A Non-Whitewashed History of the 19th Amendment and Women’s Right to Vote

On the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, we celebrate the women of color who history forgot

Photo illustration; Image sources via Getty: Photo: Fotosearch/Stock Montage

On August 18, 1920, Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment — granting women the right to vote under federal law. The year 2020 marks 100 years since this milestone in feminist history.

We most often glorify key suffragist figures and events that supposedly ushered in a new era of women’s rights to the United States: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and the Seneca Falls Convention. We laud these women for giving all women a voice in their government and taking an important first step in the fight for women’s rights.

This story, however, presents an incomplete narrative. The 19th Amendment did not grant the right to vote for millions of Black, Native American, and Asian American women.

To celebrate the centennial as a liberation for all women would be a disservice to the women of color who were often shunned and discounted by the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement. The campaign to grant all women voting rights is a much more prolonged and arduous crusade.

The heroism of the Black, Asian American, Latina, and Native American activists must not be buried.

Prior to 1920, White suffragists traditionally excluded women of color from their ranks. Racism and classicism were ingrained in the movement, which viewed American women as solely White and middle-class.

White suffragists won over Southern politicians by employing racist rhetoric, arguing that the only way to counterbalance the influx of the “uneducated” Black man’s vote would be to permit the White woman’s vote. Black women and other women of color were not invited to attend the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 despite their significant contributions to the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. Stanton and Anthony even overlooked African American suffragists’ involvements when penning the 6,000-page publication entitled History of Woman Suffrage.

Following 1920 and the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the mainstream White women’s organizations turned a blind eye to the continued activism of women of color, often ignoring pleas for the need to persist in the suffragist fight. In their eyes, victory had already been attained.

The reality was that even after the passage of the 19th Amendment, voter intimidation tactics and legal methods of disenfranchisement such as literacy tests and poll taxes deterred a significant number of African Americans in the South from casting their ballots. During a particularly egregious voter suppression incident, a group of African American women were beaten in 1926 by election officials for simply attempting to register to vote in Birmingham, Alabama.

Despite the constant threat of arrest, notable Black activists such as Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, and Fannie Lou Hamer advanced their efforts to secure voting rights for Black women.

It wasn’t until the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that many of these voter suppression tactics were outlawed, guaranteeing the right to vote for many ethnic minorities and expanding accessibility for minority voters with limited English proficiency.

Dismantling our current system of disenfranchisement begins with reexamining the misleading milestones and revered figures that are touted in our nation’s history.

For Native Americans, though the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act conferred full citizenship, they were also subject to the same discriminatory voting policies that were imposed on Black communities. Native Americans were prevented from voting if they lived on reservations or were registered tribe members, failed “competency” tests, or could not afford voting fees. Activists like Zitkala-Sa of the Lakota Nation and Susette La Flesche Tibbles of the Omaha tribe in Nebraska were lifelong proponents for Indigenous rights, protesting these civil injustices and advocating for Native American citizenship.

The passage of the McCarran-Walter Act in 1952 finally lifted Asian American citizenship and immigration restrictions, thereby granting Asian Americans the right to vote. Asian Americans were one of the last racial groups in the United States to be given a path to naturalization, following centuries of racist federal policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924. Though they themselves were excluded from voting legislation, Asian American suffragists like Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, PhD, worked tirelessly during the early 20th century to advocate on behalf of the women’s vote. It is unknown whether Lee ever became a citizen or was able to vote before her death in 1966.

The mostly forgotten stories of the brave women of color who fought for suffrage are just now being discovered and brought to the fore by scholars and academics. The heroism of the Black, Asian American, Latina, and Native American activists who recognized that the right to vote did not just mean White women’s right to vote must not be buried as we look back on our nation’s past.

To celebrate the centennial as a liberation for all women would be a disservice to the women of color who were often shunned and discounted by the White leaders of the women’s suffrage movement.

During the 2016 election, I remember nervously clutching my ballot as I stood in line to cast my vote for the first female presidential candidate nominated by a major party. I had just been naturalized three years prior, after immigrating to the United States from South Korea when I was five. Come November, I will head to the polls again, this time not just as a voter, but also as a county poll worker.

And I will find it necessary to remind myself of the significance of the moment, of the power of the vote that I wield, and the activists who devoted their lives to the voting rights cause so I and so many other women and people of color can cast our ballots on Election Day.

The year 2020 doesn’t mark the 100th anniversary of when someone like me, an Asian American woman, was allowed the right to vote in this country — it is much later in our nation’s timeline that we were granted federal enfranchisement. It will be a sobering thought that countless numbers of minorities are restricted from voting to this day and that the same voter suppression playbooks enforced throughout American history are very much still in effect.

But dismantling our current system of rampant disenfranchisement begins with reexamining the misleading milestones and revered figures that are touted in our nation’s history. Therefore, on this centennial, though it is important to recognize the passage of the 19th Amendment, it is even more imperative that we develop the resolve to push on — we must acknowledge and partake in the ongoing fight against disenfranchisement, just as the suffragists who were women of color persevered in their unfinished fight decades ago.

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