On August 18, Donald Trump announced his decision to pardon suffragist Susan B. Anthony in a shallow attempt to honor the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave white women the right to vote. “Today, President Donald J. Trump issued an Executive Grant of Clemency (Full Pardon) posthumously to Susan B. Anthony, a peerless advocate for women’s suffrage, for a wrongful and unjust conviction stemming from the only vote she ever cast in an election,” read a statement from the White House. “As we commemorate the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment—known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment—this grant of full clemency recognizes and pays tribute to the advocacy, perseverance, and leadership of a truly remarkable woman and an American hero.” During a subsequent speech, as Trump motioned to the sea of predominantly white women that made up the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission, he asked, “What took so long?”
While some Americans celebrated the pardon, others criticized it. Beyond the fact that Anthony had no interest in being pardoned, it felt like the Black women who have been and are too often bypassed in historical remembrance by their white counterparts were being erased yet again. It’s unsurprising that Trump would choose to highlight a racist. It was, actually, predicted to a degree: “The suffragist heroes Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony seized control of the feminist narrative of the 19th century,” Brent Staples wrote in a 2018 article for the New York Times. “Their influential history of the movement still governs popular understanding of the struggle for women’s rights and will no doubt serve as a touchstone for commemorations that will unfold across the United States around the centennial of the 19th Amendment in 2020.”
History shows that in the days of women’s suffrage, Black women were pushed aside by white women like Anthony and Stanton. Anthony said, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman,” after withdrawing her support for the 15th Amendment, which gave Black men the ability to vote. Like the Trump administration, these white women pledged their allegiance to white people over Black people; Black women were decentered and deprioritized. People are too quick to forget that these women sold out Black women for their political gains. As Sydney Trent explains in a recently published story for the Washington Post, “Racism within predominantly white suffrage organizations, including the National American Woman Suffrage Association, prevented the integration of Black women into the movement. White suffragists were loath to elevate Black concerns or feature Black women in their public events, lest they alienate Southern politicians.”
Racism and anti-Blackness have always been issues in mainstream feminist movements led by white women; they still are. Fifty-three percent of white women voted for Donald Trump, and white women in leadership positions have long aligned themselves with their own whiteness over the rights of women of color, even if securing the rights of the latter would benefit them as well. So why Anthony? She was selected to be nationally highlighted and honored over the many Black activists—Ida B. Wells-Barnett, an investigative journalist; Mary Church Terrell, cofounder and first president of the National Association of Colored Women; or Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist and women’s rights activist, to name a few—who actually did the work. The truth of the matter is these Black women don’t fit the portrait that this administration believes in. After all, this is far from Trump’s first move to align himself with white supremacy, and his administration continues to state their ardent allegiance to white supremacy.
In June, Trump “accidentally” retweeted a tweet which had one of his supporters saying “White power!” He also regularly disparages marginalized people, particularly women of color. In July 2019, while speaking about several congresswomen, Trump commented, “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came?” While many were shocked, these actions are not singular. The Trump administration banks on racism to galvanize their supporters, and, like the white suffragists that came before them, the administration has little issue with capitalizing on it. They have a very specific vision of their “ideal” voter base, one that thrives on the positioning of white Americans over Black Americans. In Trump’s vision for America, the suburbs are unapologetically and intentionally white.
By aligning himself with Anthony, Trump calls back to a long history of white supremacist women—and makes clear the fact that white women are the only ones with whose freedom he’s concerned, even if only on a superficial level.
Per a July 29 tweet by Trump, those living what the Trump administration considers to be their Suburban Lifestyle Dream “will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low-income housing built in [their] neighborhood.” The Dream—in specifically capital letters—is one where the poor, impoverished, and most important, Black people, are erased from history and sight. This has a tangible impact: History speaks for itself, as housing rights is an issue that tremendously affects high percentages of Black people. Paired with the lack of affordable housing available in the United States as well as the racism of home ownership, it is near impossible to deny the weight and white supremacy of comments about protecting the “suburbs.” The actions of the Trump administration are purposeful and strategic, and his move to pardon Anthony follows right along with the narrative of blatant white supremacy.
Anthony didn’t merit a pardon, as the museum bearing her name explained. “Mr. President, Susan B. Anthony must decline your offer of a pardon today,” Deborah L. Hughes, president and CEO of the National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House, said in a statement. “If one wants to honor Susan B. Anthony today, a clear stance against any form of voter suppression would be welcome,” the statement continued, before encouraging the Trump administration to enforce and expand the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and support the Equal Rights Amendment. “Advocacy for human rights for all would be splendid.” The Trump administration is actively protecting whiteness at the expense of those that he and his supporters would deem “other.” By aligning himself with Anthony, Trump calls back to a long history of white supremacist women—and makes clear the fact that white women are the only ones with whose freedom he’s concerned, even if only on a superficial level.