In accepting her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress on Sunday night, Patricia Arquette made an impassioned plea for women’s rights and equal pay. She did so, somewhat strangely, by pitting the women’s movement again others: “We have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s time to have our wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America.” And in her subsequent backstage remarks, according to the official transcript, Arquette took that contrast one step further: “It’s time for all the women in America and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.”
There are multiple problems with that framing, including the arbitrary and inaccurate separation of “women” from “gay people” and “people of color.” To my mind, the most significant problem is Arquette’s phrase “that we’ve all fought for,” not only because it minimizes other civil rights struggles but also because her overall frame instead echoes the largely forgotten American history of racial division and discrimination in the women’s rights movement.
In the late 19th century, the two most prominent, longstanding women’s suffrage organizations, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), merged into one national entity, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). For many decades the AWSA had spoken out against racially-focused rights such as the 15th Amendment, which gave African American men the vote. Susan B. Anthony, one of AWSA’s leaders, stated during the 15th Amendment debates, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” The NWSA had at times aligned itself with African-American rights, but when the two organizations merged, the resulting NAWSA looked more like the AWSA: refusing to address contemporary issues such as segregation or lynching, and even mirroring Jim Crow divisions in many of its local chapters as well as national activities.
There were certainly practical reasons for national suffrage organizations to adopt such stances, as they needed support from Southern women and organizations. Yet by aligning themselves with the forces of segregation and discrimination, such organizations did not just contribute to continued oppression against other minority groups. They also denied committed fellow activists the chance to play a full and meaningful role in their own efforts, as when journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells and many other African-American women were forced to march in a separate group at the end of the historic 1913 NAWSA parade in Washington, DC.
Wells resisted the order, initially leaving the parade and then famously joining two white friends and colleagues, Belle Squire and Virginia Brooks, once the march was in progress. In this moment, she embodied an alternative activist tradition, one in which the leaders and participants of different movements work together to move toward a more just and equitable society for all Americans. When it comes to the women’s and African American rights movements, there is longstanding history of such cross-movement activism: from abolitionist leaders such as the Grimké sisters and William Lloyd Garrison, who joined the incipient women’s rights movement after the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention; to former slaves turned women’s activists in the post-war years, such as Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass; through Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, and other early 20th century leaders who marched for women’s suffrage in the same years they were founding the NAACP.
Activism is often about emphasis, and Arquette might well be right to argue that now is a moment for emphasis on a new women’s rights movement. But as our history demonstrates, the more such a movement connects to other civil rights efforts, rather than frames itself in opposition to them, the more it can embody the best and most successful forms of American activism.
Ben Railton is an Associate Professor of English at Fitchburg State University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.