Racism and the 19th Amendment: 100 Years Later

Originally distributed by Overground Collective

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Its passage gave women the right to vote. Well, some of us, at least.

Centennials are often marked with grandiose commemorations. This year, though, celebrations of any kind don’t feel quite right. And for some, myself included, the centennial feels a lot like the 4th of July did a few months ago.

This past Independence Day was met with questions about who was really freed on July 4, 1776, and who still isn’t free today.

Likewise, the 19th Amendment’s centennial calls for a reckoning with feminist history, including an open dialogue on who did and did not win the right to vote on August 18, 1920.

You see, a cruel and often unacknowledged act of racism took place in the suffragist movement. White women, apprised of the trials and tribulations of their Black suffragette sisters, betrayed Black women in their pursuit of enfranchisement.

Two of the biggest leaders of the suffragist movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, supported abolitionists and advocated for the end of slavery. Working with Frederick Douglass, they founded the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), which demanded universal suffrage.

Sadly, Stanton and Anthony would eventually split off from Douglass and AERA because of their opposition to the 15th Amendment, which ostensibly gave Black men the right to vote.

At a voting rights convention discussing the proposed 15th Amendment, Anthony stated that the amendment created “an antagonism everywhere between educated, refined women, and the lower orders of men, especially in the South.”

Stanton also spewed racist rhetoric during that time.

Scholar Lori Ginzberg’s biography of Stanton quotes the prominent feminist figure as saying, “What will we and our daughters suffer if these degraded Black men are allowed to have the rights that would make them even worse than our Saxon fathers?”

Anthony and Stanton’s identity as White people took precedence.

The division of the rights of Black men versus the rights of White women led Stanton and Anthony to found the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), which advocated solely for a federal amendment giving women the right to vote.

Despite White abolitionist women revealing themselves as White supremacists, Black women continued to support White women’s quest for the right to vote.

In 1851, at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, Sojourner Truth delivered her riveting speech, “Ain’t I a Woman.” It called upon listeners to take note of the intersectional struggle of Black women. The speech is now recognized as one of the most instrumental women’s rights and abolitionist speeches in history.

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In 1896, Mary Church Terrell founded the National Association of Colored Women after being excluded from mainstream White feminist organizations. The organization focused on enfranchising women and consolidating Black suffrage groups.

In 1913, Ida B. Wells, an anti-lynching activist, famously traveled to Washington, D.C. for the first suffrage march. When she got there, she was told Black women needed to march in the back. Wells argued, “Either I go with you, or not at all. I am not taking this stand because I personally wish for recognition. I am doing it for the future benefit of my whole race.”

She initially left and joined the crowd, but once the parade started, she inserted herself in the front of the Illinois delegation between two White women. Fully aware that the march was not for Black women, she showed up and continued to march anyway.

That strength and unwavering determination was the story of Black suffragist women in the early 20th century, and continues to be the story of Black women today.

The ratification of the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920, made explicit women’s right to vote. But when Black women attempted to exercise that right, they were met with a barrage of voter disenfranchisement tactics — especially in the South. Some of the barriers they faced included voter ID laws, poll taxes, fraud, intimidation, English literacy tests, residency laws, and felony disenfranchisement.

Low-income White Americans were exempted from these laws through grandfather clauses, which made Americans eligible to vote if they would have been able to vote before the passage of the 15th Amendment. Black people did not fully secure their right to vote until the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Fast forward 100 years to August 18, 2020, and we see voter suppression and disenfranchisement still deeply affecting many communities of color.

Felony disenfranchisement, which has historically impacted Black Americans disproportionately, disenfranchises citizens convicted of felony offenses. Some states prohibit individuals from voting even after they have completed their sentences.

Some Native Americans are unable to register to vote because of laws requiring a current residential street address on their IDs. For reservations without standard U.S. street addresses, or for tribal members who get their mail delivered to a P.O. box, requirements like these equate to voter suppression.

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“Exact match” laws requiring names on voter rolls to be identical to records in the state system, disproportionately impact Black, Asian, and Latinx Americans — folks whose names are more likely to be typed incorrectly.

The 19th Amendment’s centennial falls on the backdrop of the national reckoning with its racist history, as well as months of protests.

It falls on the backdrop of the Georgia and Kentucky 2020 primary elections — both of which were riddled with calculated voter suppression tactics directed at Black and other majority-minority communities.

It falls on the backdrop of John Lewis’ death, a civil rights hero who even after he died reminded us that we must secure the rights of all citizens to vote.

With all of that, how should we “celebrate” the centennial? So far, 2020 has provided a few examples.

First, there’s the fact that several institutions, companies, and local and state governments declared Juneteenth a holiday. Then there was the 4th of July being met with deep reflection regarding what Independence Day really means in the midst of racial uprisings, a pandemic disproportionately killing Black people, and mass incarceration.

We can mark the centennial in similar ways.

We can celebrate the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which, although designed primarily to address voting access for Black people, worked to enfranchise all Americans burdened by voter suppression tactics.

We can openly confront the racist past of the suffrage movement, and not turn our heads away from the voter suppression directly in front of us today.

Acknowledging the racial dynamics at play during the ratification of the 19th Amendment does not undermine the importance and heroic activism that led to its monumental passage.

Instead, it underscores the importance of intersectional analyses and voter enfranchisement for all.

Nonny Onyekweli is a lawyer in New York. Follow her on Instagram at @nons90.