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A Message from Director Erika George

Erika GeorgeDear Tanner Humanities Community,

I hope my message finds you and yours safe and well.  As the world continues to confront the challenges and changes caused by the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19), we at the Tanner Humanities Center continue to keep you in our thoughts.

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. More than a right that I exercise, I have come to view voting as a special, if not sacred, obligation. One of my most vivid childhood memories of spending time with my great-grandmother in rural Cade, Louisiana was the time she took me with her to vote. She dressed up to go to the polls just as she did when she was going to church. So, from a very early age voting impressed me as an important activity. I would later learn how many people sacrificed so much to make it possible for me to cast a ballot. Voting has been a serious matter for me for as long as I can remember.
While we celebrate the centennial of the ratification of 19th Amendment on August 18th and now recognize August 26th the date it went into effect as Women’s Equality Day, many women, especially Black women like my great-grandmother living in the Jim Crow South, would not gain voting rights until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and political terrorism prevented most Black people from voting despite ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870 which was intended to prevent voting restrictions based on “race, color or previous condition of servitude.” In his last public letter, published in the New York Times, the late US Congressional Representative John Lewis, a civil rights activist and leader in the ongoing struggle to secure voting rights for all Americans, observed:  “Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.” Click here for more.

Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the significance of social justice movements and political protest to civic participation.  I’ve also been contemplating how public memory and meaning are shaped through commemorative celebrations.

In 1848, women’s rights activists convened in Seneca Falls, New York issued a  Declaration of Sentiments detailing and decrying the “tyranny” of “a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.” Although many leading suffragists came to political activism through the movement to abolish slavery, several still held racist views. The formerly enslaved Sojourner Truth championed the cause of women’s rights, but she also challenged the women’s rights movement to confront its racism in her now famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech of 1851.  Nevertheless, discrimination proved difficult to dislodge.
Black women were relegated to the back of the procession during the landmark 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, DC. The suffrage movement was segregated and it embraced white supremacy, but Black women still sought to participate in the movement on equal terms. In a letter to the organizers of the 1913 suffrage procession explaining the importance of providing her sisters a “desirable place” in the parade, Nellie May Quander, then President of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority founded at Howard University, wrote: “We do not wish to enter if we must meet with discrimination on account of race affiliation.” Click here for more. 
More than a century later, Joe Biden the Democratic nominee for President has named Senator Kamala Harris of California, a graduate of Howard University and a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, as his running mate. The University of Utah will host Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, for the only Vice Presidential debate of 2020 on October 7th. Click here for more.

The history of how women won the right to vote had been dominated by the stories of a few white women. Now, a broader more inclusive and complete suffrage history is being told as 19th Amendment centennial commemorations across the nation celebrate the contributions of a diverse range of women to changing the country. Black suffragettes were a significant part of voting rights struggle despite the dual burdens of sexism and racism. They gave voice to the importance of understanding social movements as interrelated and interdependent. They also understood that interracial collaboration would require recognizing and rejecting racism.

In her 1866 address to the American Equal Rights Association, poet and novelist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper asked “are there no wrongs to be righted?” when she urged white suffragists to abandon racial exclusion and create a more inclusive movement. She imagined a movement that would acknowledge Americans as “all bound up together” and address racism as a women’s issue. Journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells viewed voting as a way to protect her community against political violence. More than a century later, Senator Harris would lead the effort to pass the bipartisan Justice for Victims of Lynching Act legislation to criminalize lynching for the first time in history.

Voices of Black women were not only ones omitted from the historical narrative of suffrage. We are now learning more about the range of women representing different races, regions, and religions mobilized to protest, lobby, sue, and march for voting rights. Utah women enjoyed voting rights long before ratification of the 19th Amendment due in large part to the efforts of a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Emmeline Wells. Utah historians continue the important work of completing a more comprehensive and inclusive story of the struggle for women’s suffrage in our state. In 2020, Utah women will celebrate 150 years of access to the ballot.

Today diverse women of all races are running for political office around the world in unprecedented numbers. At Tanner Humanities Center we take pride in providing the community opportunities to learn about and from women leaders. In 2014, we hosted former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard who gave a now famous speech to parliament denouncing sexism and misogyny to deliver our World Leader lecture.

Until we can safely return to the Center we will continue to look back and share recent news about the people and programs that make the Center such a special place. This month to honor the celebration of women’s suffrage in Utah we feature a conversation with Katherine Kitterman, historical director for the nonprofit organization Better Days 2020. The organization will unveil a memorial celebrating voting rights on August 21st and 22nd. Click here for more. In 2018 and 2019, our Gateway to Learning series for Utah’s K-12 educators partnered with Better Days 2020 to provide summer workshops for teachers on women’s suffrage.

While the Tanner Center remains closed to the general public to ensure the safety of our staff and patrons, this month we welcome our 2020-2021 research fellows. Learn more about the fellows below.

In these challenging and changing times, we at the Tanner Humanities Center will continue to promote humanities research and outreach in collaboration with our community partners. We value our relationship with you, and we appreciate your support. We look forward to seeing you again in person. Thank you for being a part of our community.

Please follow us on social media for our updates and information on arts and culture activities available to you online. Please feel free to contact us to share your ideas. We would love to hear from you.



Erika George


Last Updated: 6/30/21