The Complicated Legacy of the 19th Amendment

The Complicated Legacy of the 19th Amendment
June 4, 2021
By Democracy Docket

On June 4, 1919, Congress passed the 19th Amendment, which would grant women the right to vote. Ratified a year later, the amendment has a complicated history: it was the success of decades of organizing by the women’s suffrage movement and vastly expanded access to the ballot box for white citizens, but it left women of color behind. The suffragists who led the movement made intentional compromises to exclude women of color from their victories, and the legacy of this two-track path to voting rights still has ramifications today. Let’s take a look back at how the Amendment was passed, and what the state of voting rights for all women looks like now. 

What is the 19th Amendment?

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

The 19th Amendment banned the government, both federal and state, from denying otherwise eligible citizens the right to vote due solely to their gender. Women were voting in America before the 19th Amendment: Colonial women had the right to vote before the American Revolution, and many states had laws granting their female citizens suffrage (or the right to vote) in some or all elections. In fact, this partial suffrage is what allowed women to demonstrate their political power as they pushed for the 19th Amendment to be ratified. Thousands of women had run for office all over the country since the mid-1800s, and their political influence was clear even in states that disenfranchised them. 

How was the 19th Amendment passed?

Women had been involved in political organizing for hundreds of years before the 19th Amendment, including in abolitionist movements and religious reform groups. In 1848, famed suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized the Seneca Falls Convention in New York — the first women’s rights convention, often credited with launching the nationwide women’s suffrage movement. There, activists penned the “Declaration of Sentiments,” proclaiming that women were endowed the same inalienable rights as men, including the right to vote.

Following the convention, Stanton and Mott went on to form the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in 1869, one of many women’s suffrage groups that fought for expanded voting rights across the country. The groups pushed for a constitutional amendment, but their first effort was defeated when the Senate failed to pass a proposal for the amendment in 1886.  

The suffrage groups then turned to state-level reforms. By 1900, four states had adopted state constitutional amendments granting women citizens voting rights. Between 1910 and 1918, 17 more states did, too. All in all, state-level organizing by the NWSA and other suffrage groups had significant success: 21 states had granted women the right to vote before the 19th Amendment was even passed. 

After decades of public protest, President Woodrow Wilson finally threw his support behind the movement in 1918 and asked Congress to pass the 19th Amendment. The bill failed one more vote until finally, both chambers adopted the legislation with the required two-thirds majorities in 1919 and the Amendment was sent to the states for ratification. 

Who did the fight for the 19th Amendment leave behind?

In the early days of women’s suffrage, the fates of women’s voting rights and the abolitionist movement were intertwined. Many women’s organizing movements in the early 19th century worked closely with abolitionists like Frederick Douglass who attended Seneca Falls and gave a speech fiercely advocating for women’s right to vote. Douglass’ commitment to women’s suffrage remained strong throughout his life; in an 1888 speech to the International Council of Women in Washington, D.C., he spoke of how intertwined their fight for representation was with the struggles of the civil rights movement and equality for all:

“All good causes are mutually helpful. The benefits accruing from this movement for the equal rights of woman are not confined or limited to woman only. They will be shared by every effort to promote the progress and welfare of mankind everywhere and in all ages.”

But, many of the most prominent white leaders of the women’s suffrage movement did not feel that the fight for abolition was as important as their own rights. Stanton and fellow suffragist Susan B. Anthony divided the women’s movement by opposing the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1868, which granted Black men the right to vote. They argued that until white women had access to the ballot box, Black men shouldn’t either.

Historians later argued that over the next few decades, Anthony, Stanton and Mott were on a mission of “memory building”: attempting to paint the history of the women’s suffrage movement in their own image. As they split the suffrage movement, Stanton and Mott created a historical narrative around their own efforts like the NWSA and Seneca Falls in order to distance themselves from the work of other suffragists like Lucy Stone, an abolitionist who supported the passage of the 15th Amendment, held her own women’s rights conventions, and founded the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) in 1869.

Although the 19th Amendment did not specify that it only granted rights to white women, it did nothing to protect women of color from disenfranchising laws that were legal at the time. Only citizens could vote, and before the passage of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, Native Americans born in the U.S. were not given citizenship. Even after the Act’s passage, many states refused to grant indigenous populations voting rights, and various state’s passed laws banning Native Americans from voting until 1957.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and immigration laws passed well into the 20th century denied Asians the rights of citizenship and thus the right to vote. And until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, state laws including poll taxes and literacy tests, as well as the generalized intimidation, violence and state-sanctioned racism of the Jim Crow era, prevented Black Americans from voting, especially in the South. The 19th Amendment was a historic achievement — but it did not protect all women equally from infringement on their rights. 

The state of women’s voting rights today

Today there are enshrined constitutional protections mandating that the right to vote not be abridged due to gender, race, age, religion or disability. But in practice, women of color still face massive inequities and institutional racism that prevent them from making their voices heard. Let’s be clear: these barriers to voting access are fully entrenched in our nation’s history of electoral discrimination, and they continue to be promulgated by legislators determined to uphold this discriminatory history.

When it comes to presidential elections, women vote at higher rates than men — but they are also more likely to be adversely impacted by voter suppression laws. Strict voter ID laws disproportionately harm women, who are more likely to change their name after marriage. Shortened voting hours or weekday-only voting make voting harder for low-wage workers, caregivers and poor people who tend to have inflexible work hours and often cannot make it to the polls during the weekday — and these groups are disproportionately women

Additionally, college students, a frequent target of voter suppression efforts by Republicans and a group with consistently low voter turnout, are majority women. The conservative legislators who promote these bills know their impact will be discriminatory, and their work to limit ballot access is intentionally targeted in ways that disproportionately leave women behind.

Despite the myriad of factors that work together to limit their access to the ballot box, women turn out at higher rates than men again and again. Their political power, especially within the Democratic party, is undeniable—and their commitment to utilizing their vote consistently outpaces that of the men who denied them suffrage for hundreds of years. There is a lot of work to be done to improve voting access in this country, especially for women of color, but history makes one thing clear: Women will continue to fight for ballot access as long as it takes.