It has officially been 100 years since Aug. 18, 1920, the historic day that the 19th Amendment was ratified and women were, in so many words, granted the constitutional right to vote in the United States. It’s an event glamorized and glorified in textbooks, an event that did help pave the way for the progression of the women’s rights movement, especially in the realm of politics. But many Americans are unaware of the full story.
In reality, the 19th Amendment didn’t even name women explicitly, instead stating, “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.”
So, while the passing of the amendment was, in the words of former president Richard Nixon, “the first step toward full and equal participation of women in our Nation’s life,” it was also by no means a fairytale ending for hopeful female voters. Instead, many women were still blocked from voting by laws and policies for years after 1920, especially women of color. In fact, the 19th Amendment largely gave voting rights exclusively to white women, as Jim Crow policies preventing Black Americans from voting and other laws kept Indigenous, Asian and Latinx women from even attaining basic citizenship until many years following the passing of the amendment.
White suffragists like the once-heralded Elizabeth Cady Stanton have been put under more intense scrutiny as of late by modern feminists who seek to educate the public on Stanton’s racist and classist ideas. The scrutiny has shed light on the pathways that feminism has taken over the last century in the U.S., often demonstrably catering to white women alone.
“In the drive to get states to ratify the 19th Amendment, white advocates wanted the support of Southern white women — and their husbands and fathers — and were willing to sacrifice Black Americans’ voting rights in order to get it,” reports Anna North for Vox. “They were also willing to set aside the rights of Native American and Asian American women, even though they sometimes invited these women to appear at events as a way to build interest in their movement.”
Fortunately, activism for more inclusive women’s voting rights did not end in 1920, thanks to strides made by activists of colors such as Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash, who helped lead the movement to finally secure the truly monumental Voting Rights Act of 1965. At the time of the passage, there were only six Black American members of the House of Representatives and none in the Senate. Less than 10 years later in 1971, there were 13 members of the House and one Black member of the Senate.
Even then, the work of voting rights activism was far from over, as Congress passed an extension to Voting Rights Act in 1975 after hearing “extensive testimony about voting discrimination that had been suffered by Hispanic, Asian and Native American citizens.” The amendments added protections from voting discrimination for language minority citizens, and provided translation of voter registration materials into Spanish and other languages.
“This law in 1975 was an absolutely critical contributor to all the success and growth we’ve seen in Latino political empowerment,” Luis Fraga, a political science professor at Notre Dame, told NBC News.
Now, an increasing number of women are reaching higher levels of elected office, with a record number of women (and a record number of Black women) running for Congress in 2020. Many women’s rights advocates rejoiced this past week after the Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden chose California Sen. Kamala Harris, a woman of both Black and South Asian heritage, as his running mate for the upcoming election.
“100 years ago today the 19th Amendment was ratified, but many Black women and women of color were unable to exercise their constitutional right for decades,” writes Harris on Twitter. “I would not be the Democratic candidate for Vice President without those who fought and paved the way before me. Vote.”
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