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The 19th Amendment at 100

The fight for gender equality continues, especially for women of color.

August 18, 2020

Today we celeb­rate the 100th anniversary of the rati­fic­a­tion of the 19th Amend­ment, which guar­an­teed that the right to vote could not be denied “on account of sex.” The story of the amend­ment’s success, as well as the endur­ing legacy of the suffrage move­ment’s missteps, has renewed relev­ance today.

The struggle for rati­fic­a­tion

From the year-long battle to ratify the 19th Amend­ment, two anec­dotes stand out. It’s almost been forgot­ten that the final push to win the right to vote coin­cided with the Span­ish flu pandemic, which killed 650,000 Amer­ic­ans between 1918 and 1920. While the dead­li­est waves had passed by the time Congress passed the amend­ment in 1919, outbreaks lingered across the nation. Among the ill was Oklahoma suffra­gist Aloysius Larch-Miller, a 33-year-old social worker, nurse, and activ­ist. On Janu­ary 31, 1920, her state was consid­er­ing the suffrage ques­tion.

At that point, 32 of the neces­sary 36 states had rati­fied the amend­ment. Determ­ined to see Oklahoma on the right side of history, Larch-Miller “disobeyed her doctor’s orders and atten­ded a Demo­cratic county conven­tion,” accord­ing to the New York Tribune. There, she gave a “speech seldom equalled on any polit­ical conven­tion floor,” success­fully prod­ding the state party to hold a special session for the adop­tion of women’s suffrage. The triumph cost Larch-Miller her life two days later, as she died from the flu. But her sacri­fice wasn’t in vain — Oklahoma rati­fied the amend­ment the next month.

By August 1920, the suffrage move­ment was one state away from victory. Tennessee was the final battle­ground. When the legis­lature split nearly evenly on the ques­tion, the vote came down to a single state repres­ent­at­ive — 24-year-old Harry T. Burn, the young­est member of the assembly. It’s a story that’s been told time and again: as Burn wrestled with his stance, he received a note from his mother implor­ing him to “be a good boy” and “vote for suffrage.” Burn listened to his mother, cast­ing the decis­ive vote that, 100 years ago today, added the 19th Amend­ment to the Consti­tu­tion.

The exper­i­ences of Larch-Miller and Burn reson­ate today. Like Larch-Miller, millions of Amer­ic­ans are risk­ing their own safety during a pandemic, taking to the streets to protest for Black lives and against police brutal­ity. Like Burn, Illinois Repub­lican State Rep. Steve Andersson defied the party line and led his state legis­lature’s rati­fic­a­tion of the Equal Rights Amend­ment in 2018. The causes may be contem­por­ary, but the spirit is the same.

Achiev­ing equal­ity for women of color

The 19th Amend­ment was revolu­tion­ary, and it dramat­ic­ally altered the shape of our elect­or­ate. But its legacy, and its history, have been myth­o­lo­gized and obfus­cated. For one, the 19th Amend­ment, like so many parts of our Consti­tu­tion, initially failed to live up to its prom­ise.

The suffrage campaign was one char­ac­ter­ized by radical change and radical exclu­sion, by demo­cratic expan­sion and racist omis­sion. Despite the amend­ment’s rati­fic­a­tion in 1920, it took decades of further work and addi­tional legis­la­tion for the nation’s women of color, espe­cially Black, Native Amer­ican, and Asian-Amer­ican women, to gain access to the ballot.

Also, while the popu­lar timeline dates the origins of the suffrage move­ment to the 1848 Seneca Falls Conven­tion, this history is heav­ily fiction­al­ized. The real move­ment stretches back at least a century earlier.

The earli­est repor­ted instance of an Amer­ican woman cast­ing a ballot was in 1756, when Lydia Chapin Taft voted in Massachu­setts. Widowed and prop­er­tied, Taft was deemed eligible to vote in her husband’s stead in several town meet­ings. Nor was hers a lone case. New Jersey’s 1776 Consti­tu­tion actu­ally gran­ted expans­ive voting rights with no regard for gender or color. Remark­ably, this system lasted for three decades, finally ending as sexism and racism motiv­ated restric­tions to the fran­chise. And before formal suffrage organ­iz­a­tions formed, women advoc­ated for their rights in tandem with the other great causes of the early 19th century — the abol­i­tion­ist and temper­ance move­ments.

Why do we only focus on the part of the story between 1848 and 1920? As Kate Clarke Lemay, histor­ian and curator of the National Portrait Gallery’s Votes for Women project, said recently, it’s because activ­ists Susan B. Anthony and Eliza­beth Cady Stan­ton told us to. The two women wove the myth about their found­a­tional roles, and in doing so covered up a less than rosy picture of the suffrage move­ment itself. In the 1880s, they craf­ted the popu­lar narrat­ive about the move­ment’s origins in 1848, and “because there was so little recor­ded history from that time it was taken as fact.”

To be sure, Stan­ton and Anthony had crucial roles in the move­ment. But in their quest for “equal­ity,” both were will­ing to win the vote for white women at the expense of every­one else — part­ner­ing with white suprem­acists and South­ern Demo­crats, oppos­ing the 15th Amend­ment, and dispar­aging both men and women of color. And they were far from the only white suffra­gists to use these tactics.

The racist under­pin­nings of the suffrage move­ment, and the know­ledge that it left so many women behind, can be diffi­cult to square with the import­ance of the 19th Amend­ment to our demo­cracy. But we can celeb­rate the amend­ment by lift­ing up those who contin­ued to fight for an inclus­ive and expans­ive demo­cracy, despite the polit­ics of the era.

People like Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the anti-lynch­ing journ­al­ist recently awar­ded with a posthum­ous Pulitzer Prize, who defied the segreg­ated parade at the 1913 Women’s March on Wash­ing­ton and marched with her state’s deleg­a­tion. Zitkála-Šá, a Yank­ton Dakota Sioux author and co-founder of the National Coun­cil of Amer­ican Indi­ans, who helped lobby for Native Amer­ican voting rights after the passage of the 1924 Indian Citizen­ship Act. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, an activ­ist and immig­rant from China, who cham­pioned the suffrage cause in New York as a teen­ager, even though the Chinese Exclu­sion Act barred her from obtain­ing citizen­ship (and would continue to do so until 1943). There were also many white women, includ­ing Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe, who insisted on an inclus­ive approach from their lead­er­ship posi­tions within suffrage organ­iz­a­tions. Women won the vote thanks to diverse and dili­gent activ­ists and advoc­ates, none of whom should be forgot­ten.

Beyond the right to vote

The 19th Amend­ment did not end the profound social and economic inequit­ies that women face in the United States. But it did crack open the door for their polit­ical voices to be heard along­side men — a door that has only swung wider over the years. From educa­tion to jobs to polit­ical office, the coun­try has been radic­ally and bene­fi­cially reshaped over the last century, in no small part thanks to the inclu­sion of women in the elect­or­ate.

And even still, just as the 19th Amend­ment was tain­ted by racism, today’s oppor­tun­it­ies and dispar­it­ies don’t cut evenly across the spec­trum. The gender pay gap is much larger for many women of color, espe­cially Black, Latina, and Native Amer­ican women, than it is for white women. Like­wise, amidst the massive job loss during the coronavirus pandemic, women of color have been far more likely to lose their employ­ment. Trans­gender women, espe­cially trans women of color, face unique threats to their safety and iden­tity.

The revived fight for the Equal Rights Amend­ment, first writ­ten nearly a century ago, is symbolic of how this peren­nial national conver­sa­tion for gender justice contin­ues to this day. While the ERA’s status remains in limbo, await­ing the outcome of duel­ing lawsuits, it’s possible that Virgini­a’s mile­stone rati­fic­a­tion of it on Janu­ary 15 could finally add a 28th Amend­ment to the Consti­tu­tion.

Danica Roem, a Virginia state repres­ent­at­ive and the first openly trans­gender person elec­ted to any state legis­lature, spoke before her state’s decis­ive vote. She emphas­ized the inclu­sion­ary nature of the ERA, declar­ing that “today, rather than single out someone, rather than leave someone behind, we are making a state­ment of affirm­a­tion about what we are for — not who we are against.”

To celeb­rate the centen­nial of the 19th Amend­ment — and the broader goal of gender equal­ity — we should embrace Roem’s clos­ing words: “It is your United States of Amer­ica too.”

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center.