Women’s Suffrage Through Time
In 2020, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. This important birthday gave us the opportunity to reflect on the history of suffrage for all women.
On August 26th, 1920, with Tennessee as the 36th ratifying state, the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote. Even after passage of the 19th Amendment, however, some states instituted poll taxes, literacy tests, and other registration requirements that disenfranchised women, especially women of color.
Making up approximately 10 percent of the female population in the United States, Black, Asian, and Native American women could have been powerful allies to the White suffragists. At the famous gathering in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1948, however, not a single woman of color was present. By 1912, the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC) had endorsed the suffrage movement. It took another two years before the white suffragists gave their own endorsement.
Although 1920 marked the initial legalization of voting rights for women, the disenfranchising policies already impacting Black men were suddenly also preventing Black women from making it to the voting booth. Outspoken and inspirational Black suffragists such as Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, and Sarah Parker Remond worked to end both racial and sex-based oppression. But it was not until the 1960s and the civil rights movement that citizens were legally protected from discrimination on the basis of race.
At the intersection of both gender and racial inequality, Black women still face barriers to voting today. But as a powerful voting group, Black women are running and winning political races. (See Kamala Harris, for example, the first Black/Asian-American woman elected to the vice-presidency of the United States in 2020.) Organizations like Higher Heights work specifically to raise up the voices of Black women and reach for leadership parity.
Native American Women
Before colonialism, women of many Native American tribes in the Southeast had equal power and equal rights to men. The Lady of Cofitachequi near Camden, S.C., ruled over thousands. Her power was so great that she was eventually kidnapped by Ferdinand DeSoto in an attempt to force the tribes to supply his men. However, this legacy of female leadership and equality changed as tribes were evicted from their lands and denied the rights of United States citizens.
Women of Native American tribes worked not only to gain the vote for women, but for all Native Americans. In 1924, the controversial Indian Citizenship Act granted citizenship and the right to vote to all Native Americans regardless of tribal affiliation. States continued to deny voting rights to Native Americans through at least 1948, however, with many suppression tactics still in existence today.
Although they were barred from immigrating to the United States or, for first-generation immigrants in the country, from becoming citizens, there were still Chinese women involved with the suffrage movement. Dr. Mabel Lee, born in Guangzhou, China, helped lead the 1912 New York City Suffrage March from horseback. She went on to write multiple essays about the importance of suffrage and earned her Ph.D. in economics at Columbia University. However, it was not until the Magnuson Act of 1943 that Chinese immigration and citizenship were allowed on a limited basis, granting them the right to vote. The Magnuson Act repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and was enhanced by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, abolishing many of the barriers to Asian-American property and business ownership.
At both the state and federal levels, Latinx women worked to advocate for, and rally Spanish-speaking women to, the suffrage cause. In California, Maria Guadalupe Evangelina de Lopez translated suffrage speeches into Spanish. Literacy tests, though, continued to be a barrier until the 1975 amendment to the Voting Rights Act protected language minorities from discrimination and required certain jurisdictions to provide ballots in the minority language.
Suffrage movements also reached the territory of Puerto Rico, where activists like Luisa Capetillo fought for women’s voting rights. This goal was achieved for all Puerto Rican women in 1935. However, the people of Puerto Rico, like those of the other U.S. unincorporated territories, are still disenfranchised from voting in United States federal elections.
Today, Fair Voting is still a goal. Although we have made strides over the past 100 years, there are steps that can still be taken now to remove barriers, reach disenfranchised voters, and protect other groups such as the transgender community from voter discrimination. Voting technology, redistricting, and vote verification are all pieces of a fair democratic process.
In a world where we “vote with our dollars”, we need economic suffragists to champion the power of women beyond the ballot box by supporting education, decreasing the wage gap, and investing in women-owned businesses.
We celebrate the diverse and inspirational suffragists of the last century and commit to continuing their work for the next 100 years.