Search

Women's Equality Day and the Suffrage Centennial

On August 26, 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment was certified as part of the U.S. Constitution.

The amendment reads in its entirety: 

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Nothing in the original U.S. Constitution of 1789 or in the subsequent Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments ratified in 1791) guaranteed any citizen either a right to vote or protection from discrimination in voting laws.  It would take several more constitutional amendments, and a fair amount of congressional legislation, to institutionalize the most basic rights that many of us consider the foundational features of democracy. On the contrary, the founders never set out to create a direct democracy, but rather a republic, a representative democracy ruled by elite property-holding white men making decisions for all.  But in the 19th century, more and more economically and politically disenfranchised groups - workers, non-property holding individuals, enslaved peoples, immigrants, members of religious minority sects, and women - challenged the nation to expand upon the Enlightenment ideals articulated in the Constitution and to expand civil and political rights to a broader group of Americans.  Several decades into the American experiment, by the 1850s the nation had made some strides toward "democratization" with expanded property and educational rights for white women, and with the oxymoronic "universal white male suffrage" which had, state-by-state, removed property ownership or wealth (but not race or sex) as a legal requirement for voting. By the 1850s, as well, the anti-slavery and women's rights movements were in full force and the expansion of white male political rights only highlighted the lack of rights for either African Americans or women of any race. A major shift occurred in the mid-19th century with the abolishment of slavery (with the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865), followed by two additional constitutional amendments expanding political and civil rights: the Fourteenth Amendment (1868), guaranteeing equal protection under the law for all citizens, and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870), prohibiting states from denying voting rights based on race (but not sex).    Constitutional change still did not guarantee the free exercise of the franchise for black men, and the civil rights movement spent another 100 years (and beyond) protesting state and local-level obstacles to black voting and office-holding, such as poll taxes, literacy tests, gerrymandering, lack of education, difficult voter registration processes, intimidation, and violence. Additionally, it took another 50 years—between the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 and the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920—and many state-by-state victories, for a federal amendment finally extending the right to vote to all American women. The movement to secure votes for women always worked alongside other social and civil rights movements. The suffrage movement had its own leaders, organizations, newspapers, strategies, protests, and conventions. However, from the overlap between abolitionism and women’s rights in the early 19th century, to the post-Civil War connections between black civil rights, to the effort of Progressive Era women labor leaders to recruit working-class women to the suffrage cause, to the re-emergence of the women’s movement out of the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, to LGBTQ rights and the global connections between human rights and women’s rights, the story of the women’s movement in the United States has always been wrapped up with the story of the broader, and continual, expansion of the democratic promise for all Americans.  In an interview toward the end of her life, suffragist Alice Paul said, “There is nothing complicated about ordinary equality.” This is one of my favorite quotes and I often write it in the graduation cards I give to students! And yet, the story of American women’s participation in our nation’s political processes—from voting to office-holding to decision-making—has been incredibly long and complicated. Prominent white women like Alice Paul usually take center stage in the story of the dramatic years and months leading up to final passage of the Nineteenth Amendment (in fact, today, on this centennial day, I am registered for a webinar suffrage celebration called #ThanksAlice!). Yet, Paul herself complicated her own movement and legacy by favoring political expediency over lasting coalitions and a commitment to true equality, literally pushing aside the presence of black women in the movement.

(This image itself is controversial in the history of civil rights. Note that in the 1910s, most African Americans and reformers still aligned with the Republican Party as the party of Lincoln and the party of civil rights, but a new controversial national suffrage strategy called for removal of support from ANY platform or politician who failed to support women's suffrage, regardless of party affiliation.)

That legacy remains with us today. The historical connection between abolitionism, black civil rights, and women’s rights, means that black women were often hard at work at the center of these social movements, and yet, the racism of white women often limited the radical potential of these voices and these coalitions to strengthen the movement. At the same time, by separating class, race, and gender (in that order) into separate categories of constitutional rights, the U.S. Congress and the state legislatures sowed division into the very nature of these civil rights movements. Still, the fight for the vote—and the subsequent struggles for women’s broader political participation—would undoubtedly have seen greater or swifter progress if the work of women of color had not been dismissed or made invisible by white women in the movement, or in subsequent histories of the movement. While the increase in the number of female presidential candidates between 2016 and 2020, or the presence of a woman of color on a major party's ticket, might seem like exponential change (though still no presidential nomination secured and still no ERA ratified), the struggle for all Americans to be included in the promise of democracy in this country has crept along at an embarrassing pace.  The demand for gender and racial equality in the United States - politically, economically, legally, and socially as well - is now in its fourth century, as old as the very founding of the nation and a struggle that is still not complete.  Celebrating the anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment reminds us that it took 100 years to get to this point, and that we still have a long way to go.

(The above is excerpted & adapted from the Introduction to my recently published, Women's Suffrage: The Complete Guide to the Nineteenth Amendment, Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2020.   https://products.abc-clio.com/abc-cliocorporate/product.aspx?pc=A6129C)

Recent Posts

See All

Flannery O'Connor

Read and enjoyed this insightful New Yorker piece on Flannery O’Connor over the weekend. The title “How Racist?” seems like the wrong question, though... especially since the answer, in this reader’s

About Tiffany 

 

Historian of women, gender, & feminism. Author & editor of academic reference books. Novelist.

Follow Me

 

  • Twitter Basic Black
  • Instagram
  • Facebook Basic Black

Join my mailing list

© 2020 by Tiffany K Wayne, PhD. 

Photographs taken by Marian "Clover" Hooper Adams obtained from the Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society