On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th and final state required to ratify a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote.
In theory, the 19th amendment extended suffrage to all women with citizenship. In practice, it guaranteed this right primarily for white women, many of whom were already permitted to cast votes per state laws. Across the country, non-white women remained at the mercy of state laws that would continue to disenfranchise them for another century.
That is, if it stops tomorrow.
It’s often repeated that voting is our most fundamental right — the result of wars fought and won throughout the 20th century. The uncomfortable truth is that voting remains a privilege for too many, as bad faith leaders wage constant battles against minority communities to suppress participation in the political process. These battles continue today.
It’s a mistake — one that ignores the boundless persistence of white male supremacy — to reduce the fight for women’s suffrage to a singular moment in U.S. history. Women were participating in the political process before this country was colonized, and had to protect their right to do so long after a few words in the Constitution vowed to do it for them.
To honor this anniversary, we took a look at the winding, thrilling, disappointing, and incomplete path towards full voting equality for women in the United States. Please note this is far from a comprehensive timeline.
Long before 1776
Historical records indicate that Native women participated in the tribal political process long before colonization, and matrilineal traditions gave many influence and power in their communities. But in some areas, colonization corrupted existing egalitarian social structures.
Throughout the early centuries of America, Native women were deprived of citizenship, were legally wards of the government, and were locked out of voting rights. Though some questioned the value of citizenship, they were nonetheless subject to forced assimilation.
1776: New Jersey Giveth, New Jersey Taketh Away
New Jersey passed its state constitution granting the right to vote to all inhabitants with property, including women. A 1790 state law affirmed that this was not a mistake, and women could indeed vote in New Jersey.
Single women voted for decades (married women couldn’t because their property went to their husbands after marriage). Until 1807, when losing politicians began accusing women, people of color and immigrants of voter fraud.
Philip Mead, chief historian at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, described the moment in time to The Washington Post:
“This was a moment, in 1807, where Americans were having serious doubts about their democracy. I think were looking for a big action they could take to restore confidence in the voting system, and they crudely scapegoated women, people of color, immigrants.”
The law was changed to limit voting to white men. New Jersey was just one of many states that retroactively took away women’s voting rights.
July 1848: The Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention
Frederick Douglass with his wife, Helen Pitts and her sister, Eva Pitts
The first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, NY. The convention passed 11 resolutions to pursue — its “Declaration of Sentiments” — which included a demand for the right to vote.
The voting resolution might not have passed without Frederick Douglass, who was the only Black American to attend the Seneca Falls convention.
His speech convinced other attendees to support women’s suffrage, which was still the only resolution not to pass unanimously.
1851: Sojourner Truth Gives Famous Address To The Women’s Rights Convention
Sojourner Truth in around 1864. Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Sojourner Truth was among the most well-known abolitionists and women’s rights activists of her time. She was invited to speak at an 1851 gathering of suffragists, where she gave what has been referred to as the “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech.
The speech was a huge moment in the trajectory of women’s rights. But there’s a fair amount of controversy around it. Truth was born in New York, but the most popular version of the published speech contains Southern dialect that does not reflect the way she actually spoke. It’s likely that white abolitionist Frances Dana Barker Gage changed Truth’s accent and word choice to misrepresent her background.
In any event, most versions of the published speech include a version of this iconic line:
“Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again.”
1868: Ratification of the 14th Amendment
This extended citizenship to Black Americans, but not the right to vote.
1869: Wyoming Becomes The First State Or Territory To Pass Women’s Suffrage
Mostly because they were thirsty.
Sure, some men in Wyoming wanted women community members to have a voice in their democracy…
Others hoped the new law would draw more women to the state. At the time, the state had six times as many men as women.
Clearly these gentlemen didn’t agree with their brothers in Wyoming. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
1870: Ratification Of The 15th Amendment
The 15th Amendment prohibited state and federal governments from denying the right to vote based on race, theoretically giving Black men the right to vote.
Racist Jim Crow laws, literacy tests, and poll taxes barred many from exercising that right.
Though the suffrage movement found its origins in abolitionism and many suffragists assisted the anti-slavery war effort, movement leaders largely opposed the 15th amendment unless it also enfranchised women. Plenty were furious that Black men were granted the right to vote before white women. Many were openly hostile to the idea of incorporating racial equality into the women’s movement.
Some white suffragists largely distanced themselves from universal suffrage that would include Black women, for fear of alienating Southern legislators (and their own racism).
At this point, prominent suffrage organizations had split to pursue separate approaches, while Black women were further excluded and marginalized within the movement they were instrumental in shaping.
1872: Thousands Of Women Attempt To Vote In The Presidential Election
They knew it was illegal, but planned to file lawsuits after they were blocked from voting.
Leading women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth was turned away and arrested, despite working for Grant’s re-election campaign. Susan B. Anthony was also arrested and charged.
Virginia Louisa Minor’s case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 1875 found the Constitution did not give women voting rights.
The suffrage movement shifted its attention to a constitutional amendment.
1878: The 19th Amendment Is Introduced
A casual 42 years before its ratification
1896: Founding Of The National Association For Colored Women
Members of the Arizona Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs in around 1909. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
A number of Black women’s civil right’s groups merge to form the National Association For Colored Women, after which Black women’s suffrage clubs emerged across the country
Mary Church Terrell, one of the first Black American women to earn a college degree, led the new organization, which was co-founded by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Harriet Tubman and others.
Their motto: “Lifting as we climb.”
1898: Mary Church Terrell’s “Progress Of Colored Women” Speech
Mary Church Terrell co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Association For Colored Women.
Mary Church Terrell was one of few Black women permitted to attend meetings of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
She was invited to speak at its gathering in Washington, D.C., where she emphasized the value of Black women’s political participation and the challenges they face in society.
“Not only are colored women with ambition and aspiration handicapped on account of their sex, but they are almost everywhere baffled and mocked because of their race. Not only because they are women, but because they are colored women, are discouragement and disappointment meeting them at every turn. But in spite of the obstacles encountered, the progress made by colored women along many lines appears like a veritable miracle of modern times,” she said.
March 1913: Suffrage March in Washington, D.C.
German actress Hedwig Reicher wears the costume of “Columbia” in front of the Treasury Building in Washington, District of Columbia, on March 3, 1913. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The National American Woman Suffrage Association and Alice Paul organized a protest on Pennsylvania Avenue the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. At least 5,000 women — and as many as 10,000 — attended. Black women were discouraged from participating and asked to march in separate processions.
The Delta Sigma Theta Sorority had formed at Howard University just months earlier. In spite of the racism they were sure to encounter, its founding members attended the march in D.C. as their first public act. Mary Church Terrell joined them.
Bertha Pitts Campbell and Osceola Macarthy Adams, co-founders of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority at Howard University. Courtesy of the Washington State Archives.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett also attended the march. Even though she founded and inspired suffrage clubs across Illinois, Wells-Barnett was instructed to walk with a segregated procession at the back of the march.
“I shall not march at all unless I can march under the Illinois banner,” she reportedly said.
Wells waited to enter the parade until the Illinois delegation passed, when she jumped in to join them.
Image courtesy Wikipedia Commons/ Chicago Daily Tribune
The march was met with violence. Rowdy spectators attacked and harassed women on the route. At least 100 women were hospitalized with injuries.
1917: New York State Passes Referendum On Women’s Right To Vote
The landmark vote in the nation’s most populous state gave the suffrage movement a shot of momentum. Black women’s clubs and the NAACP were critical to the referendum’s success
August 18, 1920: Ratification Of The 19th Amendment
Tennessee became the 36th state needed to ratify an amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote, just over a year after it passed the Senate.
Many states already allowed women to vote by this point. For some women, the 19th Amendment now guaranteed this right.
It did not hold the same promise for Black women, who were excluded by state laws, discriminatory Jim Crow practices, violence and harassment.
Native women, many of whom were not yet considered citizens, were also excluded.
1924: Congress Passes The Snyder Act
The Snyder Act of 1924, also called the Indian Citizenship Act, extended full U.S. citizenship to all Native people.
But states continued to impose restrictions and refused to recognize Native American citizenship; some states conditioned voting rights on federal assimilation and the abandonment of tribal governments or lands.
Utah became the final state to fully guarantee voting rights for Native Americans in 1962.
March 1965: Bloody Sunday
A young John Lewis leads 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama to demand respect for the constitutionally protected voting rights African Americans of all genders were still denied.
August 1965: The Voting Rights Act
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act into law, which prohibited racial federal discrimination in voting and included provisions to safeguard against it. A key provision required states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to clear new election laws with the federal government to ensure they don’t suppress minority voting or political representation.
The VRA also strengthened voting rights for women, immigrants, and Native peoples. But even this did not end the disenfranchisement of BIPOC in America.
The March on Washington on August 28, 1963. Courtesy of the Library of Congress
June 2013: The Supreme Court Guts The Voting Rights Act
In Shelby County v. Holder, SCOTUS found that the formula used to determine which states need special permission before changing their election laws was unconstitutional.
This made the provision itself nearly useless, allowing states to move forward with election changes without regard for how they might disenfranchise BIPOC.
The ruling elite hasn’t given up on voter suppression. They’ve just gotten more creative.
In past decades, states have gerrymandered districts to dilute the impact of Black voters. Others have implemented onerous ID requirements that disproportionately impact minority voters and Native people who live on reservations. Yet others have eliminated same-day registration, early voting, and Sunday voting.
And most recently, the president and his loyalists have spread false information about mail-in voting while sabotaging the ability of the United States Postal Service to process ballots for the November election he is widely expected to lose.
These restrictions disproportionately impact women and minorities, who are more likely to rely on flexible voting options.
Though President Trump himself has requested a mail ballot this year, he continues to raise the specter of voter fraud to sow fear and suspicion of November’s election result.
As you prepare to cast your ballot this year, remember this is not the first time that women and people of color have been accused of voter fraud by politicians who didn’t like to lose.
Remember the New Jersey women whose right to vote was revoked through vague allegations of “voter fraud” after decades of voting freely. Remember the Black women who never stopped fighting to exercise the rights they helped win for white women.
Remember that when politicians no longer impress us, we get to eliminate them. They don’t get to eliminate us.
It’s been almost five decades since the United Nations first celebrated International Women’s Day, but in the current political climate, it’s taken on new energy and a heightened sense of importance. Every year on March 8th, thought pieces are written, vague assurances are offered, and observance is given to issues that ought to command daily attention, not just a day of attention. At its core, International Women’s Day is an occasion to highlight issues important to women of all backgrounds, across the globe, and, to remind women that if we do no stand up and speak out for our own self-interest, the momentum of the movement for global gender equality will come to a screeching halt.
When Betches was founded almost 10 years ago, our brand was intentionally apolitical and capitalized satirically on being unapologetically unaware of our privilege; ironically, the second post we ever wrote was called “Not Keeping Up With The News.” We were half-kidding, but as 21-year-old college students, we didn’t fully understand how politics had already invisibly impacted our lives by giving us the privilege to not care. And of course, the ability to vote felt like an obvious guarantee we were entitled to as Americans and we did not know – nor were we taught – otherwise. It is this sense of unnoticed, or more often, reenforced, naiveté that has plagued communities of women around the globe and slowed the progress of achieving true gender equality.
Ignorance is not always bliss
Five years after launching Betches, during the contentious and (at the time) comical 2016 election cycle, politics, for us and many other women, started to feel much more personally relevant than it had previously and in ways that could no longer be swept under the rug.
Since then, we’ve watched events unfold such as #MeToo, limits to abortion access, voter suppression, and the crisis at the border; all of which threw into clear focus what the results of an election can really mean for the individual, and who it can adversely affect.
We started The Betches Sup newsletter for our audience members who, like so many of us, need a funnier and more candid take on what has felt like a relentlessly bad news cycle. As The Sup has expanded, we’ve actively sought to understand and become conscious of the advantages we have that enabled three young women to start a business in the first place. Inside of this reflection, it has become extremely clear that politics and policies impact all of us, and it’s neither cute nor acceptable to use ignorance as a shield, most especially when the stakes are so high. It’s also become just as clear that we need to work for all women to have the same opportunities as we do, and shed light on the disparity of access to basic rights among the communities of which women are a part.
Voter suppression is not a thing of the past
We chose to mark International Women’s Day 2020 – a day in service of women’s rights and empowerment – by launching a campaign focused on voter activation and registration. It has become abundantly clear that voting, while enshrined as a right, remains a privilege for too many. As people who have not faced systemic or structural barriers to our right to vote, but whose quality of life increasingly relies on election outcomes, this right has become personal to us and one we want our company to stand for.
Of course, we can’t mark this occasion without acknowledging that for women of color, the right to vote has always felt personal, and the fight for equality at the ballot box has never stopped. From the onset of the gender equality movement, white women were openly hostile towards incorporating racial equality into the narrative — a practice we now know as intersectionality — even when black suffragists raised the irony of excluding the most vulnerable in society from decisions that could offer them any degree of real protection.
As leading abolitionist and suffragist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper said in her remarks to the 1873 American Woman Suffrage Association, “much as white women need the ballot, colored women need it more.” For decades, intimidation, racist literacy tests, poll taxes and violence of Jim Crow kept many black men and women from accessing their right to vote.
After the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, states across the country imposed restrictions and requirements that disproportionately impact minority voters. Just last week, voters in Texas waited seven hours in line after the state slashed its number of polling stations, eliminating many that primarily served communities of color. These egregious attempts to stop people from voting make it an especially important issue to fight for this year. Thus, the #Keepit100 campaign was born.
In 2020, Betches Media is proud to honor International Women’s Day by working with UN Women to launch our Keep It 100 campaign. Keep It 100 refers to the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage and the passing of the 19th Amendment, which gave (some) women the right to vote. The campaign is a multi-faceted voting initiative aimed at registering, educating, and activating our audience throughout the election cycle.
For the IWD launch, we are partnering with a like-minded feminist brand Lingua Franca on a sweater collection, with $100 of each purchase going to UN Women’s efforts to pursue equality for women globally. On both a business and a personal level, this marks a significant milestone and embodies an evolution for us as a company.
This first phase of the Keep it 100 campaign features videos and pledges from influencers, celebrities, and Betches fans alike who are committed to showing the importance of exercising their right to vote. We are asking members of our audience to share what inspires them to vote and why voting personally matters to them – why they are “keeping it 100”. The Keep it 100 responses are shared to Betches’ 7M Instagram followers with the goal of driving home the true importance of voting in your best interest and the interests of those around you.
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Would you let your Netflix play obscure foreign documentaries without subtitles when all you want to do is finish “Love Is Blind”? No, of course not, because you don’t let other people make decisions for you. That wouldn’t be rational. And despite centuries of sexist stereotyping, women are pretty f*cking rational. It's been 100 years since the ratification of the 19th amendment, which gave * some * women the right to vote. If nothing is stopping you from getting to the polls, you have no excuse not to vote this year. Join us, @betches, and the amazing women above and take the pledge to #keepit100 in 2020 and tell us why you’re voting. Throughout the year, we’ll share 100 submissions to honor 100 years of voting and all the work that’s left to be done. Check our Stories to see how.
In addition to social sharing, we are launching a voter portal in partnership with Headcount, where our audience can register online or via text, check their registration status, and pledge to get their friends to vote.
No woman left behind
Activating our community to combat voter suppression efforts across the country is central for us. We encourage everyone, from all corners of the country, to register to vote and show how they are #keepingit100 in 2020. The stakes are high and the action must be great.
Throughout 2020, we will have a limited edition Keep It 100 collection by Shop Betches, with 20% of the purchase price of each sale (excluding taxes or shipping) of Keep It 100 collection merch donated to the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.
Just like they say every election, this is the most important election of our lifetimes. If you’re not already taking it personally, now’s the time.