History regards the passage of the 19th Amendment—ratified 100 years ago to this day—as a beacon of gender equality in the United States of America. However, the reality (as it usually is) is much more nuanced.
Although the amendment declares that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” many were still excluded from the promises of democracy. The American suffrage movement heralded the right to enfranchisement for white and certain classes of women, consequently leaving out those who were Black, Native, Asian, and Latina for decades thereafter.
Now, on the centennial anniversary of the landmark amendment, BAZAAR.com is speaking with four women voting rights experts: Deborah Archer, the co-faculty director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law and director of the Civil Rights Clinic at NYU School of Law; Leigh Chapman, the voting rights program director at The Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights; Sonja Diaz, the founding director of the UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Initiative; and Porsha White, the vice president for Voting Rights & State Organizing at Let America Vote. Together, we explore just who the suffrage movement left out, and who is still feeling the effects of ongoing voter suppression tactics today.
How did the ratification of the 19th Amendment continue to leave behind Black women, Native American women, and women of color?
Deborah Archer: The 19th Amendment left Black women, Native-American women, and other women of color behind, because it did not meaningfully extend the vote to those women. Although the 15th and 19th Amendments together should have given Black women the franchise, it would take 70 years before that vote had meaning.
The women’s rights movement has left women of color behind far too often. One of the reasons women articulated during their fight for the right to vote was that political participation would help them change the way their families lived, allowing their children to grow and flourish. Some in the suffrage movement called this “protecting the home.” Many suffrage leaders also talked about the fight for racial equality and argued that women would use the right to vote to end practices like lynchings and racialized violence.
However, as soon as it became politically necessary—in order to get the support of white Southern women—many leaders within the suffrage movement appealed to racism to unify white women around the 19th Amendment. This is reflective of larger dynamics we continue to see far too often: white women choosing white supremacy over gender solidarity.
Women of color, and the issues of critical importance to their lives and those of their families, are often brushed aside as irrelevant to the women’s rights movement. When issues are deemed to challenge “women’s rights,” we see a broad coalition stand up to fight for that right or against encroachment on a right. That was true during the suffrage movement, which brought together an incredible coalition of women. This is also true today when we talk about the fight for equal pay. But when society deems an issue to be primarily one of racial justice issues, not all women stand up, even though they are also women’s rights issues, because they are not seen as universally applicable to all women. In American politics, when we talk about women’s rights, people often mean white women’s rights. Black and other women of color are simply not included.
The suffrage movement talked about fighting for the family. Yet, some of the biggest issues facing families of color are racial segregation in education and policing. Not all women are joining in on that fight. In fact, white women are often leading the fight against efforts to integrate public schools, and, as we saw several times this year alone, are weaponizing the police against people of color.
Another example is employment discrimination. Women of color often face discrimination because of their hairstyles, and advocates around the country are advancing laws to bar discrimination against Black women’s natural hairstyles. But this is a fight Black women are largely fighting alone.
Black women prosecutors are increasingly targeted around the country. They are facing racialized and sexist hostility to strip them of power and undermine efforts to achieve criminal justice reform. Generally, women’s rights advocates have not come to their defense. These are all examples of fights that Black women are facing without the active support of the so-called women’s rights movement.
In American politics, when we talk about women’s rights, people often mean white women’s rights. Black and other women of color are simply not included.
Leigh Chapman: Although women were given the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment, because of systemic racism, white supremacy, voter suppression, and intimidation, Black women and women of color weren’t able to fully participate in the political process until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Additionally, shortly after the 19th Amendment was passed, many states passed laws prohibiting Mexican, Chinese, and Native American women from voting.
Sonja Diaz: We cannot talk about the 19th Amendment and the fight for voting rights without talking about how the suffragette movement we all learn about in school was also grounded in white supremacy. We also need to talk about the fact that its most recognizable leaders—women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott—were perfectly satisfied to leave Indigenous and Black women to fend for themselves when it came to the ballot box.
Black women and other women of color did not universally gain the right until 1965, and it cannot be emphasized enough the impact that Black women had on making that happen. While we often focus on the men of the civil rights movement, Black women like Ella Baker and Diane Nash were there organizing and setting the agenda right beside them for civil rights, large and small, including voting.
Further, Black women took action in their everyday lives, like Lillian Bonner Sutson, whose efforts to vote gave Thurgood Marshall the experience to pursue other voting rights cases that helped to strike down voter discrimination. Interestingly, we continue to see similar patterns today, in which women’s rights are seen through a lens that is rarely intersectional and rarely includes working-class women, women of color, and trans women.
Porsha White: Civics classes tout the 19th Amendment as the end of the struggle for every American woman’s right to vote, but celebrating its ratification as completing the movement for equal voting rights is a gross mistelling of history. While white, middle-class women paraded streets on August 18, 1920, as the main beneficiaries of women’s suffrage, Black women remained disenfranchised in the Jim Crow South, as well as many Native American, Asian, and Latinx women.
It wasn’t until half a century later that women of color were guaranteed equal access to the ballot. Voter suppression didn’t stop there. In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted critical protections of the Voting Rights Act. While we celebrate ratification of the 19th Amendment as a step towards equality, the battle for all Americans’ right to vote remains incomplete.
How did Black women and women of color contribute to the suffrage movement in the early 20th century, before the 19th Amendment’s ratification?
Chapman: To understand the history of Black women and the suffrage movement, we have to go back to the 19th century. The women’s suffrage movement and the movement to abolish slavery were closely aligned. Sojourner Truth, a former slave, abolitionist, and women’s rights activist, believed that suffrage for women should happen at the same time as suffrage for formerly enslaved men. Black men received the right to vote first with the enactment of the 15th amendment and faced immediate mass disenfranchisement by voter suppression tactics in states, like literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and voter intimidation.
Although Black women played a key role in the suffrage movement, they were not treated equally to white women. During the 1913 suffrage parade, Black women were required to march at the back of the parade behind white women. Black women are often erased from the stories around the suffrage movement. In school, students are often told the stories of Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and are shown pictures of white women activists wearing white dresses and holding up “Votes for Women” signs, but Black women suffragists like Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells are often excluded from the history books.
Diaz: Although the face of the suffrage movement we’re taught is largely white and privileged, working women, Black and Indigenous women, and immigrant women paved the way for voting rights for women. In fact, the suffrage movement was born out of the fight for abolition, and many of the early leaders in the movement were abolitionists like Sojourner Truth, who felt along with physical freedom that they deserved the right to choose those who would govern them. Further, Indigenous women who had power in their sovereign nations offered a model to other women fighting for voting rights showing what was possible.
Yet, the invaluable contributions of women of color in expanding agency for their communities is largely erased from mainstream historical accounts of this period. An important account of the ways that Latinas in the Southwest pushed for equal rights is the story of Jovita Idár, who Jennifer Medina profiled in the New York Times’ overlooked obituaries series. The degradation facing communities of color during this time period emboldened activists like Jovita to take an intersectional approach to their advocacy that was not limited to the ballot box, but extended to quality schools, linguistically appropriate health and human services, and border issues. Women of the Southwest, including Indigenous and Latinx leaders, played an outsized role in ensuring that women west of the Mississippi were able to vote before the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
How have women proven themselves to be a powerful voting bloc since?
Archer: Across the country, and at every level of government, the political participation of women has determined the outcome of elections. Indeed, for the last several decades, women have participated in federal elections in larger numbers than men. Today, women are voting in record numbers, running for office in record numbers, and working to ensure that the issues that are important to them are front and center of the political and legislative agenda at all levels of government.
Women of color are increasingly taking a leading role in shaping the political landscape. We are not only a growing percentage of the electorate and showing up to the polls in massive numbers, but women of color are also playing a critically important role in engaging other voters and mobilizing voter turnout and broader political participation. Black women are also the most reliable constituency in the Democratic Party.
But, again, as women have continued to flex their political muscles, efforts to dilute and suppress their strength and their vote have skyrocketed.
Diaz: Women, particularly Black women, have the highest rates of voting, and their efforts can often be seen as the determining factor in an election. We saw this in Alabama with Doug Jones’s U.S. Senate win. And even though Stacey Abrams didn’t win her race for governor of Georgia, we saw the impact of women on her campaign, even with extreme voter suppression tactics in play.
And for the first time since Reconstruction, this country is experiencing a record number of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian Pacific Islander candidates in a single election year. Taking gender into account, this historical moment in electoral politics is unmatched. In 2020, 583 women are running for the U.S. House of Representatives, a 22.5 percent increase from the record-setting number of women who ran in 2018 as a referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency. The number of women of color running for Congress, the House and Senate, is higher than any other election year in U.S. history. These representational gains that are occurring across both parties this cycle that is reflective of the power of women, their ability to organize and shift conversations.
That said, there remains a partisan gap and persistent underrepresentation of women in the total pool of candidates. The potential of today’s girls of color to tackle society’s toughest challenges and reverse this country’s exclusionary gender representation gap is prescient given their eagerness to assume leadership roles and the country’s demographic shift towards a more diverse youthful electorate.
In what ways are women still fighting for the right to vote today, especially in light of the Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act in 2013?
Archer: More than 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, BIPOC women continue to face significant barriers to exercising the right to vote. One important challenge are voter suppression laws—including overly burdensome voter ID laws, discriminatory voter purges, and reductions in voting locations—that are increasingly used to discourage and undermine women of color’s ability to vote and their broader influence on election outcomes. The laws target and disproportionately impact women, and women of color in particular.
We have a president and other politicians who have shown that they are deeply committed to voter suppression. The Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, gutting the Voting Rights Act of its most powerful provision, paved the way for them. We have seen a wave of laws that make it especially hard for poor people and people of color to vote. But we tend to forget that women are also being disproportionately impacted by these efforts.
Chapman: This year also marks the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Although we have made progress, we have a long way to go until there is full participation at the ballot box. Since the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, states have passed laws and implemented policies making it harder for people to vote.
In 2020, not only do marginalized communities face barriers to the ballot, but they also face a new obstacle: COVID-19. We have already seen the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on our elections through the chaos in recent primaries with hours-long lines and massive polling place closures in states like Georgia and Wisconsin, where voters had to put their health and safety at risk in order to exercise their constitutional right to vote.
Women are fighting for voting rights in Congress, state legislatures, and on the municipal level. Women are leading national and grassroots advocacy organizations and are on the front lines of organizing and advocacy efforts at the federal, state, and local levels.
Diaz: Today’s intersecting crises of a global health pandemic, worsening inequality, and the proliferation of anti-Blackness underscore the frailty of our democratic institutions to combat contemporary challenges. Today, all three branches of our federal government have actively undermined Americans’ access to the ballot box, and Americans will cast a presidential ballot for the second time in 55 years without the protection of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. This hurts women more than men, especially women of color who face the added barrier of overcoming racially motivated barriers to elect their candidates of choice and casting a ballot.
Women are more likely than men to associate with the Democratic Party, and this trend is only growing. This is even more true for women of color, who are the linchpin of the Democratic Party. Yet, these women voters are most susceptible to voter suppression, because so many live in Republican-controlled states that seek to limit their political power by enacting onerous voter identification and registration requirements, and failing to support universal vote by mail, a safe and legitimate method of voting during the coronavirus pandemic. These tactics, undertaken by our courts, legislative bodies, and executive branches, are a direct response to demographic trends that threaten the political status quo in places like Texas, Florida, Arizona, Georgia, and the Carolinas.
White: Among women, women of color are most directly impacted by Shelby County v. Holder, the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that determined key sections of the Voting Rights Act are unconstitutional. These sections had put in place key provisions against jurisdictions with histories of discriminatory voting procedures to ensure that minority voters’ access to the ballot was protected under law.
Corrupt politicians and election officials can now employ whatever tactics they want to disenfranchise Americans. Whether it’s closing polling locations, implementing strict voter ID laws, or intimidating voters at polling sites, these policies are designed to discourage voters from voting—especially voters of color.
Let America Vote is committed to electing leaders at all levels of government to fight back against this assault on our democracy. The House has already passed critical legislation, like the For the People Act and John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, to make it easier and safer to vote while also restoring the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. These are the tangible steps our leaders should be taking to make our democracy more inclusive for women and all voters.
What does the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment mean to you?
Archer: It is an opportunity to remember how hard people have fought to make sure that I and millions of Americans have the right to vote. Gaining the right to vote helped to advance women’s reproductive freedom and economic equality. This anniversary is an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come in these areas, and to remember how far we still have to go.
Chapman: The centennial is an important milestone, but it reminds me that there is still more work to be done for women of color to have equal representation. One hundred years later, we are currently marking the selection of the first Black and South Asian woman vice presidential candidate. We also have a record number of women represented in Congress. Despite these strides, a Black woman still has yet to be elected governor, Black women are still paid just 62 cents for every dollar paid to white men, and Black women still face disparities regarding health care.
The fight for dignity and gender parity is a battle for every American.
Diaz: It means a historic victory, but also a promise unfilled, especially for women of color. A century after women secured the right to vote, the representation of women in elected office falls far below their share of the population, share of workers with college degrees, and share of COVID-19’s frontline and essential workers. The fight for dignity and gender parity is a battle for every American. As we face unprecedented challenges, the path towards recovery and a democracy that achieves the principles of our Declaration of Independence can only be realized with full political representation of women of color.
White: The anniversary is a stark reminder of how far we have come as a country in recognizing the rights of oppressed people, and how far we still have to go. One hundred years later, Black and indigenous women have the right to vote, but systemic racism is still prevalent in access to the ballot. Just this week, we’re seeing President Trump and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy sabotage the post office, and, unsurprisingly, the areas that will be the hardest hit have large minority populations. Voter ID laws, gerrymandering, and voter purges have suppressed countless Black women’s voices at the ballot box. As we celebrate this momentous occasion, I am reinvigorated in my effort to make sure all women’s voices are heard in every election.
These answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.
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