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Speeches & Media

Voting Rights for All Women

19th Amendment remains an unfinished milestone.

Kathleen McCartney, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Fall 2020

On August 18, 1920, Congress ratified the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing women voting rights equal to those of men. A citizen’s right to vote, the amendment read, “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Tragically, the women’s suffrage movement had largely excluded Black women, prompting Sojourner Truth to provoke white suffragists in 1851 by asking, “Ain’t I a woman?”

Black women working to gain the right to vote were not welcome at the conventions of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and they marched in separate suffrage parades. Not surprisingly, the passage of the 19th Amendment enfranchised white women, while it had far less impact on voting rights for Black women.

As Tammy L. Brown, Miami University associate professor of Black world studies, history, and global and intercultural studies, has written, the Black community, especially women, experienced “poll taxes, literacy tests, and outright violence and intimidation that prevented Black people from voting.” How, then, should we reconcile the success of the suffrage movement with the lived experiences of Black women not only in Jim Crow America, but also today? The answer for Brown is not to whitewash the movement’s racism.

Fast-forward 100 years and voter suppression remains a serious problem. Tactics that emerged in the wake of the 2018 midterm elections are poised to have a particularly devastating effect on women of color in the 2020 election. Modern-day obstacles include preventing automatic voter registration, blocking early voting or same-day registration, as well as requiring state-issued IDs that perfectly match the name on an individual’s voter registration card.

Women voters have had an enormous impact on the political, social and economic direction of the United States. Women’s voting has correlated with increased spending on education, leading to better education outcomes. It spurred investment in social programs, including those advancing public health. And it led to the Sheppard–Towner Act of 1921, the first federal funding for prenatal health and infant care. Yet, the voices of many women, especially women of color, have been silenced.

When delivering the 2019 response to the State of the Union, former Georgia state representative Stacey Abrams, the first Black woman in U.S. history to be nominated for governor by a major party, described voting rights as “the next battle for our democracy.” It is only through voting, Abrams said, that “all eligible citizens can have their say about the vision we want for our country.”

This fall, Americans will vote in one of the most consequential elections in recent years. The choices we make will have profound implications for the environment, immigration, education access, civil rights, social justice, and gender and racial equality. Racism and misogyny have carved deep chasms in American society, and the discriminatory and disenfranchising effects on Black women have been particularly profound. As we consider our role and privilege as voters, we must commit to using our voting power in support of America’s race reckoning; this must be part of a larger effort to end white supremacy and accompanying anti- Blackness. At the local and state levels, we need to support efforts to make registering to vote easy, to make mail-in ballots possible (which prevents intimidation) and to extend polling hours. When everyone’s voice matters equally, there will be reason to celebrate.