Today is Women’s Equality Day, a day commemorating the certification of the 19th Amendment, which granted U.S. women the right to vote. On August 26, 1920, more than 26 million women had their citizenship affirmed and gained a mechanism to empower themselves, their families, and their communities.
The 19th Amendment played a pivotal role in promoting reproductive rights for women, ushering in a new voting population with a political agenda that would ultimately legalize contraception and abortion. Women also experienced economic progress as a result, with the increased availability of family-planning services and supplies allowing more women to enroll in higher education and enter professional occupations.
Although the amendment enfranchised all women, to ensure the amendment included women regardless of race in practice rather than just on paper, African American women worked tirelessly to connect suffrage to both gender and race in all regions of the country. African American suffragists believed voting was a tool to protect the African American individual’s citizenship and a mechanism to promote racial equality in society. The amendment ultimately granted suffrage to the majority of African American women in name only, but African American women continued to fight for the vote, as well as economic opportunities and reproductive rights and health. On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we honor their efforts, which were fully realized only after the Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965.
Women voters reshape the political discourse
Prior to winning suffrage, state laws prohibited women from owning and inheriting property, signing contracts, serving on juries, and voting in elections. Job opportunities for the women who had to work outside the home were limited to the service industry, and wages were menial. Women were encouraged to marry as a way of ensuring economic security. Childbearing was considered a duty of the marriage contract.
In 1848, however, suffragists at the Seneca Falls Convention—the first woman’s rights convention to be held in the United States—asserted women’s right to be free from coercive marriage and motherhood in order to have societal value, income, and political power. Moreover, women saw their full integration into society as a way of making the nation better. In fact, according to historian and author Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, “[W]oman suffrage supporters advanced the belief that women were more moral beings than men; therefore, women would make more effective reformers if armed with the ballot.” The first women’s rights agenda was anchored in valuing women as full citizens and arbiters of society beyond marriage and childbearing.
Since then each wave of feminism has continued to shape the political discourse, engaging policymakers and ushering in new policies that have incrementally codified self-determinate and autonomous laws. The most recent wave of reproductive politics includes not only the rights of women to determine if and when they will marry but also the right to have children or not to have children and the right to parent the children they have with the social supports necessary.
Voting ensures women’s reproductive and economic progress
The 19th Amendment helped millions of women move closer to equality in all aspects of American life. Women advocated for job opportunities, fairer wages, education, sex education, and birth control. After women were enfranchised, candidates catered to women in an effort to get elected, and women took advantage, advocating for laws that would allow them to have individual economic security, such as inheritance and divorce laws. Women voted and eventually ran for office to improve not only government but also their individual lives.
Within 20 years of the amendment’s passage, federal courts had undermined the contraception provision of the Comstock Law of 1873—a federal amendment to the Post Office Act of 1872 that made it illegal to send contraception, or information about it, through the mail—and the American Medical Association adopted birth control as a normal medical option. In 1960 the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, approved the pill, allowing women and couples to effectively plan when they would have children. By the early 1970s the second wave of the women’s movement was driving reproductive health policy. The Comstock laws excluded contraception for married couples and individuals based on Supreme Court rulings in 1965 and 1975, respectively, the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 legalized abortion, and virtually every state has passed laws allowing women 17 and 18 years of age to access birth control. The FDA approved the pill in 1960, and governmental policies such as Title X made it affordable for more women. In fact, in 1972 Congress required each state’s Medicaid program to include family-planning services and supplies.
The increasing availability of family-planning services and supplies resulted in more women delaying marriage, graduating from higher education at higher rates, and entering into more professional occupations. According to the Guttmacher Institute, in the 1960s and 1970s, contraception was a pivotal factor in women investing in their education. The report also details how the pill helped increase the proportion of women in skilled careers from 1970 to 1990 by more than 30 percent. Indeed, as time progressed women flooded the workplace. With the increased ability to work outside the home for longer periods, there were more opportunities for promotion and upward mobility, as well as increased earning potential for women. In today’s economy women make up about half of the workforce and are increasingly the primary or co-breadwinner of a family—all thanks to women’s political participation and the reproductive policies that keep them healthy and autonomous.
Economic security and reproductive health are two sides of the same coin
The 19th Amendment allowed women to help elect progressive policymakers, who in turn enacted policies to benefit women. Policies between 1920 and 1965 not only improved reproductive and economic circumstances for women, but they also enabled women to take advantage of the laws. Birth control, for example, was made available and affordable so that women could easily access it. Additionally, as women increasingly entered higher education and the workforce, salaries increased for women, and the wage gap narrowed. Research continues to show that delayed childbearing is directly linked to increased rates of education, higher earning potential and longer periods in the workforce for women, all of which which ensure increased retirement benefits.
Because these issues are two sides of the same coin, however, they can easily become a double-edged sword. Realizing reproductive rights requires the benefits of economic stability, such as health insurance, the ability to pay out of pocket for co-pays, and access to preventive health services.
African American women and voting rights
African American women in particular have historically been very invested in the suffrage movement. For African American women, suffrage was a way to empower themselves and lift up the African American community. Especially for African American women in the South, gaining the right to vote was pivotal, as they watched African American men be enfranchised through federal legislation but still denied access through state loopholes. Since the first wave of the suffrage movement, African American women continually advocated not just for African American women’s voting rights but for civil rights for the entire African American community. African American men, in particular, benefited from this because anti-lynching campaigns were a critical piece of the civil rights platform after the 15th Amendment—which enfranchised African American men only—was passed.
The concerns of African American women differed from those of white women because only African American women had to worry about discrimination based on both gender and race. African American women also prioritized ensuring that African American men could vote and equality for the entire African American community. Additionally, African American women did not enjoy the reproductive access and economic mobility that white women did after 1920. According to Loretta J. Ross, former national coordinator and a co-founder of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, “Black women in the 1920s and 1930s wanted individual control over their fertility, while at the same time they resisted government and privately funded anti-natalist population control campaigns.”
Leaders in the African American community—such as civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, Professor Charles S. Johnson of Fisk University, and Dr. Walter G. Alexander, general secretary of the National Medical Association—believed birth control could aid the African American community in the fight for racial and economic equality and reduce the horrific maternal and infant mortality rates. But in data reports from as early as 1935, African American women’s position in the workforce had not improved. Still situated at the bottom of the economic scale, they contended with service jobs akin to indentured servitude, with little respect, low wages, and terrible working conditions still the norm.
Unfortunately, all African American women in the United States were not fully guaranteed the right to vote until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But the fight for African American women is no less important today. A historic number of African Americans voted in the 2012 elections, and African American women had the highest turnout rate—69 percent—of any group in the 2008 elections. And they did so despite voter-restriction legislation such as voter ID bills.
Today’s anniversary of the 19th Amendment is particularly important because it coincides with celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington—at the very same moment we are witnessing the gutting of voting rights at the federal level and attempts to further suppress voting rights at the state level. The 2012 elections saw women redefine the power of the vote by standing up against extreme reproductive politics. Nonetheless, 2013 saw the highest amount of anti-abortion legislation in the states since the Roe v. Wade decision, reflecting that conservatives have learned few lessons since the 2012 elections.
As women make an impact at the ballot box like never before, there are other communities being silenced by conservatives. As restrictions on reproductive rights are increasing at the state and local level, so too are voting restrictions and racial-profiling laws that criminalize communities of color. Celebrating Women’s Equality Day at the same time as the March on Washington has a particular meaning that we must seize. Ensuring that all women maintain the power of the vote ensures healthier families and a stronger nation.
Heidi Williamson is a Senior Policy Analyst for the Women’s Health and Rights program at the Center for American Progress.