Happy New Year!
It’s a big one. The year 2020 brings a presidential election, the decennial census, the bicentennial of the state of Maine. And Aug. 26, 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote. A decades-long, multi-generational campaign, it was one of the largest civil rights movements in history. Commemorations have begun and will continue all year. But as we learn anew about the history of suffrage and mark its success, we must also recommit to the unfinished work of the movement.
The campaign for women’s right to vote took inspiration from the women of the Iroquois Confederacy, where women had many rights long before they had them in white civil society. The movement also had its roots in the abolition movement. Faced with discrimination in that work, many women, blacks and whites, added gender injustice to their reform agenda.
But solidarity between white women and blacks proved elusive. Fractures in the suffrage movement emerged over the Reconstruction Amendments. Introduced at the end of the Civil War, these amendments defined U.S. citizenship for the first time but also introduced the word “male” into the Constitution and guaranteed voting rights to men only, effectively decoupling citizenship and voting. With these amendments, advocates had to choose whether to support the Reconstruction Amendments in solidarity with blacks or whether to oppose them because they left women behind.
At the same time, there was inherent racism within the suffrage movement itself. Although many of the early suffrage leaders fought against chattel slavery, it did not mean that they were committed to full political equality for blacks. Black women suffragists were segregated in the movement, excluded from national organizations and expunged from the historical record that white women wrote as the definitive history of the movement. Black women were sold out when the practical realities of garnering enough states to ratify the amendment meant pandering to racist views in order to secure support from some southern states. Suffrage leaders were also deeply suspicious of foreign-born citizens, casting them as ignorant, drunken and dangerous.
Opposition to votes for women came from many quarters. Some of the staunchest opponents were wealthy white women, the wives and daughters of political and economic elites, who were doing just fine under the status quo. Some opposition came from business magnates, who feared that a progressive agenda espoused by women for child labor laws and pay equity would hurt corporate and shareholder profits. Some came from working men, who feared women in the labor market. And some came from the Old South, where voting rights for women were generally viewed as a threat to civilization. Many also feared that solidarity between blacks and white women would mean enforcement of voting rights for all and the end of Jim Crow.
In the end, the 19th Amendment passed, and jubilant women flooded the streets in joy and elation. Victory brought voting rights to more than 20 million women in 1920.
But in the South, Jim Crow doubled down and lived on. Blacks, including black women, didn’t get equal voting rights until the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965. The 1924 Indian Citizenship Act granted Native Americans citizenship, but many western states refused to allow them to vote. Today, citizens in Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and Guam still don’t have equal voting rights, and more than 6 million citizens (including as many as 750,000 women) are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, a still-lasting legacy of Jim Crow.
In the meantime, efforts to disenfranchise voters have gotten a new lease on life in the hyper-partisan 21st century. Since 2010, 25 states have enacted new barriers to voting. The Supreme Court gutted the once-powerful Voting Rights Act. And we face serious threats to democracy from disinformation campaigns, foreign interference and partisan gerrymandering.
Meanwhile, women haven’t gotten everything, either. Congress is very far from 50 percent female. No woman has yet been elected U.S. president or vice president. It has taken almost 100 years for Maine to elect its first female governor. Nevada was the first state to seat a majority female legislature in 2018. Women may have the vote but still lag behind in political and economic arenas. The Equal Rights Amendment has not yet passed, and women face both gender pay gaps and opportunity gaps, particularly women of color.
We have a long way to go.
The most profound commemoration of this historic anniversary is to rededicate ourselves to the work left undone for universal suffrage, massive voter participation and women in politics. Let’s get to work.
Ann Luther of Trenton and Sheila Kirby of Mount Desert are members of the League of Women Voters of Maine, which celebrates its 100th anniversary on Feb. 14.