Beyond Supply & Demand: Duke Economics Students Present 100 Years of American Women’s Suffrage

Abolition, Racism, and Resistance

The idea for the suffrage movement began at an anti-slavery conference and borrowed much of its methodology from the abolition movement. Though much of the present and historical narrative around the suffrage movement has focused on its white leaders, the fight for suffrage was diverse from its inception. Many African American women like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Mary Church Terrell fought for human rights through their work in women’s clubs, churches, and suffrage organizations. These groups were concerned not just with suffrage, but also with life and death issues such as lynching. At the same time, white suffragists and anti-suffragists upheld racist arguments, often dividing the movement and excluding Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. The objects in this section recount the abolitionist roots of the suffrage movement and the efforts of Black women to secure universal suffrage in spite of the racism within the movement and the continued voter suppression after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.



Worn and yellowed photograph of a Black woman seated holding knitting, wearing glasses and a white shawl with the text "I sell the shadow to support the substance" underneath

Sojourner Truth Carte-de-visit, 1864

This albumen photograph depicts prominent women’s rights and abolition activist Sojourner Truth. She sold this cabinet card, depicting her “shadow,” to provide income for herself. One of the era’s most progressive activists, Truth once commented she “used to be sold for other people’s benefit, but now she sold herself for her own.”

Broadside announcing a lecture by Sojourner Truth along with testimonials, black ink on yellowed paper, with an etching of Truth wearing glasses and a white shawl

 Lecture! [1880]

This broadside advertises a speech by formerly enslaved woman and activist Sojourner Truth. Truth’s image and the testimonials from other renowned activists such as suffragist Susan B. Anthony and abolitionist Frederick Douglass attest to Truth’s ability to inspire others to fight for abolition and suffrage, and to recognize their shared goals.

Racism in the Movement

First page of typed letter in black ink with blue letter head of National American Woman Suffrage Association

Letter to Mrs. Minnie C. Rodey - Full letters

In these letters, Anthony writes to Mrs. Minnie Rodey, chair of the “Women’s Club” in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to recommend a push for voting rights legislation before the territory is granted statehood, since that would extend the process. Although advocating for abolition in the nineteenth century, Anthony shows prejudice against people of color, expressing her opposition to voting rights for racial minorities, stating "I read yesterday of the number of Indians and Mexicans and negroes that were in the territories. It is amazing that people want to make a state out of a territory composed of a majority of what we should term 'incompetents'[.] Voting should be confined to intelligent beings."

Single page of black typed ink on yellowed paper

This document, written by Alabama Equal Suffrage Association (AESA) Member Ervin M. Carr, describes the belief— held by many white suffragists—that the franchise should only be granted to white women. The prominent voices of majority white organizations like the AESA illustrate the racist narratives and segregation that were present in the suffrage movement even after reconstruction and preceding the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.


Black and white printed photograph in book of a Black woman standing with her hands on the back of a chair, wearing a long black dress, handwritten cursive underneath reading "Frances E. W. Harper"

"I do not believe that giving the woman the ballot is immediately going to cure all the ills of life. I do not believe that white women are dew-drops just exhaled from the skies. I think that like men they may be divided into three classes, the good, the bad, and the indifferent."

—Frances Ellen Watkins Harper at the Eleventh National Woman's Rights Convention in 1866

Excerpts from Speech “We Are All Bound Up Together” In African American Feminisms 1828-1923, Volume VI: Interracial and Black Feminist Organizing, edited by Teresa Zackodnik. New York: Routledge, 2007.
Full transcription of speech

Worn, light blue book cover with title in gold inlay in upper right hand corner

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper—abolitionist, writer, speaker, suffragist, and temperance leader—was one of the first African American women to publish a novel in the U.S. (shown here) and co-founded the National Association of Colored Women. Harper spoke at suffrage conventions in the nineteenth century, often conflicting with many of the white leaders. She believed adamantly in acknowledging the racism faced by Black people and how that could not be separated from the struggle for equality, including the suffrage movement.

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