It seems fitting that amid some of the most important local and national elections of 2020, we also celebrate the centennial anniversary of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. It was in August of 1920 that women were granted the right to vote in the United States. As voting is the cornerstone of democracy, I wanted to share my own reflections on the suffrage movement and how its importance is maintained in our society today.
The 19th Amendment Did Not Apply to Women of Color
Black women played a very prominent role in the suffrage movement and were central to the struggle for the vote. Unlike the predominantly white suffrage organizations however, women of color wanted to also address additional reforms including job training programs, fair wages, child care access, as well as school integration. While the 19th amendment stated that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States on any account of sex”, many women of color found themselves unable to exercise their legal right to vote. Though they marched alongside women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul, Black women remained silenced by racist policies. It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that women of color in the South were able to cast their ballots without restrictions. For Latinx, Native, and Asian American women, this process was prolonged until the 1975 Voting Rights amendment that prohibited discrimination against minority citizens. While women of color were forced to wait an additional 50 years to gain proper access to the ballot box, the contributions of women like Ida B. Wells and Sojourner Truth have since been largely erased from history. It is also extremely unfortunate that a century later, women of color in the U.S. and its territories still face serious barriers. In Puerto Rico for example, these are American citizens that are unable to vote in federal presidential elections. Because feminism and women’s rights are an ongoing struggle, it’s important that on the 100th anniversary, we honor the women that fought for the right to vote for all women and also acknowledge that we still have ways to go.
Voter Suppression Still Exists
Voting is one of America’s most cherished democratic liberties. While the founding fathers sought to utilize this fundamental component in our new nation, the right to vote was denied for many populations for centuries of US history. Individual states, particularly those in the south, had taken it upon themselves to make it even harder for people of color to vote since before the 18th century. Legislators passed laws, created literacy tests, and poll taxes while white citizens used threats and violence as a means to strip women of color of the right to vote. It’s easy to assume that these are all things of the past however, voter suppression is still very present in the United States. Although literacy tests may not be used anymore, practices like gerrymandering and voter ID laws work to make it harder for Black women to cast their votes. Discriminatory state-level policies including polling place closures and pre-registration requirements tend to leave working-class Americans, most of which are people of color, no choice but to postpone their vote. While voting rights in America have come a long way toward ensuring equal ballot access for all, it’s important to utilize the privilege that others might not have of making our voices heard on election day.
Suffrage Has Yet to Be Given to Incarcerated Women
A hundred years after women earned the right to vote, there is now a large population of people losing it. Felon disenfranchisement refers to the mass incarceration of women of color and how this issue affects Black women in particular. Within the U.S., 50% of the prison populations are women of color who are prohibited from voting while incarcerated. The U.S. is home to just 4% of the world’s female population yet is also responsible for 33% of the world’s incarcerated female population. Almost 6 million taxpaying Americans with felony convictions were barred from voting in the 2018 midterms due to state-level felon disenfranchisement laws. Prior to the overturning of Florida’s disenfranchisement law, 1 in 10 Floridians were barred from voting due to a felony conviction. In recent years, however, there has been an increase in the movement for expanding voting rights to citizens facing time within the U.S. criminal justice system. These actions have included establishing jail polling locations, authorizing special states for incarcerated voters, and designing jail voter registration plans. To someone who has fortunately not been stripped of their right to vote, this may seem like small progress. However, the adoption of these policies helps to protect the voting rights that women fought so hard for 100 years ago.
Voting is a crucial aspect of our democratic system and regardless of an individual’s circumstances, everyone should have equal access to the tools and resources necessary to exercise their right to vote. It is critical that as we celebrate a century since the ratification of the 19th amendment, we highlight the importance of voter confidence in our democracy that so many fought to protect.
— Rachael Bailey, Undergraduate Intern