Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Cartoonishly corrupt government officials do everything they can to stop a marginalized people from voting because they know for a fact that increasing the franchise will open the door to regulation, socialism, Black people having more rights, unions, and other things that white supremacists don’t want.
A hundred years ago, that was the fight for women’s suffrage in America, and the new special on PBS, Citizens at Last: Texas Women: Fight for the Vote, makes some stark, if subtle comparisons to the current fight our state is having.
The special is directed, co-written, and produced by Nancy Schiesari, a radio-TV-film professor at the University of Texas at Austin. It shows the fight to win the vote for Texas women through a refreshingly intersectional lens. Famous crusaders like Minnie Fisher Cunningham, Annette Finnigan, and Marianna Folsom take up a lot of the stage, but the specific contributions of Black and Tejana women are also celebrated.
Jovita Idár, one of the baddest-ass women ever to live in the Lone Star State, gets a nice segment. She once stood down Texas Rangers that came to burn her father’s printing presses for his dissident newspaper, El Progresso. The film deftly shows that the fight for women’s right to vote was international, and a significant part of the Mexican Revolution.
Too often, the racism in the suffrage movement is overlooked, but Citizens at Last confronts it head on while still making sure to show Texas women as a better class of freedom advocate. There’s a lovely piece on when Kate Gordon, the head of the Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference, attended a major conference in Galveston to try and recruit members into her explicitly white supremacist version of the women’s rights movement. Texas leaders sent her packing back to Louisiana.
The desire to maintain white supremacy cannot be extracted from the fight for the vote for women, as the film makes abundantly clear. Many politicians, including the personal nemesis of Texas suffragettes, Governor James Ferguson, were open about how they felt that women’s suffrage would lead to more Blacks voting. Once the activists began enlisting the aid of the blossoming union movement and socialists, seeing them as natural allies, things really began to get ugly.
The film tells this tale through black and white photographs animated Ken Burns-style along with a few period reenactments. And yet, there’s no denying the eerie similarities between then and now. While most Americans now technically have the vote, the conservative leadership of the state is once again looking to crack down on who can practically exercise it. Governor Greg Abbot and his party recently dumped two dozen bills aiming to restrict things like drive-thru voting, mail voting, and overnight voting. Their reasoning is as specious as it was in the Jim Crow days, and the intent is clear: stop marginalized people from getting to the ballot box to hold their leaders accountable.
Citizens at Last is more than a historical document of a settled issue. It’s a primer on exactly how entrenched power sources in a democracy deny rights to its people. Sadly, that lesson is only more relevant in 2021, not less. The alliance between women, ethnic minorities, and the workers of Texas rightfully scared its elites then, and it scares them now. Let’s use those lessons wisely, strongly, and often.
PBS will air Citizens at Last: Texas Women Fight for the Vote on Friday, March 19 at 9p.m.