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.
White feminism: that bitch that needs to sit down, stfu, and listen for a change.
Unfortunately, white feminism did not do this back when the suffrage movement pushed to secure women’s right to vote. The 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, and gave women the right to vote, which rules. What does not, in fact, rule, is that it did not secure the right to vote for women of color. It wasn’t until years later, when the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965 and prohibited racial discrimination in voting, did black men and women have more equal access to the franchise.
White women quite literally left women of color behind.
In fact, the 55th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday on March 7 commemorates the day when people of color attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to peacefully demand their access to the ballot. They only made it 6 blocks to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where cops attacked them with tear gas, clubs, and the like.
Where were the white women who wanted everyone to have the right to vote then? Susan…Carol…Karen…where you at?
As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the suffrage movement and the 19th Amendment, let’s try to do so by also acknowledging its blind spots and honoring the ongoing issues we have yet and need to fix. Might be a cute thing for us to do for a change, no? In 2020, women may have the right to vote, but voter suppression is a very real thing and it — surprise, surprise — targets people of color (as well as people with disabilities and students).
In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a provision in the Voting Rights Act that required nine states with a history of racial discrimination in voting to clear changes in their elections with the federal government. Since then, state governments have pursued efforts to disenfranchise voters who may question their claim to power.
White women: let’s put down our “Men Are Trash!!!” signs (don’t throw them away, babe, just put them down for now), and pick up our “White Women Have Privilege Too And If We Don’t Check It We Join The Trash” signs.
For starters, here’s a breakdown of how voter suppression works in this country, so you can stay educated and be aware of how you can vote to end this bullshit.
Voter ID Laws
Let’s start with something as simple as the laws behind which types of identification you need in order to vote. Most states (36) require you to bring ID to the polls when you vote. Some states (7) have exceptionally strict ID laws, like requiring you have more than one government-issued ID in order to vote. Here’s the thing: over 21 million U.S. citizens do not have a government-issued photo ID.
Think about it: Access to official identification like that is a privilege. It often costs money to get an ID, and in some cases a lot of money. In 2018, obtaining a Missouri driver’s license cost $89.00. In many cases, you have to travel to go get the ID. That costs money (public transportation/gas). These things also require time. If you’ve ever been to the DMV, first of all, my deepest sympathies to you and your family, and second, you know very well how that experience can take up an entire fucking afternoon.
Time is also privilege, as working-class people are busy working and/or looking after their family without the help of childcare, and don’t have the ability to get time off to go and get an ID. Also, most homeless people can’t get IDs because they don’t have a permanent address.
And because of the cute lil’ rigged system white people have created in this country that keeps them on top, all of this disproportionally affects people of color. Nationally, up to 25% of African-American citizens of voting age lack government-issued photo ID, compared to only 8% of whites, minority voters are questioned about their ID more than white voters, and specific laws like one in North Carolina that prohibits public assistance IDs and state employee ID cards, which are disproportionately held by Black voters, target minority voters. Capiche?
Voter Registration Laws
Moving on to the laws behind simply registering. Should be easy and fair, right? Think again, bitch! Some states have a cut off date for registering to vote, and unless you’re paying close attention, it’s easy to miss that date. Cut off dates only really made sense when you had to send your voter registration in by snail mail, so the state could get it in time of election day. Now, most states allow you to register online, so the cut off date is pretty pointless.
And for states that don’t have online registration…literally what are you doing? It’s 2020. Get online.
Politicians often use the concept of voter fraud to justify registration restrictions, but their claims lack any real evidence and are essentially fear-mongering. A recent study found that, since 2000, there were only 31 credible allegations of voter impersonation…that’s a v small amount. Yet politicians claim these documents are to “prove citizenship,” but really they are meant to stop people from voting.
Ugh, this bitch. We did an explainer on gerrymandering back in 2018, but for those of you who missed it, gerrymandering is when states redraw their district lines to manipulate the outcome of elections. Drawing district lines is meant to accurately represent population sizes and racial diversity, so y’all know bitches are using this to racially discriminate. This is America, after all.
Both parties are guilty of gerrymandering, but Republicans are more guilty of using racial discrimination to their advantage. And before we go and call Dems the heroes, this is mainly because Dems know we’re more popular among diverse voters.
Gerrymandering is a huge problem and a blatantly corrupt tactic that politicians continue to get away with. Fun!
Call me old fashioned, but I feel like we should leave the purging to the plot of the movie The Purge and keep it out of our voting system. But alas, voter purges are a process that take people off the voter registration lists if they have passed away, moved, been convicted of a felony, or haven’t voted in recent elections. I would say the last two are never a good enough reason to purge a voter, but what’s also messed up here is that the data the purges are based on is often wrong, so people are taken off the list for no reason, and don’t know about it until they show up to vote and are turned away.
For example, in the 2016 presidential primary, 200,000 names were improperly deleted from the voter roll in New York City. And in June 2016, the Arkansas secretary of state provided a list suggesting that more than 7,700 names be removed from the rolls because of felony convictions, but turns out that roster was inaccurate af. It included people who had never been convicted of a felony, as well as people with past convictions whose voting rights had been restored.
According to a Brennan Center study, jurisdictions with higher a history of racial discrimination had significantly higher purge rates. Well, well, well, looky looky what we have here: voter suppression based on racism. Again.
Denying Felons the Right to Vote
Some states ban felons from voting while they are incarcerated, some while they’re on federal release, and some ban them from life. This is already messed up imo, as they are citizens of this country, but it’s even more ~fucked~ when you counter in the fact that they are still used in the census, and therefore used when creating district lines. Then you add in the fact that the criminal justice system is historically racist and disproportionally incarcerates Black and Latino men. In 2016, Black Americans comprised 27% of all individuals arrested in the United States — which is twice their share of the total population — and African-American adults are 5.9 times as likely to be incarcerated than whites, while Hispanics are 3.1 times as likely.
In Texas, Crystal Mason faces five years in prison for attempting to cast a provisional ballot in 2016 because she was never told the terms of her federal release barred her from doing so. Her vote was never even counted.
Crystal Mason is a Black woman, so it’s no surprise that her penalty is much more severe than those of white women, like Terri Lynn Rote, a white woman who just had to pay a $750 fine after purposely trying to cast a bad ballot for President Trump.
Election Day Accessibility
To top us off, there’s the fact that Election Day is most accessible to people without disabilities who work 9-5 jobs. For someone who works outside those hours, it’s harder to get to the polls.
Oh wow, look at this: across the country, counties with larger minority populations have fewer polling sites and poll workers per voter.
Also, only 40 percent of polling places fully accommodate people with disabilities.
Essentially, all of this bullshit comes together to make a bullshit sandwich that feeds a system that sets people up for failure. And the people it wants to fail is specific: minorities. Because if everyone’s voices were heard, the power dynamics of our political system might start to shift, and all old white men in Congress might have to give some of their power and wealth up.
Somewhere in the Capitol, Mitch McConnell just gasped.
So, how do we change this? Somewhat ironically, by voting. Vote for lawmakers who make voter suppression a major talking point in their campaigns. Call your Senators and tell them these issues are important to you and they need to be important them too if they want your vote. Get involved and get the word out; remind people to register to vote before the deadline, encourage them to look up the voter ID laws in their state, offer people a ride to the polls. Show these mofos they can’t stop us from voting.
As part of our #KeepIt100 campaign marking 100 years since the first women voted, we’re donating 20% of the purchase price of each sale (excluding taxes or shipping) of Keep It 100 merch to the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.