'Finish The Fight' Spotlights Diverse Suffragists Left Out Of History Lessons

Aug 18, 2020

Tuesday marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which grants women the right to vote in the United States. Images of older, white women in victorian dress marching in the streets may come to mind, but there were many more women involved in securing the right to vote.

Finish The Fight!: The Brave and Revolutionary Women Who Fought For The Right To Vote is a new book that centers the suffrage spotlight on the Black, Indigenous, Latina, Asian and queer women who were crucial to the cause. This collective biography is written by New York Times senior editor Veronica Chambers and the staff of the New York Times.

"We don't know suffrage because we're not actually taught enough about women's history," says Chambers. "Suffrage is a footnote to American history for most people, and then once you get into it, women of color who were part of the suffrage movement become even more of a footnote." 

Finish the Fight! helps to give suffrage history a bit of a makeover. Not only were suffragists fighting for the right to vote, but they also fought for equal rights and human rights for decades, knowing that their goal may not be accomplished in their lifetimes.

"Suffrage is a footnote to American history for most people, and then once you get into it, women of color who were part of the suffrage movement become even more of a footnote."

"We think of [suffrage] as this kind of boring history of nagging spinsters, but it's really the story of these badass political strategists who fought for three generations to get women the vote. Because I think that's the other thing — we forget exactly how long it took. It took a long time," says Chambers. 

Frances Ellens Watkins Harper was a skilled public speaker, one of the first Black women in the United States to publish short stories and novels, and a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women.
Credit Art by Steffi Walthall / HMH/Versify

The book dives into the influence of women like Mary Eliza Church Terrell, who co-founded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW); 16-year-old Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, who helped lead the biggest parade in history in New York City to promote the cause of suffrage; and Susette La Flesche Tibbles, the first reservation teacher, journalist and speaker against the injustices on Native Americans.

"Every moment of political intrigue, strategy that we think about from our lifetimes or our parents' lifetimes has an echo that goes back," notes Chambers. 

While modern generations know the name Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in the segregated South, they may not know about Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. She was one of the first Black women in the U.S. to publish short stories and novels, who also refused to give up her trolley seat. 

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin started the first newspaper by and for Black women. In 1900, she went to the Convention for the General Federation of Women's Clubs in Milwaukee but wasn't allowed to attend upon the discovery of her race. She then stood up for herself and helped to create spaces for Black women to express their voices. 

"One of the things that I and my co-authors have come to really feel is that suffragists were futurists," says Chambers. "I feel such a depth of gratitude to them for keeping on when it didn't happen for all of them in their lifetime."

A special virtual play, Finish The Fightwritten by playwright Ming Peiffer and directed by Whitney White, will premiere on August 18th.