The passage of the 19th Amendment has long been heralded as the turning point for women’s voting rights in America.
Textbooks and teaching materials hail the amendment, ratified on August 18, 1920, as a “milestone” guaranteeing voting rights to all women. In 1973, Congress designated August 26, the date the amendment was officially certified, as Women’s Equality Day — honoring, in the words of then-President Richard Nixon, “the first step toward full and equal participation of women in our Nation’s life.” This year, celebrations around the country mark the amendment’s 100th anniversary. You can buy “nasty woman” T-shirts commemorating the centennial of women voting.
But in reality, the 19th Amendment did not affirmatively grant the vote to all women — or even to any women in particular. All the text says is: “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.”
In other words, after its ratification, states were no longer allowed to keep people from the polls just because they were women. But officials who wanted to stop people from voting had plenty of other tools with which to do so.
States could use poll taxes and other voter suppression tactics — already used across the country to deny voting rights to Black men — to keep Black women from voting. They could, and did, use those same tactics against Latina women. Indigenous women and many Asian American women lacked citizenship in 1920, meaning they couldn’t vote in the first place. All in all, the 19th Amendment was essentially for one group of women and one group only: white women.
That was by design. White suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton may have championed equality for women, but in practice, they often meant women like themselves. And 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. 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.
Therefore, despite all the celebration around the 19th Amendment, millions of women around the country were still prevented from voting in 1920 because white suffragists bargained against them. The racist laws and practices that kept them from the ballot box would take decades to undo — and, in some cases, persist to this day.
But activism for women’s voting rights did not end in 1920, and the advocacy of women of color like Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash helped lead to perhaps the biggest voting rights victory of all, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Now, in a time when many Americans are still prevented from voting by ID laws and other suppression tactics, women of color in politics are looking to and building on the legacy of these earlier advocates.
In Black female leaders — from voting rights activist and former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams to Florida Rep. Val Demings — “we are seeing extraordinary women in their own right,” Martha S. Jones, a history professor at Johns Hopkins and author of the forthcoming book Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All, told Vox. “But we are also seeing, made manifest, this history.”
The idea of women’s voting rights didn’t start with white suffragists
If Americans today learned anything in school about the fight for women’s rights, they probably learned a particular story. It starts with the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, a gathering in Seneca Falls, New York, organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and other activists, to discuss women’s rights in American society. Mott and Stanton were abolitionists who had met at an anti-slavery conference in 1840; since female delegates were barred from that conference, they decided to hold their own. There, the around 300 attendees passed 11 resolutions in favor of women’s equality, including one stating that “it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.”
From there, the story goes, the suffragists — joined by Susan B. Anthony, the famous activist later immortalized on a line of dollar coins — waged a decades-long campaign for the vote culminating in the passage of the 19th Amendment. That amendment gave women the right to vote in America, meaning women’s rights activists could then focus on other things, like equality in the workplace.
This story, however, is an oversimplification at best. First, while Stanton, Mott, and other white activists are often given credit for the women’s suffrage movement, women’s political equality was by no means a new idea in 1848. The suffragists at Seneca Falls were deeply influenced by Indigenous nations like the Haudenosaunee (sometimes called the Iroquois Confederacy) and the Cherokee, where women had long served as leaders. Stanton and other suffragists lived near and were in contact with Indigenous communities in upstate New York, Stephanie Sellers, a Native American studies scholar and English professor at Gettysburg College, told Vox in a statement. “What they saw in their daily lives were Haudenosaunee women not only running their own lives and families in a matrifocal governing structure, but running their nations as judges and government leaders.”
“Americans often think settler women just pulled the concept of ‘women’s rights’ out of the air without any cultural model when, in historic fact, Indigenous women in the East were living the very ideals these would-be suffragettes were philosophically fashioning and eventually legally fighting for,” Sellers said.
Black women were also active in political organizing by the time of Seneca Falls, though not always in the same settings as white women. In the 1840s, for example, Black women in Philadelphia and elsewhere were pushing for the right to become fully credentialed preachers in Methodist churches, Jones said. But “Black women never really find a home in women’s rights gatherings or, later, in suffrage associations,” Jones added. In part, that was because Black women wanted to work simultaneously against sexism and racism — pushing for federal anti-lynching legislation, for example. Groups dominated by white women didn’t necessarily share those goals, so Black women created their own, including the National Association of Colored Women, founded to campaign for women’s voting rights and the civil rights of all Black Americans.
By the late 1800s, the white-led suffrage movement that had begun at Seneca Falls — where no Black women were in attendance — had become openly racist, Jones said. Stanton, for example, opposed the 15th Amendment, which barred states and the federal government from denying people the vote based on race.
Her criticism: The amendment would give Black men and other men of color the vote before white women. In an 1869 speech, she used a variety of racist slurs to warn her audience of the danger of granting the vote to men of color “who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic, who cannot read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling book.” The 15th Amendment, she said, “creates an antagonism everywhere between educated, refined women and the lower orders of men, especially in the South.”
Of course, arguments about whether Black men or white women should get the vote first completely leave out Black women and other women of color, as historian Lisa Tetrault has noted. In essence, white suffragists were more than willing to sacrifice the voting rights of those women in order to achieve their goals.
The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), founded in 1890 by Stanton, Anthony, and others, employed what it called the Southern strategy, Jones said, marginalizing Black women and their concerns in order to appeal to whites in the South. “It’s a bargain,” Jones said. “If you want white Southern women and, importantly, you want their husbands and their fathers, who are the voters, you accommodate white supremacy.”
When the 19th Amendment was passed by the Senate in 1919 and sent to the states for ratification, that accommodation continued in state legislatures, with supporters of the amendment openly reassuring skeptics that they would still be able to disenfranchise Black women even if it passed, Jones said. Indeed, there was nothing in the language of the 19th Amendment that banned the use of voter suppression tactics to keep Black women from casting their ballots.
Such tactics, in wide use in many states after the passage of the 15th Amendment to suppress voting by Black men, included poll taxes, annual fees that citizens had to pay — often months or even a year in advance — in order to be allowed to vote.
Such taxes “disproportionately impact sharecroppers for whom cash is rare and money comes once a year,” Jones said. They also included literacy tests, in which a local official presented would-be voters with a text to read and sometimes interpret; officials could choose an especially difficult text for Black voters in an effort to trip them up, while presenting white voters with something simple like a school textbook. Another tactic was the grandfather clause, which barred people from voting unless their grandfathers had been registered to vote — an impossibility for many Black voters, whose grandfathers had been enslaved.
“These are the impediments that African American women are going to now confront” in 1920, Jones said, “and nothing in the 19th Amendment disturbs that regime.”
The 19th Amendment did not grant voting rights to all women
The amendment did not guarantee US voting rights for Indigenous women, even though they had been an inspiration for early white suffragists. During the push for suffrage, white activists periodically sought to include Indigenous women in their demonstrations and events — “white suffragists find their stories very interesting and are using them to gain interest in the movement,” Cathleen Cahill, a history professor at Penn State University and the author of the forthcoming book Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement, told Vox.
For example, Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin, a citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, was asked to design a float for the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession in 1913, as Cahill told the New York Times.
However, that interest did not extend to actually campaigning for Indigenous women’s voting rights. By 1920, at least one-third of Indigenous Americans were considered wards of the nation by the US government, and thus denied the right to vote, even after the passage of the 19th Amendment. Zitkala-Sa, an Indigenous activist also known as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, noted as much in a speech to the National Woman’s Party after the amendment was ratified, saying that “the Indian woman rejoices with you,” but adding the reminder that many Indigenous women still lacked the right that white women had won.
A similar story played out in the relationship of white suffragist leaders and Asian American activists. In the 1910s, for example, revolutionaries in China were making moves to enfranchise some women, drawing interest from Chinese American activists and white suffragists alike, Cahill said. In 1912, when she was still a teenager, Chinese American activist Mabel Lee was asked to help lead a suffrage parade in New York City — she did so on horseback.
But as with Indigenous women, the inclusion of some Asian American women in the fight for the 19th Amendment did not translate into advocacy for their voting rights among white suffragists. Under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Chinese immigrants were barred from US citizenship — and by the early 20th century, this ban was extended to all immigrants from Asia, Cahill said. As a result, Asian American women born outside the US did not get the vote in 1920, and would not get full voting rights until much later.
Latina women were involved in the drive to ratify the 19th Amendment as well. Many Latina suffragists marched in a 1915 suffrage parade in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as Cahill writes, and Adelina Otero-Warren, a Latina educator, became chair of the New Mexico branch of the National Woman’s Party and an instrumental part of the ratification process in the state.
Under the 19th Amendment, Latina women who were US citizens could not be blocked from voting because of their gender alone. However, as Cahill notes, many of the same voter suppression tactics used against Black voters were also used against Latinx communities. And Latinx immigrants who were not citizens did not have voting rights — nor do they have them today.
In general, while white suffragists marginalized Black female activists in order to appeal to white Southerners, non-Black women of color seemed “less threatening and more exotic” to them, Cahill said. They were willing to include these women, to some degree, in their public demonstrations, but when it came to actually fighting for their voting rights, the partnership ended.
Women of color had to fight for voting rights long after 1920. And they’re still fighting.
That left activists of color on their own to push for voting rights after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, typically without help from white suffragists, who moved on to pushing for causes like the Equal Rights Amendment, which would ban discrimination on the basis of sex across the country.
Many activists of color engaged in multiple fights simultaneously. Lee, for example, got a PhD in economics and began to focus not just on voting but on the movement of women into professional jobs. For her, “the vote was important but it was part of this larger vision of women’s equality and women’s rights,” Cahill said.
It’s not clear if Lee, who died in 1966, was ever able to vote. But Asian American immigrants did begin to gain citizenship rights in 1943 with the passage of the Magnuson Act, which repealed some of the provisions of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Rick Eng, the national vice president of communications at the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, told Vox.
But it wasn’t until the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act that restrictions on Asian American citizenship were truly removed. Until then, the number of Asian American women who were actually able to vote in the US was very small, Cahill said, and many Asian American suffragists returned to China to continue their activism there.
After 1920, Zitkala-Sa and other Indigenous leaders “strategically used Euro-American women’s success at achieving suffrage as a way to mobilize a national movement to aid Indigenous peoples across the US,” Sellers said. And in 1924, the Indian Citizenship Act granted citizenship to all Indigenous people born in the US. However, many Indigenous people encountered voter suppression tactics when they tried to go to the polls, Cahill said, like literacy tests and purges of voting rolls.
In the 1930s, Black women began “developing, if you will, an end run around disenfranchisement,” Jones said. Women like educator and suffragist Mary McLeod Bethune took roles in federal agencies created as part of the New Deal, like the National Youth Administration, and used them to direct resources and support to Black communities.
These roles were appointed, not elected, so Black women could attain them without going through an electoral system that still denied them their rights. And over the course of her career, Bethune would bring many Black women with her to jobs in federal agencies, “and help ensure that those agencies, which had been indifferent to Black Americans at their inception to an important degree, now are going to also work for interests of Black Americans,” Jones said.
At the same time, Black activists were also working directly to challenge Jim Crow laws and their effect on voting rights. That activism included on-the-ground action like the Selma campaign, during which hundreds of marchers famously crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and were beaten by state troopers on the other side.
Activist Diane Nash helped organize this campaign, along with her husband James Bevel. Civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, meanwhile, worked to register herself and other Black Mississippians to vote. She also represented the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, and worked to delegitimize Mississippi delegates who had been selected entirely by white voters, with no representation from Black Mississippians, Jones said.
That work ultimately led Congress to pass — and President Lyndon Johnson to sign — the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Jones said. That legislation “gives teeth to the ideas that animated the 15th and 19th amendments,” including federal oversight of states with a history of voter suppression, and pathways to legal redress for people deprived of their right to vote.
The Voting Rights Act was momentous, extending suffrage to many Black, Latinx, and Indigenous Americans who had previously been subject to voter suppression. In addition to states in the South, the legislation included states like Arizona and South Dakota, where suppression of Indigenous voting had been widespread, on the list of areas subject to special federal scrutiny.
However, the work of voting rights activism was far from done. Many Latinx voting activists, for example, point to the 1975 extension of the Voting Rights Act as even more consequential for their communities since it ended discrimination against “language minorities” and made it possible to require translation of voter registration materials into Spanish and other languages, according to NBC News. “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 the network.
In recent years, though, the country has taken steps backward in terms of voting rights. In 2013, the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act, striking down its formula for determining which areas were subject to federal scrutiny and allowing those jurisdictions to pass laws restricting voting rights without seeking approval from the federal government. Many state and local governments have done so, often in the form of voter ID laws that disproportionately impact voters of color. Since 2010, at least 25 states have passed new voting restrictions, with many passed after 2013, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Meanwhile, unauthorized and other noncitizen immigrants, who number nearly 20 million, have never been granted the right to vote. And many trans and nonbinary Americans have faced barriers to voting due to voter ID laws — because they may not be able to obtain legal IDs that match their name, gender, or appearance — or poll worker bias. One 2018 study found that ID laws could infringe on the voting rights of 78,300 transgender people across eight states, according to Human Rights Watch.
Still, the same activism and political work that led to voting rights victories of the past continues today, with women of color often drawing on the legacies of those who came before them. Rep. Val Demings, for example, has cited the story of Bethune as an influence on her career.
“Mary McLeod Bethune was the most powerful woman I can remember as a child,” Demings said in a statement earlier this year. “She has been an inspiration to me throughout my whole life.”
Meanwhile, Stacey Abrams’s political career rests on the tradition of Black women and other women of color before her. Both in her gubernatorial run and in her activism for voting rights in Georgia since then, Abrams draws on the legacy of previous generations of Black female leaders, Jones has said.
“Black women, when they come into politics, whether it’s the beginning of the 19th century or the beginning of the 21st, talk in the language of humanity, talk in the language of ‘all of us,’” Jones said. “I see African American women not just in this moment but historically, consistently, and at great personal risk, having held the bar high for us.”
As America reckons with its racist foundation, historians say it is equally important not to erase the women of color who have been fighting for voting rights and exercising political power since before Seneca Falls, and who continue to do so. “We live in a multicultural democracy today, and it didn’t just suddenly happen,” Cahill said. “These women were right there, involved in the struggle.”
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