Voting: In Full Color

2020 is the 100 year anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which finally gave women the right to vote in the United States. Congresswomen celebrated the anniversary at the recent State of the Union on February 4th by wearing white. This gesture was symbolic in a few ways — it celebrated one of the most monumental achievements of the women’s rights movement in the 20th century. It also, indirectly, reminded many women that finally gaining a human right in 1920 was not universal. In fact, it will be quite some time until we’ll be able to celebrate Black, Asian, and Indigenous rights to vote.  

For a land that calls itself free, civil and political rights have been contested throughout the United States’ history since its very foundation.  The famous 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, passed in 1865 by Abraham Lincoln, abolished slavery in the United States. The 14th Amendment, passed three years later in 1868, granted citizenship to former slaves, and, in 1870, the 15th Amendment finally granted black men the right to vote, although the law de jure did not result in easy access to the voting booth de facto. Legally, though, and theoretically, all men in the United States finally had the right to vote by 1870. In the decades leading up to 1920, women were slowly gaining the right to vote through changes in state law, sometimes only in local elections but in some places full suffrage. However, this right was still denied to women on a federal level despite the fact that women’s suffrage had been debated for more than 20 years by the time the 15th Amendment passed. 1848’s famous Seneca Falls Convention, held by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in upstate New York, sparked a tradition throughout the next 50 years of women’s rights conventions held to debate the topic of women’s human rights.  

Throughout the 1850s and 60s the fight continued, leading to the creation of the NEWSA and other women’s suffrage groups.  However, before the passage of the 15th Amendment, the debates over suffrage for either white women or black men were argued.  (Black women were left out of the conversation entirely; politicians seemed to be warming up to letting a voter with one “minority” characteristic into the voting booth, but not both.)  Some suffrage groups were dedicated to abolishing both the sex and the race barrier; others advocated only for one or the other. Therefore, when the 15th Amendment was finally passed in 1870, some women’s rights activists were angry that race was addressed but not sex — famously, Susan B. Anthony, nowadays viewed as a pioneer for human rights, was against the passage of the 15th Amendment entirely, saying “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.”  Other activists, including black suffrage activists such as Frederick Douglass (who never was against female suffrage) and other women’s rights activists applauded the incremental improvement in the US voting laws — Lucy Stone stated that this was the “negro’s hour;” women’s sufferage would have to wait its time.

And indeed it did. Stone stepped aside to allow racial justice to progress; Anthony and other devoted female suffragists were influenced by the racism that still permeated American culture at the time and could not accept the black community getting a civil right before white women did. Since 1776, white land-owning men could vote; in 1856, the right was extended to all white men, and in 1858, black men received legal protection under the Constitution. White women finally achieved the same in 1920. However, the 19th Amendment did not initially acknowledge Asian and Indigienous women’s citizenship. Indigenous people as a whole were not considered citizens in America until 1924; all other Americans were granted birth-right citizenship since 1898 after a controversial case that ruled in favor of the son of a Chinese immigrant. Even so, immigration from Asian countries was very limited in the early 20th century, and many Asian immigrants who managed to get into America faced barriers when it came to voting.  Similarly, even after Indigenous peoples became citizens, their right to vote was not guaranteed because the Constitution left many factors of voting eligibility up to the states.  Only after the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 were racially-based restrictions on immigrants from Asia completely lifted; only after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were the barriers that kept many people of color from voting removed, both de jure and increasingly more de facto.  

Both women and people of color have long struggled for awareness and acceptance in the U.S., and even the very fundamental rights of citizenship was no exception. For black women, the combination of the 15th and 19th Amendments, the former of which removed race as an obstacle and the latter of which removed sex, should have allowed them access to the ballot box without worry; in reality, it was not until the Voting Rights Act that many black women entered the voting booth for the first time.  This was due to the abundance of restrictive policies, such as literacy tests, as well as informal white terrorism, that denied former slaves as well as later generations of people of color their right to vote. The refusal to accept the intersection of race and gender fundamentally slowed down the progress of suffrage in the United States, not just in the case of the politicians voting but in the case of the activists themselves as well.  Some movements were misogynistic but not racist, wanting black men to vote but not any women; some movements were racist but not misogynistic, wanting white women to vote but not any people of color.  

The reality is that, even now, as we proclaim our democratic standards and our “one person, one vote” rule throughout the country as the 2020 presidential election creeps up on us, not all women have been granted the right to vote for exactly 100 years. White women have. Progress for women of color was slower-moving — and it still is. It’s important to recognize 1920, of course, and the passage of the 19th Amendment; however it’s imperative that we do not ignore the rest of history when it comes to United States suffrage. Black men and women, Asian-American women, and Indigenous peoples, who have been denied access to representation in the government that was forcibly erected on their own lands, have been raising their voices for as long as America has had its own history. Even now, voting-rights advocates are becoming increasingly frustrated as poll stations reduce early voting periods, purge voter rolls or just straight-up close. Since 1856, 1870, 1920, 1952, 1965, and onwards, more and more Americans have had the opportunity to vote in elections, incrementally through individual states passing legislation until finally the federal government decided to live up to Jefferson’s second paragraph of the Constitution that states that “all men are created equal.”  1920 was a historic landmark for women’s rights in the USA; it is not the only historic landmark for women’s rights in the USA. As we celebrate hundred-year anniversaries this century, we mustn’t forget about the men and women who came before us, fighting for freedom in the land of the free. 

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