The ratification of the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920, represented the culmination of over 70 years of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. While this was a victory for women’s rights, at the time it was largely a victory for white, middle and upper class women.
Prior to the Civil War, famous suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony vocally opposed slavery and had alliances with abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass. However, once it became clear that African American men would receive the right to vote before white women, the alliances faltered and led to racial exclusion within the suffrage movement. White women in the movement concluded that one of the only ways to get the Southern states to ratify the amendment was through racial exclusion.
After the ratification of the 19th Amendment, white women celebrated their right to vote while African American women remained disenfranchised through state-imposed literacy tests, poll taxes, and violence. Although African American women were crucial in the suffragist movement, their right to vote was not secured until 45 years later with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Additionally, the history of the women’s suffrage movement has excluded the important African American women who contributed to the movement such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary Church Terrell, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Wells-Barnett exposed the issue of white mob violence lynching and confronted white women in the movement who ignored it. She was one of the founders of the National Association of Colored Women’s Club, which was created to address issues dealing with civil rights and women’s suffrage and was present in Niagara Falls for the founding of the NAACP.
Terrell actively campaigned for civil rights and women’s suffrage, as well as helped found the National Association of Colored Women, the NAACP, and the National Association of University Women.
Harper was a poet, novelist, civil rights activist, and acclaimed speaker. At the 11th National Women’s Rights Convention in 1866, Harper argued that race and gender were intertwined and the racism that she and other Black women experienced was a women’s issue that the suffrage movement was obligated to address.
While white women were gaining the right to vote and African American women were fighting disenfranchisement, Puerto Rican, Native American, and Asian American women were not even considered citizens and did not have the right to vote at all. It was not until 1924 that Native Americans were declared U.S. citizens and gained the right to vote, but they also faced voter discrimination like African Americans. Puerto Rican women secured universal voting in 1935, and Asian American women did not gain the right to vote until 1943.
As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, let us honor all the women who selflessly fought for the right to vote, whether history remembers them or not. And let us recommit to the idea of universal suffrage that sparked the movement all those years ago and fights for the rights of all women.
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Hamlin, Kimberly. “Perspective | How Racism Almost Killed Women’s Right to Vote.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 4 June 2019, www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/06/04/how-racism-almost-killed-womens-right-vote/.
History.com Editors. “19th Amendment.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 5 Mar. 2010, www.history.com/topics/womens-history/19th-amendment-1.
Jeunesse, Marilyn La. “The 19th Amendment Only Really Helped White Women.” Teen Vogue, 16 Aug. 2019, www.teenvogue.com/story/19th-amendment-anniversary-benefited-white-women.
Norwood, Arlisha R. “Ida B. Wells-Barnett.” National Women’s History Museum, 2017, www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/ida-b-wells-barnett.
Staples, Brent. “When the Suffrage Movement Sold Out to White Supremacy.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Feb. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/02/02/opinion/sunday/women-voting-19th-amendment-white-supremacy.html.
“Leaving All to Younger Hands: Why the History of the Women’s Suffragist Movement Matters.” Brookings, Brookings, 7 May 2020, www.brookings.edu/essay/leaving-all-to-younger-hands-why-the-history-of-the-womens-suffrage-movement-matters/.
“Weekend Read: Challenging the Whitewashed History of Women’s Suffrage.” Southern Poverty Law Center, 1 June 2019, www.splcenter.org/news/2019/06/01/weekend-read-challenging-whitewashed-history-womens-suffrage.