Reclaiming the herstories of black woman suffragists

Reclaiming the herstories of black woman suffragists

Watching Democratic Party women don white to attend the State of the Union address back in January in honor of the suffragists’ battle for the vote evoked mixed feelings. I felt pride as a feminist, and pain as a black woman aware of the fact that our battle for voting rights is still unresolved.

I was deeply saddened when I learned, during that same time, of the passing of historian Rosalyn Terborg-Penn. Her seminal work on black suffragists opened my eyes to the erasure of herstories of black women in the battle for enfranchisement. For Women’s History Month, I’d like to celebrate her work and the work of other historians who have ensured that the contributions of black women to American history will not be overlooked.

The Association of Black Women Historians posted these tweets:


In Memoriam: It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Dr. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, one of the three founders of the ABWH and a pioneering historian of black women's history. Further details about final arrangements will follow.

— ABWH Truth (@ABWHTruth) December 26, 2018


It has taken me a few days to digest the death of Dr. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn.  She was strength personified!  I will miss my friend, supporter and college professor.  She was amazing in the…

— AprilDRyan (@AprilDRyan) December 30, 2018

Her obituary in The New York Times was titled “Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, 77, Dies; Historian Recognized Black Suffragists”:

Dr. Terborg-Penn, a professor of history at Morgan State University in Baltimore for more than three decades, was the author of seven books, most notably, “African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920” (1998). It was one of the first book-length examinations of black women in the suffrage movement, and it challenged the existing narrative that was dominated, and framed, by white activists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Dr. Terborg-Penn’s book was a counterweight to “History of Women’s Suffrage,” a six-volume work, begun in 1881, that was edited by Anthony, Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage. That opus more or less erased from the picture the many black women who Dr. Terborg-Penn said had attended suffrage meetings, organized suffrage clubs and promoted the cause. Stanton, moreover, had expressed racist views, especially when arguing that women should have the vote before black men. Dr. Terborg-Penn identified more than 120 black women, including Mary Church Terrell and Sarah Parker Remond, and described “hundreds of nameless black women” who had participated in the suffrage fight but whose activity had been little noted and their speeches seldom recorded.

Black women, she said, were shunted aside in the history books because their goals had diverged from those of the white, mostly upper-middle-class women who had led the charge. White women wanted parity with white men, while black women, only just emerging from slavery, wanted to use the ballot box to fight the racial oppression that was engulfing the South.

As plans move forward for major 2020 centennial celebrations of the passing of the 19th amendment,I am afraid that amidst all the pride and pageantry, the ugly underbelly of that history will be ignored, avoided or completely erased.

I’ve looked at some of the centennial websites like the 2020 Women's Vote Centennial Initiative and downloaded the teaching tools, and at first glance noted that prominently featured are Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Harriet Tubman. Yet even the site “Women Leading the Way: Suffragists and Suffragettes,” which includes Mary Church Terrell and Francis Harper in the painting that is central to the project, gives no real sense of a movement fractured by racism.

This article, written  by Tammy L. Brown for the 170th anniversary of Seneca Falls, could have been written for 2020. It’s titled “Celebrate Women’s Suffrage, but Don't Whitewash the Movement's Racism”:

When suffragists gathered in Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848, they advocated for the right of white women to vote. The participants were middle and upper-class white women, a cadre of white men supporters and one African-American male — Frederick Douglass.  The esteemed abolitionist had forged a strong working relationship with fellow abolitionists and white women suffragists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. No Black women attended the convention. None were invited.

Although women of color were profoundly absent at Seneca Falls, a greater degree of cultural inclusion was on the horizon. In May 1851, African-American abolitionist Sojourner Truth spoke at a women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio. During her famous speech on the abolition of slavery and the promotion of women’s rights, Truth allegedly bared her breast and proclaimed, “Ain’t I a woman?”  It was a melodramatic act and statement, but as historian Nell Painter argues, it never happened. Instead, it was a quaint fiction crafted by convention organizer Frances Dana Gage and other white feminists who depicted Truth to white audiences as a genuine albeit primitive ally in the fight for women’s rights. Thus, the 1851 convention marked a modicum of progress, but this progress is tainted by white suffragists’ attempts to control Truth’s voice.

By the turn of the 20th century, Black suffragists such as Mary Church Terrell represented intersectional feminism at its best. Born to former slaves in Memphis, Tennessee, Terrell earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Oberlin College and served as president of the National Association of Colored Women. In February 1898, Terrell spoke at the National American Woman Suffrage Association convention in Washington, D.C. Her speech forced powerful white women attendees to reflect on the compounding oppressions and systemic violence that Black women endured during slavery. She ended on a more optimistic note — praising the sheer grit and intellect of freed women. Terrell’s rhetorical style echoed the American ethos of self-made men and women, but she oversimplified the historical reality that the paths to racial and gender equality are long, jagged, and still unwinding.

Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech has become a “truth” cited everywhere—and yet much of it is fiction. Visit The Sojourner Truth Project:

Most people are familiar with the popular version of Sojourner Truth's famous, “Ain’t I a woman” speech but they have no idea that this popular version is not Sojourner's  speech and is vastly different from her original 1851 speech.

This popular but inaccurate version was written and published in 1863, (12 years after Sojourner gave the "Ain't I a woman" speech), by a white abolitionist named Frances Dana Barker Gage. Curiously, Gage not only changed all of Sojourner’s words but chose to represent Sojourner speaking in a stereotypical 'southern black slave accent', rather than in her distinct upper New York State low-Dutch accent. Frances Gage’s actions were well intended and served the suffrage and women's rights movement at the time; however, by today’s standards of ethical journalism, her actions were a gross misrepresentation of Sojourner Truth’s words and identity. By changing Truth's words and her dialect to that of a stereotypical southern slave, Frances Gage effectively erased Sojourner’s Dutch heritage and her authentic voice. As well as unintentionally adding to the oversimplification of the American slave culture and furthering the eradication of our nations Northern slave history. Frances Gage admitted that her amended version had “given but a faint sketch” of Sojourner's original speech but she felt justified and believed her version stronger and more palatable to the American public then Sojourner's original version.

The site has some recordings of what her Afro-Dutch accent might have sounded like.

In 2011’s “The ballot and black women,” I wrote about and recommended Rosalyn Terborg-Penn’s book African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850–1920 as a place to start to learn some of the erased history. In the Journal of American History, reviewer Jane Rhodes wrote:

Bookcover:African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920

This study of African American women's roles in the suffrage movement breaks new ground. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn draws from many original documents to take a comprehensive look at the African American women who sought the right to vote. She discovers numerous Black suffragists previously unknown. Analyzing the women's own stories, she examines why they joined the woman suffrage movement in the United States and how they participated in it - with white women, Black men, as members of African American women's organizations, or simultaneously in all three. Terborg-Penn further discusses their various levels of interaction and types of feminist philosophy. Noting that not all African American woman suffragists were from elite circles, Terborg-Penn finds representation from working-class and professional women as well. They came from all parts of the nation. Some employed radical, others conservative means to gain the right to vote. Black women, however, were unified in working to use the ballot to improve not only their own status, but the lives of Black people in their communities. Drawing from innumerable sources, Terborg-Penn argues that sexism and racism prevented African American women from voting and from full participation in the national suffrage movement. Following the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, state governments in the South, enacted policies which disfranchised African American women, with many white suffragists closing their eyes to the discriminatory acts. Despite efforts to keep Black women politically powerless, Terborg-Penn contends that the Black suffrage was a source of empowerment. Every political and racial effort to keep African American women disfranchised met with their active resistance until Black women achieved full citizenship

We see that same resistance and persistence today as black women continue the struggle to vote, and are also running for office in greater numbers than ever before.

In the photo at the top of this story, Terborg-Penn is standing in front of an Anna Julia Cooper exhibition that was held at the Anacostia Museum in Washington, D.C. Cooper was a noted intellectual of her time: a feminist, scholar, educator, and activist.

“I speak for the colored women of the South, because it is there that the millions of blacks in this country have watered the soil with blood and tears, and it is there too that the colored woman of America has made her characteristic history and there her destiny is evolving.”

Born in 1858 in North Carolina to her enslaved mother, Hannah Stanley Haywood, and her white slaveholder, Anna Julia Cooper spent her lifetime of over a century redefining the limitations and opportunities for women of color in a society set up for their disempowerment and subjugation. A distinguished scholar and educator, Cooper saw the status and agency of black women as central to the equality and progress of the nation. She famously wrote in her 1892 book A Voice from the South, “only the BLACK WOMAN can say when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.” She fought tirelessly throughout her life to re-center and uplift the voice of black women in pursuit of a more just society for everyone.

She founded the Colored Women’s League of Washington in 1892, and seven years later helped open the first YWCA chapter for black women, in response to their unwillingness to allow women of color into the organization. She spoke at the Pan African Congress and the Women’s Congress in Chicago, with a speech entitled “The Needs and the Status of Black Women.” It was also in this last decade of the 19th century that Cooper published her landmark text A Voice From the South, in which she dissects the way black women are affected by living at the intersection of oppressions and explains their status and progress as a definitive marker of the status and progress of the nation. In VFTS, Cooper also emphasizes the need to privilege black women’s voices, criticizing white scholars who wrote about and acted as authorities on the lives of black men and women despite their ignorance on the subject. Cooper believed that black women’s subjection to intersecting oppressions gave them a unique and invaluable outlook on society, arguing that rather THAN being suppressed, it was the voices of these women that needed to be front and center as society moved forward.

Cooper’s achievements both in and outside of the classroom garnered contempt from white colleagues and supervisors, and she was dismissed from M Street School in 1906 after a controversy erupted surrounding her character and behavior. As a testament to her reputation and achievements at M Street School, Cooper was re-hired in 1910 as a teacher by a new superintendent. Motivated rather than defeated by this scandal, Cooper decided to return to school, and in 1924 became only the fourth black woman in the United States to receive a doctorate degree, attaining her Ph.D at the University of Paris.  While teaching and working on her doctorate, Cooper was also raising five children whom she had adopted in 1915 after her brother passed away.

A Voice From the South is free online.

Here’s another text to add to your reading list, by historian Faye E. Dudden: Fighting Chance: The Struggle over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America:

Bookcover: Fighting Chance: The Struggle over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America

The advocates of woman suffrage and black suffrage came to a bitter falling-out in the midst of Reconstruction, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton opposed the 15th Amendment because it granted the vote to black men but not to women. How did these two causes, so long allied, come to this?

Based on extensive research, Fighting Chance is a major contribution to women's history and to 19th-century political history--a story of how idealists descended to racist betrayal and desperate failure.

From the Introduction:

This book examines how woman suffrage and black suffrage, allied for so long, came to a bitter falling-out in the midst of Reconstruction, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton opposed the Fifteenth Amendment for granting black men the right to vote but not women. It shows that, aside from racism, money and politics helped influence the outcome of this conflict. It looks at how Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, believing they had a fighting chance to win woman suffrage after the Civil War, tried but failed to exploit windows of political opportunity, especially in Kansas, succeeding only in selling out their long-held commitment to black rights and their invaluable friendship and alliance with Frederick Douglass.

Dudden pulls no punches when describing racist screeds against the 15th Amendment, which would give black men the right to vote:

She dipped her pen into a tincture of white racism and sketched a reference to a nightmarish figure, the black rapist. If the nation gives the vote to black men but not to women, she wrote, it will encourage “fearful outrages on womanhood, especially in the southern states” If the Fifteenth Amendment is passed, she warned, woman’s “degradation” will be complete and “persecutions, insults, horrors” will descend upon her. It was February 1869 and the Ku Klux Klan was terrorizing the South, but the author of these words was no female Klan member. She was feminist pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton editorializing in the Revolution, the newspaper she and Susan B. Anthony had been publishing for over a year. Stanton and Anthony repeatedly predicted rape—“fearful outrages”—and insisted that black men were their enemies, “more hostile to woman than any class of men in the country.”

A long-standing alliance, marked by incompatibility but durable nonetheless, was breaking up. How did the advocates of woman suffrage come to this? How did black rights and women’s rights, causes that had formerly collaborated, come to such a rupture? At the same time she laced her editorials with racist resentments, Elizabeth Cady Stanton also wrote openly of her regret at “this antagonism with [black] men whom we respect, whose wrongs we pity, and whose hopes we would fain help them realize.” This falling-out, this “antagonism,” has been called “one of the saddest divorces in American history.” In the upshot, black men would get the vote in 1870 and women would have to wait for suffrage until fifty years later.

Along those lines, author and editorial writer for The New York Times Brent Staples recently wrote and absorbing piece titled “When the Suffrage Movement Sold Out to White Supremacy”:

Americans are being forced to choose between a cherished lie and a disconcerting truth as they prepare to celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment in 2020. The lie holds that the amendment ended a century-long struggle by guaranteeing women the right to vote. The truth is that it barred states from denying voting rights based on gender but “guaranteed” nothing. More than a dozen states had already granted millions of women voting rights before ratification, and millions of other women — particularly African-Americans in the Jim Crow South — remained shut out of the polls for decades afterward.

While middle-class white women celebrated with ticker tape parades, black women in the former Confederacy were being defrauded by voting registrars or were driven away from registration offices under threat of violence. When the black suffragist and civil rights leader Mary Church Terrell petitioned her white sisters for help, they responded that the disenfranchisement of black women was a race problem — not a gender problem — and beyond the movement’s writ.

This counterfeit distinction was familiar to black suffragists, who had argued for more than 50 years that they could no more separate gender from race in themselves than shed their skins. The movement, however, had tended toward a definition of “women” that was implicitly limited to people of the gender who were white and middle class. Its most prominent advocates — Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony — drove home that notion by rendering black women nearly invisible in their hugely influential “History of Woman Suffrage.” As the push for white women’s rights neared its goal — a constitutional amendment — the movement hedged its bets by compromising with white supremacy.

This was not the first time Staples has addressed this issue. In 2018 he wrote “How the Suffrage Movement Betrayed Black Women”:

The most blatant example of accommodationism came in 1913 when organizers of a huge suffragist parade in Washington demanded that black participants march in an all-black assembly at the back of the parade instead of with their state delegations. Wells famously refused. Terrell, who marched in a colored delegation as requested, believed at the time that white suffragists would exclude black women from the 19th Amendment — nicknamed the Anthony Amendment — if they thought they could get away with it. These episodes fueled within the African-American community a lasting suspicion of white suffragists and of the very idea of political cooperation across racial lines.

Historians are rightly warning groups involved in suffrage commemorations not to overstate the significance of the 19th Amendment. It covered the needs of middle-class white women quite nicely. But it meant very little to black women in the South, where most lived at the time and where election officials were well practiced in the art of obstructing black access to the ballot box. As African-American women streamed in to register, Southern officials merely stepped up the level of fraud and intimidation.

By this time, the former suffragists of the North were celebrating the amendment and were uninterested in fighting discrimination against women who were suffering racial, as opposed to gender, discrimination. As the historian Rosalyn Terborg-Penn writes: “Within a few years, white supremacy was victorious throughout the South. Unlike Black men, who had been disenfranchised within 20 years after the ratification of the 15th Amendment, Black women had lost the vote in less than a decade.” It would take another half-century — and a new suffrage campaign, with black women in a leading role — before that black community was fully enfranchised, through the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In the fall of 1916, four years before the 19th Amendment would make it unconstitutional to deny voting rights on the basis of sex, African-American women in Chicago were readying to cast their first ballots ever for President. The scenes in that year of black women, many of them the daughters and granddaughters of former slaves, exercising the franchise, was as ordinary as it was unexpected.

Theirs was a unique brand of politics crafted at the crossroads of racism and sexism. African-American women had always made their own way. In Chicago, they secured a place at the polls by way of newly enacted state laws that, over 25 years, extended the vote to the women of Illinois, gradually, unevenly and without regard to color. The real story, however, is an older one that stretches across generations of black women’s ambition and activism. It only sometimes intersects with better-known tales of how white women campaigned for their political rights. And yes, sometimes black and white women clashed. Still, the history of black women and the vote is one about figures who, though subjected to nearly crushing political disabilities, emerged as unparalleled advocates of universal suffrage in its truest sense.

Some of the erased and suppressed history that is being brought to light in academic texts and journals is making its way to a broader audience via social media, like this piece from Now This:

It has become tradition for people to put 'I Voted' stickers on Susan B. Anthony's grave on election day in Rochester, New York. NowThis producer Luria Freeman argues that women's suffrage icon Anthony does not deserve your 'I Voted' stickers because of her well documented history of racial bias. While she had abolitionist roots, Anthony and her colleagues did not want to give Black people the right to vote. Perhaps we should honor Sojourner Truth or Ida B. Wells on election day instead?

Though well-researched and documented, much of this history is still not incorporated into standard middle, high school, and college American history curricula.

Some students are shown videos like this one, released back in 2012:

Just in time for Women's History Month, Soomo is pleased to announce the release of our new parody music video, Bad Romance: Women's Suffrage. The new video features Alice Paul engaging in the "militant" tactics of the latter years of suffrage movement and the dramatic ratification of the 19th Amendment. The video has such rich content that we feature it in two new assignments for our Americans Governing collection

A teacher left this comment on their website:

Hi!  I am a 7th grade Humanities teacher and I love your videos.  I know my students would be intrigued and watching the videos would be an excellent start to a discussion of civil rights and women's suffrage.  I was saddened to see no women of color in your Bad Romance video, though.  Students should see that women of all races fought for and benefit from the right to vote.  For my students especially, who are primarily Black and Latino, seeing images of white women only in the political sphere increases their feelings of marginalization, powerlessness, and ultimately the kind of disenfranchisement that you are speaking out against.  I hope you can bear this in mind for your next productions.  Thanks, and keep up the otherwise great work!

Ama Ansah examines Alice Paul through a black historical lens:

Shortly after her appointment to NAWSA’s Congressional Committee, activist Alice Paul organized a grand demonstration for women’s suffrage. Having worked in the more radical British suffrage movement before returning to America, Paul understood the power of mass demonstrations. Though she expected to run into difficulties securing permits, navigating the press, and even in recruiting participants, Paul was not prepared for race controversy.

When the Women’s Journal published a letter to the editor asking if there would be Black participation in the parade, Paul requested fellow organizer Hellen Gardner to contact editor Alice Stone Blackwell. Gardner requested that Blackwell “refrain from publishing anything which can possibly start that [negro] topic at this time.” Gardner and Paul feared that after the “very hard fight” to gain permission for the parade, addressing race would cause them to “lose absolutely all we have gained and more.” Paul later told Blackwell, “the participation of negros would have a most disastrous effect” upon the suffrage cause by upsetting southern voters. Parade organizers resolved to “say nothing whatever about the [negro] question, to keep it out of the papers, [and] to try to make this a purely Suffrage demonstration entirely uncomplicated by any other problems.” Instead of viewing Votes for Women as part of a broader push for social equality, Paul separated racial equality from electoral equality.

Nevertheless, Black suffragists rallied. Activists Adella Hunt Logan and Mary Church Terrell encouraged Black women’s clubs across the country to participate. Women at Howard University reached out to Paul, expressing interest in joining the parade. Howard’s Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority president Nellie Quander wrote to Paul, asking to march but expressing concern over rumored segregation. Days before the parade, the state contingent from Illinois telegrammed Paul asking if Black marchers were welcome. Evidently not receiving an answer, the Illinois group and their sole African American participant, the activist and long-time suffragist Ida B. Wells, arrived as an integrated unit.

I don’t remember learning any of this history in my early college days in the mid ‘60s, even at Howard University.

It wasn’t until 1970 that the first Women’s Studies program was founded in the United States, one year after the founding of the first Black Studies program. Black women historians faced challenges in both areas and in academia as a whole, as detailed in Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower:

Bookcover: Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower

The field of black women's history gained recognition as a legitimate field of study late in the twentieth century. Collecting stories that are both deeply personal and powerfully political, Telling Histories compiles seventeen personal narratives by leading black women historians at various stages in their careers. Their essays illuminate how--first as graduate students and then as professional historians--they entered and navigated the realm of higher education, a world concerned with and dominated by whites and men. In distinct voices and from different vantage points, the personal histories revealed here also tell the story of the struggle to establish a new scholarly field.

Black women, alleged by affirmative-action supporters and opponents to be "twofers," recount how they have confronted racism, sexism, and homophobia on college campuses. They explore how the personal and the political intersect in historical research and writing and in the academy. Organized by the years the contributors earned their Ph.D.'s, these essays follow the black women who entered the field of history during and after the civil rights and black power movements, endured the turbulent 1970s, and opened up the field of black women's history in the 1980s. By comparing the experiences of older and younger generations, this collection makes visible the benefits and drawbacks of the institutionalization of African American and African American women's history. Telling Histories captures the voices of these pioneers, intimately and publicly.

Reading Terborg-Penn’s essay titled “Being and thinking outside of the box: A Black woman’s experience in academia” gives you a sense of what some black women historians faced in pursuing their studies.

In the past, I have likened my development as an academic to “a black history journey.”1Even in the 1960s, in the eyes of traditionalists in the so-called ivory tower, taking this journey meant being outside of the box. At the time, traditional history departments where I enrolled had not quite acknowledged the legitimacy of black history as a field of study.

Majoring in history at Queens College was fine because in this male dominated department nobody noticed women. This ultimately worked to my advantage because I did not stick out as a “colored” student activist as I had when I majored in biology as a freshman, then sociology as a sophomore, and experienced discrimination that I was not prepared to meet. Faculty in biology and sociology at Queens College expected black students not to succeed, and our grades often reflected these negative faculty expectations. This pattern did not appear to exist in the history department. We were taught primarily Western culture with a sprinkling of European colonial history. If you performed well, as I did, you were rewarded. However, in this environment, students did not learn about non-Europeanized societies. For the most part, I followed the traditional path since I had changed my major two times and needed to graduate.


After commencement, I went on to graduate school as my parents expected me to do. I wanted to go to Howard University, but I also applied to other universities in Washington, D.C. I was accepted at George Washington University (gwu). Disappointed that I had not heard from Howard in time to apply for my guaranteed loan, I enrolled at gwu, not knowing that the admissions staff apparently assumed that I was a white student. They saw my last name of Dutch origin, my undergraduate college with its low minority enrollment, and my black-and-white photo, which made my skin appear to be lighter than it is. When my new adviser assumed I was in the wrong office and asked if I needed directions, I realized that I was in the South and the graduate school had made a mistake by accepting me.

My own experiences in art history, urban studies, and anthropology were both comic and tragic. In grad school I wanted to study social hierarchies within the black community and examine women’s roles, especially among black elites. A white member of my committee asked me: ”Black elites? Black people have elites?”

As more women enter the field and get published (which in and of itself is a story worth telling), “history” will change. The challenge then becomes getting people who have already been indoctrinated to believe one view to become open to thinking about another, and changing white feminist history to include those of us who are black or women of color, no matter how uncomfortable or rancorous parts of that history are.

I will be following upcoming plans for 2020 centennial celebrations closely. They began in my home state of New York in 2017 and will continue through 2020.

What plans are being made in your area for the 2020 centennial? What stories will they be telling?  What black suffragist women are included? Will there be an abridged and sanitized version, or the truth with both warts and wonders?


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