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Photo courtesy of Martha S Jones / Facebook

"Vanguard": Martha S. Jones Discusses Black Women's Fight for the Right to Vote

Professor Martha S. Jones answered questions about her new book Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, & Insisted on Equality for All on Friday at Boston College. The event was sponsored by the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy.

Jones is the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor at Johns Hopkins University. Her previous book, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America, won several book awards, including the Organization of American Historians Liberty Legacy Award.

The webinar was moderated by two Boston College Law professors: Mary Bilder and Dan Farbman, both of whom teach constitutional law.

Bilder began the conversation by remarking that Vanguard follows Black heroines from the 19th century to Stacey Abrams. The book begins with Jones’s own story, that of her grandmother Nancy Bell Jones.

“I was really two thirds of the way through this book when I, in a sense, got a little self-conscious about what I didn’t know,” Jones remarked.

Her office at home features portraits of her great-grandmother and other women in her family. As Jones researched the story of Black women and the vote, she increasingly felt she knew nothing about how the women in her family fit into the story of voting rights.

“I did take a kind of detour and see if I could use my historian skills to recover some recollection of their lives. As I explain in the introduction, that story begins in Kentucky, in the lives of women who were enslaved. But it really blossoms by the time we get to the 20th century,” Jones explained.

“I find my great-grandmother, Fanny Williams, in St. Louis organizing Black women to learn how to overcome the barriers that have already kept Black men from the polls in a state like Missouri,” Jones said.

Barriers to voting included things like literacy tests and poll taxes, so Black women practiced reading the Constitution so they could answer questions on its meaning. Black women had to be prepared for the questions registrars would ask them as they attempted to register to vote.

“She, and the women with whom she collaborates, really are successful, at least to the degree that in the city of St. Louis, if the news reports are correct, all Black women are able to register and to vote in 1920,” Jones concluded.

“Can you tell us about the arc of the book?” Bilder asked.

Jones deliberately created the arc to challenge the typical narrative of where and when the women’s suffrage movement started and when it ended. Most Black women did not gain the right to vote until 1965, and the Black suffragette movement did not start with the Seneca Falls Convention. 

The book attempts to draw an arc across 200 years, following a narrative that appeared throughout her research. Jones was interested in following an idea that neither race nor sex should determine who had the right to vote. That was the thread that tied the 200-year arc together.

“In the face of a history where so much of the time what Black women are grappling with is opposition, sometimes violent opposition. Black women are grappling with disappointment and more. You better have some strong ideas about who you are and why your cause is not only just but also necessary and correct,” Jones summarized.

Building off of Bilder’s question on the arc of the book, Farbman began his series of questions with a historiographical question.

“You’re not fighting a battle with the existing literature on the pages all the time. You’re telling a story which I think is actually quite subversive to the conventional narratives. In each of these moments you’re gently upturning what we think we know,” Farbman started. “I’m curious how you approached this project. It feels like there was a critical intervention in a lot of historiographies mentioned here."

Jones wrote Vanguard for journalists, for people’s moms, for readers who were curious. She wrote it with the hope that readers would be ready for the story of Black women and the vote in the centennial year of women’s suffrage.

“One of the ways to hold onto readers is to visit places that appear simultaneously familiar and strange. I can take you to Seneca Falls, I don’t have to rehearse or rehash all that you probably think you know in order to show it anew,” Jones explained of her technique.

“This book reflects my ongoing journey in attempting to write history resolutely from a vantage point. This is not an omniscient or exhaustive history and I try and be frank with readers that my history comes out of a vantage point,” Jones concluded.

The book intentionally follows Black women because their voices have been missing from conversations surrounding the vote. Instead of following the traditional history of suffrage, Vanguard follows Black women, while keeping the traditional narrative in view as a reference point.

The women Jones follows in Vanguard push the definition of political enfranchisement being the sole seat of political power.

The narrative also follows the tension between the white suffrage movement and Black women’s fight to be heard within it. Jones includes the story of Ida B. Wells being asked to march at the back of a women's suffrage parade by white women organizers. 

“It’s a reminder that Black women, while they do not find a very compatible or productive home in the National Women’s Suffrage associations, Wells is among those Black women who are going to insist on keeping a seat at that table,” Jones argued.

Vanguard concludes with the story of Stacey Abrams precisely because she encapsulates the story and persistence woven throughout the book. Instead of waiting for the next election cycle, she instead turns her attention to combating voter suppression.

“I think this is very characteristic of the women in Vanguard, who work on many fronts, who respond to real conditions in real time and are not professional politicians,” Jones concluded.

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