed and for a few short years African American men were able to vote (before Jim Crow laws quashed this).

This cynical move by Republicans is a fitting bookend to your all’s currents efforts to keep African Americans (and other people of color) from voting. I’m not saying the Democrats of the 1800’s or early 1900’s were any better, but it’s interesting to see that Republicans’ have been adding and subtracting voters to shore themselves up for a long, long time.

Then there’s the issue of the meaning of “citizens” in the 15th Amendment, which sounds nice and inclusive (women were citizens at that point), doesn’t it? However, Section 2 of the 14th Amendment specified that only male citizens could vote so the inclusive-seeming language of the 15th Amendment didn’t matter because the 14th had already aced women out. And guess what, the 14th Amendment still says this, which brings us, finally, to the 19th Amendment.

Even though women had been pressing for the right to vote since at least the 1840’s, the 19th Amendment wasn’t passed until shortly after the end of WWI. And why was it finally passed? Well, apparently Woodrow Wilson decided that since millions of women had stepped up to take over jobs left open by men going to the front and had themselves served overseas in war zones they deserved the vote. It was still an uphill battle getting both branches of Congress to pass it and then to get three-quarters of states to ratify it, but it doesn’t seem to have been cynically motivated like the temporary enfranchisement of African American men was. However, it did come 143 years after the founding of the country so I don’t think anyone should get too excited about this being some sort of big generous move on men’s parts, especially when the women who served in the war effort were summarily dismissed (as they would be again after WWII) and expected to return to their “real” jobs of keeping house.

So there really aren’t any inspiring historical precedents in the power-sharing arena, but at least now the goal posts are far enough out that women and people of color don’t have to beg and scrape for the right to vote. And we sure as hell aren’t going to be used as pawns in your crooked bids to retain power.

May we be safe as we lurch toward full democracy.
May we be open to happiness as a radical act of self-care.
May we be healthy and strong.
May we all make peace with one another.

Tracy Simpson

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