On August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. This landmark amendment was the culmination of over 70 years of activism from the suffragist movement, tracing as far back as the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. However, as we look back at the passage of this legislation, it is important to demystify its history. The 19th Amendment is widely lauded for giving all American women the vote; however, history shows that this description is far from the truth.
Votes for which women?
The American Suffragist movement began with the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. Led by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the women’s rights convention held some 200 women, and on the second day, also held 40 men, including Frederick Douglass. All female attendees were white. No black women were invited.
Despite the push to exclude black women from the conversation of suffrage, they were an intrinsic part of the movement. By the turn of the 20th century, black suffragists like Mary Church Terrell began introducing ideas of intersectionality, showing the compounding struggles of life as a black woman in post Civil War America.
Written rights, unwritten wrongs
Despite the work of black women in the move from women’s suffrage, the ratification of the 19th Amendment did not guarantee their right to vote. Though constitutional law now forbade denial of the ballot based upon sex, potential voters still had to contend with racist laws that aimed to deny black citizens the vote. Jim Crow voting laws, like bogus literacy tests and grandfather clauses, prevented black Americans of all genders from reaching the polls.
Black women were not the only group denied the vote in 1920. The passage of the amendment ensured voting rights for American citizens. However, Native Americans were not considered U.S. citizens until 1924. This new citizenship was not necessarily positive, as it was used to break up Native American nations and force “assimilation”. In another blow, this citizenship did not guarantee suffrage; the constitution allowed the states to determine voting rights.
Native Americans worked diligently to secure their rights, working state by state for the right to vote. In 1962, Utah became the last state to guarantee voting rights to Indigenous Americans. However, like black voters, Native Americans faced poll taxes and other voting barriers until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Still searching for suffrage
As we remember the passage of the 19th Amendment, we must also recognize its shortcomings. Though it is easy to celebrate one law as the birth of women’s suffrage, the reality is not that easy. White women received the right to vote in 1920, but the battle for voting rights still persists. People in Puerto Rico and American Samoa are still denied full voting rights. Voting rights are restricted by ID and felon disenfranchisement laws. Not all citizens are welcome in the electoral process. Use your vote wisely, and fight for the right of others to do the same.