Tag Archives: women’s suffrage

Deaf Women Whose Names Should Be Household Words: Women’s Suffrage Edition

Photo of Annie Jump Cannon working at a tablet screen

Debbie says:

I was completely fascinated by Joan Marie Naturale’s article in The Conversation last month, “Deaf Women Fought for the Right to Vote.”

Naturale starts with astronomer Annie Jump Cannon (pictured above), a deaf woman with a fascinating career:

In 1896, she was hired as a “woman computer” at the Harvard College Observatory, along with another prominent deaf astronomer, Henrietta Swan Leavitt.

The story of the human computers was popularized a few years ago in Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race (and the movie adaptation) featuring Black computers some 30-60 years later than Cannon.  I didn’t know the term computer was being used in the 19th century for people (almost all women) performing calculations.

The work involved looking at photos of stars and calculating their brightness, position and color. The two were paid between 25 and 50 cents an hour – half the rate paid to men doing similar work.

Nevertheless, Cannon is credited with cataloging 350,000 stars. Building on others’ work, Cannon revolutionized and refined a system to rank stars from hottest to coolest that is still used today by the International Astronomical Union, though it is named for Harvard, not for her.

Cannon was a member of the National Woman’s Party, formed in 1916 to advocate for passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, allowing women to vote. Cannon’s suffragist efforts used her profession as a launchpad, as when she declared that “if women can organize the sky, we can organize the vote.”

She used her prominence to pave the way for women in the sciences, becoming the first woman to receive an honorary degree from Oxford University in 1925, and facing down eugenicists who blocked her from joining the National Academy of Sciences because she was deaf.

Cannon and Leavitt were hardly the only two deaf women fighting for suffrage. Naturale goes on to describe

  • Helen K. Watts, “a militant member of the radical Women’s Social and Political Union who demonstrated at Parliament in 1909 for the women’s vote. After one protest that year, she was arrested and imprisoned – but began a 90-hour hunger strike that resulted in her release
  • Kate Harvey, who “believed in not paying taxes until women were granted the vote – which resulted in authorities breaking into her home to arrest and imprison her in 1913.”
  • Laura Redden Searing, a successful journalist and “feminist who wrote about women’s issues such as unequal pay and women’s sexuality. She also explained her support for an 1872 campaign for women’s right to vote with an analogy to the freeing of the slaves after the Civil War”

I am simultaneously struck by how familiar this story is and how surprising it is. If you had asked me if it would be possible to name five deaf women who fought for women’s suffrage, I might have been skeptical. Now that I can name five,I know there were probably five or ten more. An equal catalog could (and should!) be created of blind women, physically disabled women, women of various ethnic backgrounds, and the list goes on.

One of the most exciting trends of this time for me is the attention on visibility of so many different kinds of people who have contributed to social change over the centuries … and the dispiriting underlying reason is how much these people have been hidden figures until recently.  I am grateful to Naturale, and so many others doing the deep research to uncover and spotlight figures who never should have been hidden, and who had to work harder for every achievement than people who didn’t share the same oppression(s).

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Rosalyn Terborg-Penn: A Window into Black Suffragist History


Debbie says:

I had never heard of Rosalyn Terborg-Penn until a friend sent me her New York Times obituary. I’m glad to know about her now.

Dr. Terborg-Penn, a professor of history at Morgan State University in Baltimore for
more than three decades, was the author of seven books, most notably, African
American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920 (1998).

It was one of the first book-length examinations of black women in the suffrage
movement, and it challenged the existing narrative that was dominated, and framed,
by white activists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Dr. Terborg-Penn’s book was a counterweight to History of Women’s Suffrage, a
six-volume work, begun in 1881, that was edited by Anthony, Stanton and Matilda
Joslyn Gage. That opus more or less erased from the picture the many black women
who Dr. Terborg-Penn said had attended suffrage meetings, organized suffrage clubs
and promoted the cause.

Virtually no corner of American history is immune from whitewashing, and the suffragist movement is demonstrably no exception.  Stanton and Anthony, and Lucretia Mott, are perhaps the best-known white suffragists. Anthony, in particular, is somewhat of a household word, and was the figure on the U.S. dollar coin for two short periods in the late 20th century. Mary Church Terrell and Sarah Parker Remond are names I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know.  Here’s a little bit about each of them:

Having been an avid suffragist during her years as an Oberlin student, Terrell continued to be active in the happenings within suffragists circles in the National Association Woman Suffrage Association. It was through these meetings that Mary Terrell became associated with Susan B. Anthony. An association which Terrell describes in her biography as “delightful, helpful friendship”[4] which lasted until Anthony’s passing in 1906. What grew out out of Terrell’s association with NAWSA a desire to create a formal organizing group amongst black women in America to tackle issues of lynching, the disenfranchisement of the race and development a new educational reform. Being the one of few African-American women who was allowed to attend NAWSA’s meetings, Terrell spoke directly about the injustices and issues within the African-American community.


In 1856, the American Anti-Slavery Society hired a team of lecturers, including Remond, her brother Charles, already well known in the US and Britain; and Susan B. Anthony, to tour New York State addressing anti-slavery issues. Over the next two years, she, her brother, and others spoke in Massachusetts, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. She and other African Americans were often given poor accommodation owing to their race.

Although she was inexperienced, Remond rapidly became an effective speaker. William Lloyd Garrison praised her “calm, dignified manner, her winning personal appearance and her earnest appeals to the conscience and the heart.”[8] Over time, she became one of the society’s most persuasive and powerful lecturers. She toured England, Scotland and Ireland between 1859 and 1861, fundraising for the anti-slavery cause.[9]

From their Wikipedia entries, it would appear that Terrell was close to Anthony and Remond worked with her, and nonetheless they are mere footnotes in the white history books.  Remond came to suffrage as a cause later than Terrell did, and both of them (and Anthony) were active in abolitionist, anti-slavery work as well.

Terborg-Penn seems to have demonstrated a very clear understanding of the racial split in the suffragist movement, and the racism shown by the white activists:

Black women, she said, were shunted aside in the history books because their goals
had diverged from those of the white, mostly upper-middle-class women who had led
the charge. White women wanted parity with white men, while black women, only
just emerging from slavery, wanted to use the ballot box to fight the racial oppression
that was engulfing the South.

The racial split became glaringly obvious in 1913, when the white organizers of a
major suffragist parade in Washington ordered black participants to march in the

Terborg-Penn engaged in activism as well as scholarship, and in both arenas was clear-eyed about white racism:

Her activism, fueled by her father, who believed strongly in civic engagement,
blossomed in college. She led a protest when Queens College would not let Malcolm
X speak on campus. On weekends, with a handful of other black students, she
marched in front of an F. W. Woolworth & Co. store in Manhattan in solidarity with
blacks who had staged a sit-in at an all-white Woolworth lunch counter in
Greensboro, N.C., where they had been refused service.

“We got the same response in New York City as in North Carolina,” Dr. Terborg-Penn
recalled at a conference in 2016. “White America was not ready for this. We needed
to stay in our place.”

We are extraordinarily fortunate that she found a place, instead of staying in her place, and shone a light on these important chapters in American — and Black — history.