It’s been 100 years since the landmark ratification and adoption of the 19th Amendment, which cemented a promise into the U.S. Constitution 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.” The 19th Amendment was a decisive victory for voting rights and progress. However, the women’s suffrage movement that pushed for its passage also harbored divisions over the question of suffrage for Black people that undermined the amendment’s impact and its legacy. Persistent and prevalent racism throughout the era when the amendment was being debated infected the suffrage movement, resulting in an amendment that largely secured the vote for middle-class white women but offered women of color, especially Black women, little more than an empty promise. Despite the passage of the amendment, many women of color were still barred from the polls through rampant intimidation and voter suppression tactics; denial of citizenship based on ancestry or immigrant status; as well as blatant racial discrimination. Many of the white suffragists fighting for the 19th Amendment gave scant attention to the lived reality of Black women at the intersection of gender and race, often insisting that the fight for racial justice was unrelated to the fight for gender equality. This indifference served as the ultimate betrayal of Black women suffragists, and other women of color fighting to be able to participate fully in our democracy, in exchange for political expediency.
As we celebrate this important milestone, we must sit with the amendment’s complicated legacy and reality, both of which are instructive for the future. The expansion of voting rights to women has been essential to the fight for equality, whether in the workplace, in the classroom, in cultural norms, or in the voting booth. Yet, the fight was compromised from its inception by a narrow vision of who should benefit and who could be left out. The white suffragists who gained the vote were willing to do so even though many women of color—who faced additional racism-fueled barriers such as the proliferation of Jim Crow laws—effectively could not enjoy the same opportunity. This dichotomy of professing a commitment to equality while embracing the privileges of exclusion, however, was not unique to the debate about women’s suffrage. It reflects a larger reality that, while women have made important gains, these gains have not always been evenly experienced. The consequences of eroding access to the vote has been extensive: Even the unprecedented selection of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA)—the first woman of color as a vice presidential candidate on a major-party presidential ticket—cannot obscure the reality that women, especially women of color, are still underrepresented in the halls of Congress; shut out of most of the top jobs in companies; denied bodily autonomy; paid less than their male counterparts; and, ultimately, left behind in an economy that undervalues their lives.
The history of suffrage: An incomplete narrative
The long history of the fight for women’s suffrage is stained with racism that many writers of history have attempted to whitewash. Famous white women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony have received the lion’s share of credit for leading the suffrage movement. However, these women fought alongside women of color—such as Ida B. Wells, Mabel Ping Hua-Lee, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, Jovita Idár, Susette La Flesche Tibbles, and so many more—whose stories and contributions have not been elevated to the same extent in the prevailing historical narrative. While the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 is often touted as the official start of the suffrage movement, this selectively simplifies its origins. For example, the suffrage movement drew inspiration from the Haudenosaunee women, who, for centuries, held political and other societal rights in their sovereign nations and had roots in the movement to abolish slavery. Famous abolitionists Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass were also dedicated suffragists, who recognized the intertwined importance of Black suffrage and women’s suffrage as central to fulfilling the nation’s commitment to equality and equal justice under law.
The movement splintered into factions as the 15th Amendment—which promised suffrage to any citizen regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude—neared the finish line with mounting political support in the late 1860s. Leading white suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony took one side, espousing racist rhetoric and forming alliances with racists to advocate for white women’s suffrage as more pressing or even necessary than an amendment that would result in suffrage for Black men. This embrace of racist ideology betrayed the trust and desires of Black women, who had long been fighting for suffrage not just for themselves but also for their families and communities. On the other side, they—particularly Black suffragists—understood that it was a false choice. Without the 15th Amendment, Black women could not hope to be enfranchised along with their white peers whenever that day did come, and the other immediate policy goals of the suffragettes—for example, the right to own property or access educational opportunities—would never be realized for Black women. Even after the 15th Amendment was ratified, leading white suffragists continued attempts to treat women of color suffragists as pawns for political expediency, epitomized when organizers of the Women’s Suffrage Parade in 1913 asked Black suffragists to march in the back instead of with their state delegations to appease racist suffragists and their allies.
On August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment was adopted, 42 years after its first introduction into Congress, as part of the U.S. Constitution. The 19th Amendment extended the vote to, in theory, between 26 million and 30 million women, making it the single largest expansion of voting rights in United States history, yet its reach must not be overstated. First, several states had already granted women full or partial voting rights by 1920, so the amendment affirmed the right in those states and vitally extended the right to others. Second—and most importantly—despite the contributions of women of color to the suffrage movement, suffrage was not a reality for women of color upon its passage in 1920. Chinese Americans were not able to vote until the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943 (for most other Americans with Asian ancestry, this came in 1952) and Native Americans were not able to vote in all states until 1948. Black people, particularly those living in the Jim Crow South, were blocked from voting through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests, white-only primaries, and other barriers and acts of violence and intimidation designed to silence them.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) brought the promises of the 15th and 19th Amendments closer to a reality for all Black people as well as other people of color whose votes had been suppressed through the same discriminatory tactics outlawed by this pivotal civil rights legislation. For many, it wasn’t until the VRA was extended in 1975 to, among other things, require voting materials be translated into languages other than English, that many Latinx and immigrant voters could comfortably exercise their right to vote. The takeaway is simple: Simply granting the right to vote was not enough to ensure that all women were truly enfranchised. It has taken a century of additional measures to close loopholes and combat discrimination—and the fight is far from over.
Despite some progress, the fight for suffrage rages on
Many Americans still do not enjoy full voting rights. Despite the VRA, voter suppression efforts persist and disproportionately target voters of color, immigrant voters, LGBTQ voters, and disabled voters, and, as a result, many women living at the intersection of any of these identities. Such efforts include, but are not limited to, voter ID laws, inaccessible polling places, voter roll purges, voter intimidation efforts, limited access to early voting, and disinformation campaigns. The persistence of this discrimination is in large part due to the weakening of the VRA, particularly in light of recent events such as the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder—gutting key VRA voter protection provisions—and the lifting of a consent decree on the Republican National Committee in 2017, which voting rights advocates fear may result in more frequent instances of voter intimidation and suppression.
Moreover, people residing in Washington, D.C., or in a U.S. territory, still are limited in their ability to have full representation at the federal level. People living in D.C. are unable to have full congressional representation and, instead, are limited to a single delegate who serves in the U.S. House of Representatives. Although D.C. residents can vote for president and have three presidential electoral votes, people living in U.S. territories cannot vote in presidential elections and also have limited representation in Congress. Felony disenfranchisement laws around the U.S. prohibit people in prison, people serving felony probation or parole, and/or formerly incarcerated people who have completed their sentence from voting. These laws disproportionately disenfranchise Black and Latinx people. Partisan gerrymandering is also effectively disenfranchising millions of U.S. voters. Finally, the coronavirus crisis has created new obstacles to safe and equitable access to voting for many voters in addition to existing barriers.
Policy solutions that will make suffrage a reality for all
Lawmakers must enact robust policies to combat voter suppression to ensure that all eligible Americans can vote. This involves ensuring that discriminatory measures and actions that limit the ability to vote—such as voter ID laws, voter roll purges, discriminatory signature verification requirements, voter intimidation tactics, disinformation campaigns, and disenfranchising people on the basis of felony convictions and/or where they live—are repealed, halted, and prevented in the future. Partisan gerrymandering, which devalues votes, must also come to an end. In addition, it is essential that any and all voting reforms aim to make voting more convenient, safer, and more accessible for every eligible voter. Voter registration measures such as automatic registration; same-day registration; preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds; online registration; longer early voting periods; “no-excuse” absentee voting; as well as ample in-person voting options are essential to ensuring that all Americans can easily and safely vote. Bills such as the For the People Act (H.R. 1) and the Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 4) are essential steps toward protecting and expanding voting rights and must be passed into law. Furthermore, Congress should grant Washington, D.C., statehood as well as establish a binding mechanism that would allow people living in Puerto Rico and other U.S. territories to determine their own futures with regard to the right to vote in the presidential election. Finally, no one should have to choose between their paycheck and exercising their civic voice. All voters—especially working women with caregiving responsibilities—should have access to flexible and expanded paid time off for voting. All of these pro-voter reforms will not only benefit traditionally suppressed voters, such as voters of color and disabled voters, but they will also widely benefit women voters by helping to ensure their fair participation.
In response to the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers and leaders at all levels must act quickly to implement robust vote-by-mail systems and ensure access to safe in-person voting options for people who prefer or need them.
Women’s progress is intertwined, still, with the suffrage movement. Access to the vote is a powerful tool to drive change and transform communities. Yet, despite their exclusion from the promise of the 19th Amendment, women of color have emerged as a growing electoral powerhouse. It is precisely because of this growing power that the rights of women of color are increasingly under attack today, just as they’ve have always been, by those in power who are seeking to preserve a status quo and maintain their privilege at the expense of justice for all. The legacy of the 19th Amendment makes clear the urgent importance of an inclusive vision of equality that encompasses the diversity of women’s experiences, and this vision must be a priority in the years ahead.
The commemoration of women’s suffrage must not be solely a celebration—it must be a call to action. While subsequent legislation has since enfranchised more women of color—and, today, women of color collectively have come to represent a potential powerhouse electorate—systemic discrimination still bars some women of color from the polls. The promise of suffrage—and with it, the promise of American democracy and the promise of true equality—has yet to be fully realized.
Robin Bleiweis is a research associate with the Women’s Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Shilpa Phadke is the vice president of the Women’s Initiative at the Center. Jocelyn Frye is a senior fellow with the Women’s Initiative at the Center.