1920 WAS JUST THE BEGINNING
The modern woman’s right to vote still bears the weight of racial and socio-economic oppression.
When news came that women from all over America would gather to march for suffrage in Washington, D.C., at the end of a chilly winter in 1913, Ida B. Wells-Barnett wanted in.
An investigative journalist and founder of the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first African American suffrage organization, Wells-Barnett worked alongside members of her Illinois state delegation to raise money to participate in the parade. But as the women gathered to practice their drill formation before the March 3 event, they were advised by the National American Woman Suffrage Association “to keep (the) delegation entirely white”—women from southern states wouldn’t march otherwise.
Wells and the rest of the Black suffragettes were told to march behind white people at the end of the parade, regardless of whether they held leadership positions. After some, including white suffragettes, dissented, Wells-Barnett declared that she would either march with fellow delegation leaders or not at all. Her demand was considered, but not granted, by the leadership.
As the parade started and the Illinois delegation began to march in unifying white dresses and suffrage sashes, Wells-Barnett was nowhere to be seen. But as they continued down Pennsylvania Avenue, she was spotted emerging from the sidewalk crowd, walking calmly to take her place alongside the white women leading her delegation. Not one person challenged her presence, and she finished the parade in step with her fellow leaders.
Despite its significance, Wells-Barnett’s story of experiencing and resisting racially-motivated oppression is often forgotten in the triumphant commemorations of the suffragists’ achievements. It also reflects larger themes in voter suppression that still haunt U.S. elections today.
A century after the suffragettes declared victory, a woman's right to vote is still complicated by race, gender identity, immigration status and even domestic violence.
In fact, Black women like Wells-Barnett continued to face voter suppression long after 1920, according to author and historian Ida Jones, a university archivist at Morgan State University who has written about Black suffragettes. “It never stopped,” she says. Yet, she adds, celebrations of women gaining the right to vote rarely reflect that.
“In America, we live with a level of amnesia, some would say,” Jones says. “We want to believe, ‘O.K., the laws have passed, now we’re all going to be equal.’” But that isn’t what actually happened.
This summer marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the 19th Amendment’s passage, which granted women in the United States the right to vote. But a closer examination of the joyous event of 1920 is dogged by stubborn facts: that it wasn’t the year all women got the right to vote. A century after the suffragettes declared victory, a woman’s right to vote is still complicated by race, gender identity, immigration status and even domestic violence.
SUPPRESSION AND OPPRESSION
Women in America are voting—and choosing fellow women to represent them—more than ever in the nation’s history. Election data has shown that women use their hard-won right to vote more than men. Currently, women hold 101 of the House’s 435 seats (23.2 percent), following a “blue wave” of Democratic women candidates elected in 2018. Based on numbers so far, at least 490 women are running for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2020.
Yet obstacles to voting remain, and they often affect non-white voters most. Last week, the primary election in the state of Georgia revealed gross inequalities among voters, with Black neighborhoods experiencing many of the worst problems.
Events like last week’s primary election in the state of Georgia shows just how pressing and real the issue may be. Georgia State Senator and Chair of the Democratic Party Nikema Williams said she waited five hours at the polls, on the day of her 10-year-wedding anniversary, to vote. And that within ten minutes of the polls opening, she had received almost 50 texts from other Georgians reporting numerous voting problems. In some cases, reports indicated, poll workers were understaffed, underequipped, and so untrained they had problems even turning voting machines on.
Voters were turned away because of typos or other small discrepancies on their ID. Others said they never received the mail-in ballot they requested. Some Democrats decried the breakdown as having happened to intentionally suppress the vote in Black communities that are likely to vote blue. “What happened in Georgia yesterday was by design,” Hillary Clinton wrote on Twitter. “Voter suppression is a threat to our democracy.”
Women of other racial and ethnic groups have also struggled in a post-19th Amendment world. Native Americans didn’t have U.S. citizenship until 1924, and they were denied voting rights until Miguel Trujillo, a Native American and former Marine, sued the state of New Mexico. He won and secured voting rights for all Native Americans that year.
What we’re seeing is only the volume on the dial [of voter suppression] changing,” Jones said, not turning on or off.
But discriminatory policies still continue to block Native Americans from exercising their right. For instance, states sometimes reject voter registration applications from those who live on reservations because many reservation addresses look different. States like North Dakota have been sued by some tribes for providing addresses to tribe members, but then rejecting their absentee ballot applications for having “invalid” addresses. States with voter ID laws also do not accept tribal identification. And the lack of polling locations means that some on reservations have to drive 150 miles to vote.
Immigrants to America from across Asia also historically faced stark discrimination. In 1922, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people of Japanese descent were ineligible for citizenship. The following year, it made the same ruling about those of Indian descent. Similarly, in 1925, congress barred Filipinos from gaining U.S. citizenship unless they first served three years in the Navy. It wasn’t until 1952, with the McCarran-Walter Act, that all people of Asian ancestry gained the right to become citizens.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act forbid states from putting discriminatory restrictions on who can vote, and signalling, finally, more formidable protection for people of color. But in intervening years, the Voting Rights Act has been weakened, too, giving more power to states to control their elections and making way for policies like Texas’s Voter ID law, which some say discriminates against Black and Latinx voters. A study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic showed that some seemingly benign voting laws actually had the effect of suppressing votes in Black and Latinx communities in the 2016 election.
“What we’re seeing is only the volume on the dial [of voter suppression] changing,” Jones said, not turning on or off. “We were at a ‘10’ in the 1920s…maybe it had gone down to a ‘5’ by the 70s…but it’s started ticking back up.”
A GENDER GAP
Among other groups, the lack of fair and easy voting can take a more insidious and subtle form. Transgender women and men often encounter confusing and expensive hurdles to update their ID cards with new names and accurate gender description. In some cases, states require proof of invasive medical procedures or a doctor’s letter to even approve gender marker changes. Those hurdles, and discrepancies between identification documents, can affect how trans people feel about voting, part of why the National Center for Transgender Equality Action Fund set up a website called Transform the Vote to help with “voting while trans.”
And voting problems continue to affect women more than men regardless of their race or ethnicity. Studies have shown that survivors of intimate partner violence (which occurs to men, but more often to women) may decide not to vote because doing so puts them at risk. One report cited a source who spoke of a Washington transparency law that lists voter’s addresses online, saying, “The year I discovered that my name and address as a registered voter were being published publicly was the year I stopped voting.”
The woman went on to say that she feared that having her address published might lead her abuser to her new home, putting her life at risk. Other reports and studies found that the one in four women and one in seven men who experience sexual, physical, or psychological abuse from a partner might be less likely to vote either for fear of voting differently than their abuser or because they’re deprived of election literature or the opportunity to go to the polls.
More broadly, an organization that collected and shared election data from around the world through the 1990s and until 2013 indicated that modern women face other barriers, too—some with deep cultural roots. A lack of education may prevent them from reading ballots, or they might be stymied by patriarchal beliefs that they’re less capable of making independent choices about policies and candidates. In many places, women are also disproportionately saddled with childcare and domestic work, which makes it hard to spend time waiting at the polls. And without candidates who advocate for their interests, those women will be less represented in their government.
Voters must be the priority as we head into another important election.
In the face of these obstacles, a number of organizations work tirelessly to advocate for the voting rights of disenfranchised people. In Georgia, Fair Fight, run by former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, advocates for fair elections amidst a “sophisticated, but hauntingly familiar, attack on their right to vote.” California Governor Newsom, in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, recently introduced a measure requiring that mail-in ballots be sent to everyone in the state. The League of Women voters, which is dedicated to helping women achieve a larger role in public affairs, intervened in a lawsuit that was brought against it.
“Right now voters—especially those in high-risk categories—are weighing how to keep themselves safe while exercising their right to vote,” says Stephanie Doute, executive director of the League of Women Voters’ California chapter, in a statement, adding that Black and Latinx voters are at higher risk of serious illness. “Voters must be the priority as we head into another important election.”
Meanwhile, one hundred years after the 19th Amendment passed, the legacy of those times still carries a divisive power. But some things have changed. Rachel O’Leary, the chief operating officer of the Women’s March, says that she and her team do consider the legacy of the suffragettes—and those left behind from their fight.
“We think about who came before, and what worked and what didn’t work,” she says. “We’re informed by them and the need to center Black women and indigenous women, or it isn’t really feminism. We are running a relay, not a marathon.”
This article is the first in a three-part series examining women’s fight for voting rights around the world.