Tuesday marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, revered for giving (some) women the right to vote. The truth is, it was a knock-down fight to even get it through Congress, and the amendment itself didn’t go nearly far enough toward extending those rights to everyone. Sound familiar? The rights the people demanded were not given freely; they had to be taken. As for many of the social justice movements that have recently swept the country, that process was bloody, messy, and fractured. In some ways, it never ended.
Now, as people nationwide prepare to go to the polls (or try to navigate our besieged mail system) to elect the next president, let’s take a stroll back through history to see what lessons the current generation of freedom fighters can learn from the suffrage movement.
It took decades to get Congress to pass the 19th Amendment. After clearing Congress, the amendment still had to be ratified by 36 states before being enshrined in the Constitution. It all came down to Tennessee, where 24-year-old Rep. Harry Burn cast the deciding yes vote on Aug. 18, 1920 — all because his mother, Phoebe Ensminger Burn, told him to “be a good boy” and get it passed. (Atta boy, Harry!) Though the amendment did pass, the remaining states took their sweet time in ratifying it, with Mississippi coming in last in 1984.
Women didn’t get the right to vote by asking nicely; mass protests and police violence were a major part of the struggle. The day before Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 inauguration, the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage organized a 5,000-person march on Washington. Anti-suffrage protesters attacked the marchers, and 100 women were hospitalized. In 1917, on the cusp of the U.S. entrance into World War I, the National Woman’s Party’s “Silent Sentinels” held daily protests in front of the White House, where many were beaten, arrested, and jailed. We’ve seen this pushback against protests yet again in 2020, in response to the nationwide uprising after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police — a reminder that public eyes are needed to keep protesters safe.
Even before they could vote, women have run for office, laying the groundwork for those who came after them. In 1872, Victoria Woodhull, a socialist feminist, spirit medium, journalist, advocate of “free love,” and the first female stockbroker on Wall Street, became the first woman to run for president. She named abolitionist Frederick Douglass as her running mate, and ran on a platform of women’s rights. But then she was hauled off on “obscenity” charges several days before the election for publishing the lurid details of famed clergyman Henry Ward Beecher’s alleged adultery. As she said when she announced her candidacy, “What may appear absurd today will assume a serious aspect to-morrow.”
Almost a century later in 1968, Communist Party member Charlene Mitchell became the first Black woman to run for president. Then in 1972, Democrat Shirley Chisholm — the first Black woman elected to Congress, who also advocated for the still-not-passed Equal Rights Amendment — was the first Black woman to be a major-party candidate for president. And just last week, nearly 100 years after the 19th Amendment’s passage, we saw Kamala Harris become the first woman of color nominated for national office by a major political party.
The women’s suffrage movement was initially aligned with abolitionism. Many suffragists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, came to the cause through their involvement with the American Anti-Slavery Society and saw the issues as connected. Abolitionist Sojourner Truth was a peer of white suffragists like Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, with whom fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass cofounded the American Equal Rights Association (AERA). (Douglass was also the only Black voice at the 1848 Seneca Falls convention where a historic statement calling for universal suffrage was signed.) But after Emancipation, a schism opened up between white women suffragists and Black women activists defending their rights on multiple fronts. At an AERA meeting, Stanton fiercely opposed the 15th Amendment that aimed to protect all citizens’ rights. Black teacher and abolitionist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper pushed back: “You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs.”
Ultimately, the movement splintered into those seeking universal suffrage and the enfranchisement of newly freed Black people, and those wanting to focus only on votes for women (which in practical terms translated into votes for white women). Activists’ efforts saw ideological divides too. Conservative women unsurprisingly opposed the movement, but not all radical women were interested in winning the vote either. Anarchists like Lucy Parsons and Emma Goldman dismissed the suffragist cause in favor of class struggle, with Parsons, a Black anarchist, warning: “Never be deceived that the rich will allow you to vote away their wealth.” But the existence of dissent didn’t stop the broader movement.
Black women formed their own political organizations, like the National Association of Colored Women, to fight for the rights owed them. Passed before the 19th Amendment, the 14th and 15th Amendments of the Reconstruction Era established basic legal protections for Black people. The 14th Amendment bestowed citizenship on those born in the U.S. and guaranteed them “equal protection of the laws.” The 15th gave Black men the right to vote and declared that citizens’ rights could not be denied “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Still, the 19th Amendment itself only granted some women the right to vote. Black women were effectively barred from voting until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — a change that reflected a century of work by Black women.
The original Constitution had a clause barring many Native people from holding citizenship on their own (stolen) land. This was only partially rectified via the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, and full suffrage for Native people was not extended until 1957. Meanwhile, thanks to xenophobic immigration laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act, Asian Americans were denied citizenship and the right to vote until the McCarren-Walker Act granted both in 1952. And while Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917, the right to vote for all women on the island was denied until 1935, 15 years after white women on the mainland won theirs. Delayed access to voting can shape these groups’ civic engagement today.
Even today, U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and Guam remain barred from voting in federal elections like the 2020 presidential race (which Trump is surely thrilled about). Millions of people of all genders who have been convicted of felonies have been denied the right to vote while in prison or on parole; in 11 states, they lose their voting rights permanently. There are only two states, Maine and Vermont, where currently incarcerated people can vote. With 2.3 million people locked up in the U.S. criminal justice system, our prison population is 33% Black and also disproportionately Native American and Latinx. Language barriers, poll taxes, and voter ID laws further disenfranchise Latinx and immigrant voters.
Though Republicans led the charge to enfranchise women voters through the 19th Amendment, today’s GOP is busy disenfranchising as many voters as possible (particularly those who are Black and Latinx) via gerrymandering, voter suppression, and other dirty tricks. In 2013, Congress struck down a key provision in the Voting Rights Act that had made it difficult for jurisdictions with histories of voter discrimination to enact new voting laws. In its wake, some states have rolled out new voting restrictions that disproportionately affect Black voters and voters of color. When the League of Women Voters (founded by suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt in 1920) brought a suit to the Supreme Court in 2019 to rein in partisan gerrymandering — a practice that routinely disenfranchises minority voters — the court ruled against them 5-4, meaning gerrymandering rages on.
The United States fell far behind other countries in granting suffrage to its citizens — but while late to the party, it wasn’t the last to show up. Women in New Zealand gained the right to vote in 1893; in Finland, it was 1906. In Russia, following massive street demonstrations, women won the vote in 1917. Mexican women didn’t win full suffrage until 1953, and First Nations women in Canada not until 1960. In Saudi Arabia, it took until 2015. We may have a long way to go, but we can still celebrate how far we’ve come.
Charlotte Woodward Pierce was the only Seneca Falls attendee who lived to see the passage of the 19th Amendment. By 1919, she was 91, and too frail to make it to the polls herself to cast that hard-won vote. Her story may feel familiar to those fighting for liberation now, and who may not live long enough to reap what they have sown. Still, today’s voting-rights defenders should know the next generation will thank them for their sacrifices. As Sojourner Truth once said, “We have all been thrown down so low that nobody thought we’d ever get up again; but we have been long enough trodden now; we will come up again.”