100 years of suffrage: Get it right this time

100 years of suffrage: Get it right this time
© Greg Nash

Across the country beginning in 2020, museum curators are readying exhibits; schools are booking women’s history speakers; and documentaries are airing content to commemorate 100 years since American women were pressuring state legislatures to ratify what would become the 19th amendment to the Constitution. This legislation guarantees citizens the right to vote regardless of sex. 

Yes, it is important to honor this anniversary and to remember this history, but the occasion offers more than celebration. It presents opportunities for honest reflection about the checkered history of suffrage, and the urgent need to protect voting rights today. 

Earlier this month, the United States House passed an updated Voting Rights Act by focusing first on regulating states with a record of election discrimination against minorities. The legislation passed only along partisan lines. House Democrats are now readying for a fight to ensure that this legislation passes the Senate. 

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Even more recently, the newly elected Gov. Andy Beshear (D-Ky.) announced that he would sign an executive order to restore voting rights to citizens who have a felony record — a right these Kentuckians were denied during the previous administration.

Yes, the 19th Amendment did extend the franchise to millions of female citizens. But in terms of the hopes of black suffragists, little would change in the South until after the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This was aimed to prevent unconstitutional voting restrictions at the local and state levels. 

Sadly, key provisions of that landmark legislation were struck down in 2013, in a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Shelby County v. Holder ), which allowed states with a history of racially discriminatory voting practices not to have to clear any election changes with the federal government. 

A wave of voter purges, strict voter identification laws, early voting cutbacks, polling place closures in heavily-minority areas, and other means of voter suppression have followed. Grassroots movements, including one in Georgia have succeeded in reopening voting sites. 

Yes, the 1920 would-be amendment was hard-won. In support of their cause, women took to the streets in massive parades, picketed the White House, logged countless hours lobbying state and federal legislatures. When they were arrested on charges such as obstructing traffic, they staged hunger-strikes from inside their jail cells. 

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It was no easy task to convince a nation that women should enter the corrupt public sphere of politics. Women, it was largely argued, should remain in the home where their presumed moral superiority would uplift the men of their homes to make sound decisions at the ballot box on behalf of their family, home, and country. 

Anti-suffrage cartoons expressed popular fears of what would happen if women were enfranchised, with one oft-repeated cartoon showing a wife leaving the home to vote, while her husband tends to screaming babies, helpless and emasculated in the face of his wife’s newly won independence. 

Notably, the people in these cartoons were almost always exclusively white—and it was the white, middle-class household that was presumed to be destabilized by women having an electoral voice. 

Anti-suffrage cartoons seldom expressed worries about what effects the vote would have on black families where black women were already regularly leaving their homes to work. Unfortunately, a large swath of the pro-suffrage movement also did not concern itself with how votes for women would impact black women or black families. 

Especially after the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments following the Civil War (which outlawed slavery, and enfranchised male citizens regardless of race or previous conditions of servitude), the suffrage movement was increasingly divided by race.

Indeed, at the close of the 19th century, the leading national suffrage movement National American Woman Suffrage Association saw its hopes for passing state-by-state woman suffrage amendments through adopting what was known as the Southern Strategy. This appealed to Southern states by enfranchise white educated women and thus strengthen white supremacy. 

Opposing this were black suffragists. They sought voting rights as a means to empower communities who were living under Jim Crow with all its attendant sexual violence and racial terror. In short, white women focused their suffrage campaigns on votes for women. In this movement, black women’s concerns and voices were not politically expedient. 

To be sure, with this centennial, there is an important history to consider.

In the name of democracy, it seems that 100 years after the passage of the woman suffrage amendment, all women once again need to lobby their senators to ensure that one’s right to vote not be annulled. 

But this time, on the express behalf of minorities, who are most often the target of voter suppression efforts. As we head into 2020 and an election year, when the history of the 19th Amendment should rightly be contemplated. 

Those planning commemorations have a unique opportunity to align these moments of public reflection with the modern case for ensuring voting rights protections anew. 

And that means restoring voting rights for all. 

Amy M. Tyson is an associate professor of history at DePaul University, author and a Public Voices Fellow through The Op-Ed Project.