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Record Representation, Unequal History as US Women's Voting Rights Amendment Turns 100

From left, Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., and Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Pa., wear white and yellow roses to commemorate the 19th Amendment on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 21, 2019.

One hundred years ago, a supermajority in the U.S. Congress set aside concerns about social upheaval and gave its approval for a constitutional amendment to guarantee voting rights for women. Those rights were not gifted, but rather earned through decades of effort, and that fight has left a lasting impact on U.S. politics.

The passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution came first in the House of Representatives in May 1919, followed by Senate approval on June 4 and final ratification by individual states the following year.

"Women earned, worked for, marched, fought, starved, were starved, sacrificed everything for expanding freedom in our country," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said during an event commemorating the amendment's centennial. “Since the birth of our democracy, women have not waited for change but have worked for change."

The women's suffrage movement was one that relied on sustained activism on that single issue for 40 years, and a level of sophisticated organizational structure, according to Dawn Teele, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

"I think it really wasn't until women were excluded from the 15th Amendment during Reconstruction that more consciousness began to be raised about the issue and the fundamental unfairness or arbitrariness became more obvious in many ways."

The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, barred denying voting rights based on "race, color or previous servitude," and Teele said after such major reforms people are inclined to take a wait-and-see approach before considering other changes.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Calif., left, appear together at an event to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment in Washington, Tuesday, May 21, 2019.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Calif., left, appear together at an event to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment in Washington, Tuesday, May 21, 2019.

​She said that reluctance was particularly prevalent among politicians wary of supporting reforms that may not work in their favor, and that U.S. acceptance of women's suffrage was part of a wave of voting rights that was in its early stages globally.

"I think it took a long time for this concept of one person, one vote to evolve, including for men. Because to the extent that voting existed, it used to be tied to property rights, so we had to break down that concept and then break down the idea that women themselves were property before women could get voting rights," Teele told VOA.

Equality through power

There were no women in either chamber of the U.S. Congress when the suffrage amendment passed in 1919. Until that point, there had only ever been one woman in the House of Representatives, Rep. Jeannette Rankin of Montana, but she had just lost her bid for a Senate seat. In 1920, the year the suffrage amendment went into effect, voters in Oklahoma elected the second woman to serve in the House, and there have been women in Congress ever since, including 131 today.

"What happened 100 years ago also set the stage for the record number of women serving in and running for office, making boardroom decisions and raising the next generation of America's leaders," said Kay Coles James, chair of the Women's Suffrage Centennial Commission. "The women who fought for the right to vote did so because they believed the best way to change the laws that treated women as second class citizens was to have power over those who made the laws."

Two years before Congress approved the suffrage amendment, President Woodrow Wilson went before a joint session and called for a declaration of war against Germany, arguing in part, "The world must be made safe for democracy."

A year later, Rep. Rankin stood on the house floor and reflected Wilson's words as she made the case for women's voting rights.

"Can we afford to allow these men and women to doubt for a single instant the sincerity of our protestations of democracy?" Rankin said. "How shall we answer their challenge, gentlemen; how shall we explain to them the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted for war to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?"

Racism and unequal benefits

While some opponents argued women did not have the mental capacity to vote, there were also those who were against a federal amendment forcing states -- particularly those in the South -- to allow enfranchisement of African American women.

That racism persisted even among members of the pro-suffrage movement who told black women to march in the back during protests and otherwise marginalized their participation in suffrage groups. White women also sought to soothe concerns of white politicians by presenting the argument that adding women to voter rolls would increase white majorities among the electorate.

Bettye Collier-Thomas, a history professor at Temple University, said those writing the history of the movement have marginalized black women as well, wrongly portraying them as playing only a supporting -- rather than leading -- role in the fight for women's voting rights.

"African American women have been viewed more as an appendage to the suffrage movement and really not as central actors," she told VOA."If you place black women at the center, then you get a totally different story."

Collier-Thomas says the involvement of black women in the fight for women's suffrage has its roots in the period following the 1860s Civil War, as they first sought to achieve voting rights within their religious institutions.

"What black women realized is that without the vote they could not participate in the religious politics or have a voice in determining the structure or functioning of their religious institution. For them, the vote meant power," she said.

The organizations that sprung from that effort evolved into focusing on the wider women's suffrage movement, and coordinated with each other across religious denominations and borders, serving as what Collier-Thomas described as think tanks for figuring out how to address issues in each local community.

Suffragists on the picket line in front of the White House in 1917, three years before the passage of the 19th Amendment.
Suffragists on the picket line in front of the White House in 1917, three years before the passage of the 19th Amendment.

​Those structures would persist in new rounds of a similar fight after the 19th Amendment as African Americans battled voting discrimination in the form of arbitrary poll taxes and literacy tests, and other forms of voter suppression and segregation.

"Black women, yes, on paper since they were women, they got the vote. But just like with black men, they were quickly disenfranchised," she said.

With African American women serving today in local and state government, as well as the U.S. Congress, Collier-Thomas says they have "made a dent in the struggle," but that today voter suppression still stands as the greatest threat to black women.

"While the 19th Amendment opened the doors for many women to vote, it did not resolve the issue of suffrage for many women of color, Native American and immigrant women," said Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence. "These women along with many others share a valuable lesson that progress is no accident. It takes the power of persistence and dedication to our goals to turn our visions of equality into reality."

The congressionally created Women's Suffrage Centennial Commission is coordinating national events as well as projects, programs and celebrations taking place in local communities across the country through early 2021. The commission also has a set of online learning materials, drawing on collections from the National Archives, Library of Congress, National Park Service and Smithsonian Institution.

Former longtime Senator Barbara Mikulski, one of the commission members, said she hopes "at the end of our commemoration America will remember that the Constitution includes everybody, and that everybody has an opportunity in our society to be able to feel empowered and to make it."

Teele said that with issues such as reproductive rights, maternity leave, state-supported child care and the gender pay gap, there is not one that people today can agree to unite behind and change.

"The suffragists were interested and involved in a lot of different issues, but they coalesced on this issue of the vote believing the vote was a means to other political ends," she said."Right now there are so many issues that there's not a single issue that I think stands out as being more important than any other issue."