Essay: The women journalists who fought for suffrage and freedom

This originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.

Jovita Idar stood in front of the building that housed the equipment of El Progreso, the Spanish-language newspaper where she worked as a reporter. A contingent of Texas Rangers was on its way. It was 1914 in the border town of Laredo and the paper had recently published an editorial critical of President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to dispatch troops to the Mexican border. The Texas Rangers were infamous for their vicious treatment of Mexican-Americans such as Jovita.

The 29-year-old journalist barred the door, planted her feet in the hard Texas ground and waited. The Rangers arrived and demanded to enter the building. Jovita refused, daring them to push her aside or knock her down.

The Rangers left, only to come back the next morning to destroy the equipment and arrest the staff. Jovita wasn’t at work and was spared. But her stand had saved the paper for a day.

Her courage was impressive but not unusual; she was raised in a family of activists who knew the power of the press, promoted civil rights and were disinclined to be silent in the face of injustice.

This month on Aug. 26, we will celebrate Women’s Equality Day to commemorate the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which in 1920 guaranteed women the right to vote. That milestone was a long time coming — about 70 years had passed since the start of the suffrage movement. Journalists, especially women, played a critical role in the 19th Amendment passing. Jovita Idar was one of those women. Her father owned and published La Cronica, a Spanish-language newspaper. She began her working life as a teacher, but left the profession to write for La Cronica, which gave her a platform to share the inequities she saw in the lives of those on both sides of the border.

After her father’s death, she and her brothers ran La Cronica and she wrote for El Progreso and other newspapers. She was also a co-founder of La Liga Femenil Mexicanista, a social, cultural, political and charitable organization for Mexican-American women.

“Working women know their rights and proudly rise to face the struggle,” Jovita said. “The hour of their degradation is past. Women are no longer servants but rather the equals of men, companions to them.”

In many cases, however, the communities these pioneering women journalists covered still faced barriers to voting. So the work has continued, fueled by the same perseverance still evident today as there continue to be obstacles to voting in many places and as the job of journalism is still challenging while also still a catalyst for change. The women journalists of the suffrage era were inspirational in many ways.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett was an activist who used her reporting skills to bring to light the racism and violence regularly committed against Black men in the South. She traveled widely, recording lynchings in gruesome detail and sharing the injustices she saw, writing columns published in several newspapers.

She was also part owner of the Memphis newspaper the Free Speech and Headlight, but within the first year had to flee when a mob destroyed her presses in response to an article she wrote denouncing the lynching of three local businessmen. Ida was one of the most prominent Black suffragists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She founded the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago, the first suffrage club for Black women, whose mission was to support voting rights for all women and to train Black women in civic and political engagement.

She famously said, “With no sacredness for the ballot there can be no sacredness for human life itself.” She continued the battle for suffrage and equal rights throughout her life. Earlier this year the Pulitzer Prize Board awarded her a posthumous special citation for her work reporting and writing about the horrors of lynching throughout the South.

Cassandra Jaramillo, a cops reporter with the Dallas Morning News, holds up Ida as a role model for working through disparities in gender and race in the journalism industry.

“We’re seeing all these reckonings across the country because of the race and ethnicity issues,” she says. “Newsrooms have traditionally been majority white men. Newsrooms need to talk about it. Leaders need to recognize it and think about who they mentor.”

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin was a women’s rights advocate and suffragist who was particularly focused on Black women’s cultural and civic development. In 1894 she founded the Woman’s Era, the first national newspaper published by and for Black women. Simultaneous with starting the newspaper, she founded the Woman’s Era Club, a civic association for Black women whose motto was “Help to make the world better.”

The first issue of the Woman’s Era featured editorials titled “The Problem of the Unemployed” and “Difficulties of Colonization,” both addressing issues that beset the Black community.

Josephine was editor and publisher of Woman’s Era and she recruited her daughter to serve as assistant editor. Her husband, George, was a pro-suffrage state legislator who assisted with the newspaper’s production and distribution. Josephine also co-founded the National Federation of Afro-American Women.

“We are women, American women, as intensely interested in all that pertains to us … as all other American women,” Josephine said at the founding meeting of the new organization. “We are not alienating or withdrawing, we are only coming to the front, willing to join any others in the same work and welcoming any others to join us.”

Matilda Joslyn Gage was a prolific writer who freelanced for several newspapers, primarily reporting on the suffrage movement. In 1878 she bought the Ballot Box, the monthly journal of a Toledo suffrage association. Matilda renamed it the National Citizen and Ballot Box and served as its primary editor for the next three years.

She said of the paper: “Its especial object will be to secure national protection to women citizens in the exercise of their rights to vote … it will oppose Class Legislation of whatever form. … Women of every class, condition, rank and name will find this paper their friend.”

Matilda also used the press to support Indigenous people’s rights. She wrote a series of front page stories for the New York Evening Post about Native American culture. Because of her public support of the Haudenosaunee Federation, she was offered an honorary adoption into the Wolf Clan, bringing with it the prospect of joining the Council of Matrons, who among other leadership tasks appointed the chieftain of the tribe.

The same year, in 1893, she was arrested by state authorities for attempting to vote. The stark difference between the role of women in the clans and their role in the United States was clear, and Matilda was outspoken about it.

The 19th Amendment granted women the vote in 1920, but that didn’t necessarily translate into all eligible women being able to cast ballots. Poll taxes, literacy tests, “white primaries” and other impediments blocked access to the ballot box for both men and women of color. It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 that such obstacles were disallowed under law.

To this day, however, those who seek to limit minority groups from voting have found creative ways to do so. Voter ID laws, gerrymandering and limited polling locations are among those tactics. In the 2018 midterm elections, voters in North Dakota couldn’t vote without producing proof of a street address. That essentially disenfranchised most Indigenous people living on reservations because they don’t use street addresses.

Americans who live far from the Dakotas probably wouldn’t know about these restrictions if it weren’t for the press.

Some things have changed since 1920 and some haven’t. What has remained constant is the curiosity, tenacity and keenness of eye and pen that journalists bring to bear — and challenges they face in doing so.

Dallas-based journalist Marina Trahan Martinez says there is a line between honest reporting and intentional activism which reporters must respect, but that doesn’t mean staying quiet when a wrong is obvious, whether it’s on the street or in the office.

“I’m not going to tiptoe around something,” she says. “Like the way our industry has been calling out their own news organizations for not saying ‘racist’ or ‘racism’ outright. If it needs to be called out, it gets called out.”

On Aug. 22, the Houston chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists will host a panel discussion on “Suffrage and the Press.” One thing we will explore is how struggles that journalists faced during the suffrage fight are still relevant today.

Today’s journalists see their work as a calling in the same way Wells-Barnett, Ruffin and Gage did. The challenges, we feel, are worth the outcome.

On behalf of the board of directors of the Houston chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, I thank our predecessors for their hard work bringing to public attention to critical injustices and rights abuses and working to bring about the fairer, more equal society we enjoy today.

We are grateful that they risked their own safety and station to fight for progress and to bar the door against those who stood in its way.