Justice Demands the Vote: 100 Years of Women’s Suffrage
August 18, 2020 | Contributors: Jane Junn, Christina Wolbrecht, J. Kevin Corder, Martha S. Jones, Erika Lee, Cathleen Cahill, and Bill Green
The 19th Amendment to the U.S Constitution, ratified by the states in August 1920, ended gender restrictions on voting after decades of organizing and struggle. Suffrage activists were trailblazers, from their political philosophy to their movement tactics – yet the movement was also marred by racism. At the time of its passage, the 19th Amendment served a narrow group of women, given racial disenfranchisement and xenophobic restrictions on citizenship and naturalization. Moreover, observers questioned whether women’s enfranchisement had a political impact on the elections that followed.
A century later, access to the ballot box is still contested in many places across the United States. We asked a group of prominent scholars to reflect on what lessons from the suffrage movement today’s policymakers and activists can apply to the ongoing struggle for voting rights and fair elections.
On the interwoven histories of immigration and voting rights
It is no accident that efforts since 2016 to disenfranchise Americans by creating additional barriers to vote gained renewed strength exactly when the federal government began erecting a border wall and banning entry based on national origin. One hundred years ago this month, the ratification of the 19th Amendment relied on the promise that only refined and educated women should be enfranchised, leaving excluded African Americans, Chinese, and other undesirable immigrant stock from European countries such as Ireland.
One hundred years ago this month, the ratification of the 19th Amendment relied on the promise that only refined and educated women should be enfranchised, leaving excluded African Americans, Chinese, and other undesirable immigrant stock from European countries such as Ireland.
Indeed, the context during which women’s suffrage finally achieved ratification was one of virulent anti-immigrant sentiment reflected in the Immigration Acts of 1917 (“Asiatic Barred Zone Act”) and 1924 (“National Origins Act”). By 1920, Jim Crow laws were firmly in place, restricting the rights of Black Americans despite the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870.
Where women of color were left in this collision of suffrage and the states’ segregationist policies is clear: they were disenfranchised for their sex and their race. It would take the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to provide the political will and the statutory authority for the federal government to enforce the right to vote for all Americans, regardless of sex or race. In that same year, the Immigration and Nationality Act (“Hart-Cellar Act”) reopened immigration, after 40 years, without regard to race and national origin.
At the time, few saw the connection between resuming immigration and equalizing voting rights. The parallel passage of these two monumental pieces of legislation was, if not accidental, also not intentional. But the result has been the steady increase of African American, Latina, Asian American, and other non-white women into the American electorate.
At the time, few saw the connection between resuming immigration and equalizing voting rights. But the result has been the steady increase of African American, Latina, Asian American, and other non-white women into the American electorate.
Women of color now comprise an estimated one-quarter of the female voting population and are strong supporters of the Democratic Party.
Alongside white women voters – a group that in the aggregate consistently supports Republican Party candidates – their inclusion has driven the dynamics of the gender gap in U.S. politics to today’s profile of women favoring Democrats. In light of these trends, it’s not surprising that opponents of progressive immigration reform and broad voting rights have invested heavily in creating barriers for American voters in 2020.
Jane Junn is the Associates Chair in Social Sciences and Professor of Political Science and Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University of Southern California.
Christina Wolbrecht and J. Kevin Corder
On the necessity of local and state-level political support for voting rights
The lesson we take from the history of women’s suffrage is that voting rights are always contingent and must be defended and expanded for each generation. The ratification of the 19th Amendment was not the end of the struggle for voting rights for women. Voting is largely a matter left to states, and states vary—in 1920 through to today—in their commitment to facilitating citizens’ exercise of their right to vote.
With ratification occurring in August 1920, states had to scramble to accommodate a doubling of the electorate in a short time period. State legislatures met in special sessions to extend registration deadlines. In some states, women who had registered for school board elections (a common enfranchisement exception before 1920) were automatically rolled on to general election registration lists. In some cities, election boards expanded the number of polling places to accommodate the expected higher turnout.
Each of these actions required political will; for women to actually cast ballots necessitated not just the 19th Amendment but the actions of state and local politicians as well.
Each of these actions required political will; for women to actually cast ballots necessitated not just the 19th Amendment but the actions of state and local politicians as well.
Not all states demonstrated this will. In some states, women were prohibited from voting in 1920 because ratification occurred after registration deadlines. In others, the 19th Amendment left in place poll taxes, literacy tests, and long registration requirements designed to discourage Black and immigrant voters. These practices were particularly demobilizing for women of color, but impacted women of all races. In states with fewer barriers, more than half of women turned out in 1920. In states with more voting restrictions, voter turnout was lower overall, but especially among women.
Since 1920, the gap between women’s and men’s turnout has narrowed and reversed; women now turn out to vote at a higher rate than men do, both overall and within racial and ethnic groups. Yet, access to polling places reminds dependent on political will. Purges of voting rolls, elimination of polling places, and picture ID requirements weigh heavily on those least able to bear them. And 100 years after the 19th Amendment was ratified, women’s care responsibilities, higher rates of poverty, and likelihood of name changes all have the potential to heighten the impact of these barriers to voting for women.
Christina Wolbrecht is Professor of Political Science, Director of the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy, and C. Robert and Margaret Hanley Family Director of the Notre Dame Washington Program. J. Kevin Corder is Professor of Political Science at Western Michigan University. They are the co-authors of A Century of Votes for Women: American Elections Since Suffrage and Counting Women’s Ballots: Female Voters from Suffrage through the New Deal.
Martha S. Jones
On Black women’s determination to exercise their political power
Two myths obscure our understanding of the 19th Amendment. The first suggests that the Amendment guaranteed to American women the vote. It did not. It did prohibit federal and state lawmakers from using “sex” as a criterion when meting out voting rights, but did not ensure that women would get to the polls. Too many women were kept from casting ballots by age, residency, citizenship, mental capacity, and race.
Race takes us to a second myth, one which assumes that Black women did not vote after August 1920. Many certainly could not, disenfranchised by state laws – poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses – which, while neutral in their wording, were strategically imposed across the South to keep Black women and men from voting. Intimidation and violence worked to make Election Day a choice between life and death for too many Black women.
Still, many Black women had been voting for years before 1920, most notably in states like California, Illinois, and New York, which had already enacted women’s suffrage. As the 19th Amendment worked its way toward ratification, Black women elsewhere readied themselves.
Determined to make their votes count, Black women ran suffrage and citizenship schools in YWCAs, churches, and meeting halls, readying Black voters to overcome the hurdles local officials put in their way.
Determined to make their votes count, they ran suffrage and citizenship schools in YWCAs, churches, and meeting halls, readying Black voters to overcome the hurdles local officials put in their way. Leaders feared that Black women would tip the balance of power, especially in local contests—and indeed they occasionally did.
Most significantly, Black women’s continuing activism after 1920 led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Today, after 2013’s Shelby v. Holder decision, the better days of the Voting Rights Act sit in our rearview mirror. Americans who aspire to cast their ballots in November 2020 will do so in the face of a new wave of voter suppression: deceptively “neutral” demands such as IDs, the shuttering of polling place, and the purging of voters’ rolls. Officials are fumbling over how to get voters to the polls in the face of a pandemic. Voting rights in the US – where no one is guaranteed the vote – have always demanded vigilance. No less is demanded today.
Martha S. Jones is the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor and Professor of History at The Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All and Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America.
On Asian American women’s long road to full citizenship
The 19th Amendment to the Constitution marked an end to gender restrictions on voting. But as we commemorate the centennial of this milestone, it is important to recognize how other voting restrictions remained firmly entrenched for decades longer. Asian immigrants, for example, remained prohibited from becoming naturalized citizens until the 1940s and 1950s. This discrimination was rooted in some of our nation’s earliest laws. The 1790 Naturalization Act allowed “any alien, being a free white person,” to be naturalized if they had been in the U.S. for two years. Indentured servants, slaves, American Indians, and most women were left out. When Asian immigrants started arriving in the U.S., they were also barred from naturalization through laws like the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which excluded Chinese from both the U.S. and from the body politic. Without access to citizenship and the vote, Asian Americans remained marginalized as “forever foreigners” locked out of political power in America for generations.
Without access to citizenship and the vote, Asian Americans remained marginalized as “forever foreigners” locked out of political power in America for generations.
Asian American women were doubly penalized by laws such as the 1922 Cable Act. Written to amend sections of the 1907 Expatriation Act, which stripped women of their U.S. citizenship if they married non-citizen men, the Cable Act gave women rights to their citizenship regardless of their marital status. Passed in response to the suffrage movement, the Cable Act was seen as another victory for women’s rights. However, it had one catch: it was racist.
American women could still lose their citizenship if they married men “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” coded language for Asian immigrants—the only population categorized this way by law.
American women could still lose their citizenship if they married men “aliens ineligible for citizenship,” coded language for Asian immigrants—the only population categorized this way by law. Most of the women affected by this law were Asian American. The Cable Act would not be repealed until 1936.
Barred from being fully accepted as American, Asian Americans found other ways to express their devotion to the United States. My grandparents, immigrants from China and huge fans of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, named their Brooklyn Chinese restaurant the New Deal Chow Mein Inn. While they could not vote for FDR themselves, they still chose to show their support for the president in the best way they knew how! The New Deal Chow Mein Inn turned out to be a huge success. And when the Chinese exclusion laws were repealed in 1943, my grandparents finally became naturalized U.S. citizens.
Erika Lee is a Regents Professor of History and Asian American Studies, a Distinguished McKnight University Professor, the Rudolph J. Vecoli Chair in Immigration History, and Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States.
On Indigenous women’s activism at the local and international levels
In my research on the role of Indigenous women and women of color in advocating for suffrage and voting rights, I’ve found that it helps to think on two levels. Drilling down into the tribal, state, or local level reveals connections we might otherwise miss. On the other hand, opening up larger national or even international conversations also offers new perspectives.
The history of Native women and suffrage is complicated. For one thing, the 19th Amendment did not enfranchise many Native people who were legally considered “wards” of the nation. That did not happen until Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act (the “Snyder Act”) in 1924. Not all Native women advocated for US citizenship and suffrage. Instead they argued they were citizens of their own sovereign nations who should be recognized by the United States.
Not all Native women advocated for US citizenship and suffrage. Instead they argued they were citizens of their own sovereign nations who should be recognized by the United States.
But, some Native women, like Gertrude Bonnin or Zitkala-Ša of the Yankton Sioux nation, asserted that they could be citizens in both their tribal nations and the US. While those activists certainly drew their arguments from the experiences of their own Indigenous communities and nations, their activism often took in broader spaces. They testified before Congress and attended meetings of intertribal organizations like the Society of American Indians or National Council of American Indians. There they also mixed with white women in national suffrage organizations and influenced wider conversations.
These different scales are helpful for thinking about today as well. States continue to control access to the polls and the ease of voting varies widely by state.
I tell my students that the most important state office they can vote for is secretary of state, which generally exercises a great deal of control over voter registration, the availability of polling places, and the question of mail in ballots among others.
I tell my students that the most important state office they can vote for is secretary of state, which generally exercises a great deal of control over voter registration, the availability of polling places, and the question of mail in ballots among others. State politics are also a site of increasing Native representation, such as Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan of Minnesota.
At the other end of the scale, for many Indigenous activists, wider coalitions—including international ones—continue to be important sites of political activism. The UN Statement on Indigenous Rights has provided activists with a useful tool, for example. Women also serve in tribal governments, where they have important roles in governing their own sovereign nations.
Cathleen Cahill is Associate Professor of History at Penn State University. She is the author of Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement.
On “the urgency of now” vs. systemic change
Over the weeks following the killing of George Floyd, reporters constantly asked me whether I thought the demonstrations that followed reflected that America was finally changing for the better. They usually seemed quite disappointed when I responded that only time would tell.
For someone who grew up during the ’50s and tumultuous ’60s in the Deep South, who saw Blacks and white march together in the streets across the nation, and who then witnessed the election of Richard Nixon, it was not what was going on at the moment, but what would happen as the moment passed away from the “urgency of now.” Such moments have so often served to jump-start social consciousness, only to see the inevitability of reaction set in. The “urgency of now” has not always been the friend of meaningful systemic change.
After the ratification of the 15th Amendment, the high principles of racial equity that motivated post-Civil War policymakers often had the converse effect of lulling them into self-satisfaction, complacency, and dormant racism, which led to the abandonment of Black people. Similarly, after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, self-satisfaction, complacency to the principles of universal suffrage, and overt racism and sexism led to the abandonment of Black women whenever the coupling of gender and race were deemed to be awkward, if not impolitic.
After the ratification of the 19th Amendment, self-satisfaction, complacency to the principles of universal suffrage, and overt racism and sexism led to the abandonment of Black women whenever the coupling of gender and race were deemed to be awkward, if not impolitic.
The period of social inertia after hugely historic moments has often allowed the change process to be corrupted by people of ill will. Vigilance, especially when constituents grew weary or cynical, determined whether all of society moved forward.
Recent elections tell us what happens when voters pay little attention to voting rights and fair elections—and, conversely, what happens when they do. The challenge, of course, rests in selecting policymakers who value the franchise because it is a part of their DNA.
Bill Green is Professor of History at Augsburg University. A former Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent, he has written extensively on the history of civil rights in Minnesota and is a two-time winner of the Minnesota Book Award Hognander Prize.