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Rabia Belt explores the complex politics of women’s suffrage

Mar 14 2018

Stanford Law professor and current Clayman Institute Faculty Research Fellow Rabia Belt explored the politics of the women’s suffrage movement in her Faculty Research Fellows presentation, “Outcasts from the Vote: Women’s Suffrage and Disability in the Long Nineteenth Century United States.” Suffrage activists leveraged both laws and language around mental competency in order to advance their fight for the vote in the 19th century.

At her FRF presentation this fall, Belt outlined the legal history of two coterminous movements: the women’s suffrage movement and that of the movement to disenfranchise individuals based on mental incompetency. She described suffragists’ strategies to project their own mental competency on par with what she deemed the “compulsory able-mindedness” socially and legally required in order to both win and maintain the right to vote. These strategies included arguments to counter biological determinism and the insidious tactic of creating outcasts of marginalized people, especially African-Americans and white immigrants, in order to position themselves as more worthy of the right to vote. Belt contended that this latter tactic is the consequence of white suffragists’ desire to deter and obstruct the black man’s right to vote, legalized by the Fifteenth Amendment, in 1870.

In this capacity, white women, Belt asserted, learned how “to translate cultural power into political power” in order to effectively create political coalitions with white men for their enfranchisement. This history dovetails with extant histories of the women’s suffrage movement that examine how racism factors into divisions among women that carry forward to this day. Unique about Belt’s research is her focus on the legal correlation drawn between gender, race, and mental competency.

The topic of disenfranchisement based on assessments of mental competency lies at the intersection of Belt’s scholarship, which focuses on disability and citizenship. Her presentation figures as a part of her forthcoming book, Disabling Democracy in America: Disability, Citizenship, Suffrage, and the Law, 1819-1920.

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