The week of October 2-6 represented a celebration of the 75th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, the dedication of the Carrie Chapman Catt Hall and Women's Week 1995.
As the Director of the Women's Center and advisor of the Women's Week Committee, it seemed "natural" that I would serve on the 19th Amendment Planning Committee. During a number of the 19th Amendment Planning Committee meetings the issue of racism and ethnocentrism in the suffrage movement had been raised and discussed.
Part of the reason why a session entitled "Race, Ethnicity and Gender in the Suffrage Movement" was held during the week was precisely because of some of these discussions. This session was held on October 5, 1995, at noon in the Chautauqua Tent south of the Carrie Chapman Catt Hall.
There were three panelists (Nancy Isenberg, Susan Traverso and Sharon Wood) and one moderator (Edith Mayo). During the formal presentations there was little or no reference made to race or racism in the suffrage movement. When the issue of ethnicity was finally mentioned (at approximately 1:15 p.m. when over half of the audience had left) it was limited to the experiences of Irish/Irish-American Catholic women.
After the formal presentations, as a result of my own question to the panelists about racism and ethnocentrism, there was some discussion about the issue. There was another question towards the end of the session regarding Carrie Chapman Catt and the issue of race and racism. At first, all of the panelists were silent, then a few of them stated that they were not knowledgeable enough about Carrie Chapman Catt to make a statement about this issue.
However, one panelist stated that she had read to some extent about Carrie Chapman Catt. She stated that there were "inconsistencies" in Carrie Chapman Catt's talks, depending on the audience to which she was speaking. Since no one had really addressed the question, the moderator requested that Jane Cox address the issue. This seemed appropriate since Jane Cox, a member of the faculty in the ISU Theatre Department, had devoted a great deal of her time and energy researching Carrie Chapman Catt, in order to write her one-woman play entitled "The Yellow Rose of Suffrage." Her first response to the question was to state a "dictionary definition" of the word racism.
After she had quoted the dictionary's definition of racism, she said with the definition in mind, "Carrie Chapman Catt was not a racist." I cannot even begin to articulate how much anger, frustration and disappointment I felt when she uttered those words. All I could think about was how in this time someone like Jane Cox could actually define racism by using a dictionary. I thought about what a privilege it is for someone to talk about, indeed to define, racism in all its complexity with a simplistic definition offered by a dictionary. All the works that I have read on racism, all the classes I have taken on racism, all of the racist comments I have heard, flooded my mind, and yet for Jane Cox, as well as for others, the yard stick for defining a racist person was a dictionary's definition. What a privilege!
After the definition, Jane Cox began to justify her statement about Carrie Chapman Catt not being a racist. One of the reasons why she believed that Catt was not a racist was because Mary Church Terrell, the founder of the National Association of Colored Women, had spoken of Catt in her autobiography as a friend and as a person who she did not consider to be racist. Can we assume that because Carrie Chapman Catt was a close friend of Mary Church Terrell that somehow this friendship translates into Catt not being a racist? One often-repeated, supposedly non-racist comment that some European-Americans state comes to mind: "Some of my best friends are black." Here we are at an institution of "higher learning" and one of the reasons used to justify a nonracist Catt was the friendship between Catt and one African-American woman. I am not going to offer all the details about why this kind of thinking has been, is and will continue to be flawed. However, I hope that you will consider that merely because a European-American woman created a friendship with an African-American woman, or with several African-American women, the European-American woman could still be racist against other members of the African-American community. She could still hold racist views about African-American people in general; she could still perceive African Americans as being less than or innately inferior to herself and to European-Americans in general; she could still express racist views in her interactions with African Americans; and she could bring all of those views with her when she sits and drinks tea with her African-American woman friend. This, unfortunately, is part and parcel of living in a racist society and symptomatic of the disease we call racism.
Another reason that was offered by Jane Cox in defense of Carrie Chapman Catt was Catt's actions and involvement with people in countries all over the world. Again, you cannot imagine the feelings that this justification created within me. I hope that you will be able to understand this justification as yet another flawed one. Just in case, however, consider that often someone who is interested in working with people who live in countries outside the United States can simultaneously remain racist towards people of color from and living in the United States. The fact that Catt worked with people in countries outside of the United States does not mean that she could not have been racist. Again, the complexity of the disease and ideology of racism cannot be approached in such a simplistic manner. Perhaps the most disappointing part of the session occurred at the end of Jane Cox's comments when almost all the members of the audience, including members of the 19th Amendment Planning Committee, enthusiastically clapped in support of Cox's comments.
In closing, I would urge all of you to read as much as possible about the suffrage movement, and about Carrie Chapman Catt, from as many different perspectives as possible. I would like to congratulate the students who wrote an article about Carrie Chapman Catt and the women's suffrage movement in the United States for the most recent issue of Uhuru— a newsletter created by students of African descent at ISU. It is, however, most disappointing that one of the students who contributed to this newsletter has received a couple of threatening calls from members of this community because of this article. I thought this was supposed to be a place of "higher learning?" I hope that an EDUCATED discussion about race, racism, ethnicity and ethnocentrism within the suffrage movement, whether or not it relates to Carrie Chapman Catt, will continue on this campus. I hope that this past week of events will not represent the end of these discussions, but rather the beginning.
Celia E. Naylor-Ojurongbe is the director of the Margaret Sloss Women's Center.