Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The Nineteenth Amendment--One Hundred Years

The Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution (certified 26 August 1920)

On 26 August 1920, U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified the Nineteenth Amendment--ratified by the last of the thirty-six states on 18 August 1920, the amendment was officially a part of the U.S. Constitution.

Document certifying the
Nineteenth Amendment
This amendment "granted" women the right to vote--or, rather, the text indicates that it is "extending the right of suffrage to women."

But as Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority, notes, "The textbooks when I went to school said women were given the vote."

And then, her brilliant response: "We weren’t given anything. We took it."

Like any historic struggle for social change, the long story of the suffrage movement, culminating in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, is not a simple one.

As Brent Staple has noted in a recent New York Times op-ed on the occasion of this centenary, "Americans are being forced to choose between a cherished lie and a disconcerting truth as they prepare to celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment in 2020."

The "cherished lie" is that after the passage of the amendment, all women could vote. But the truth, as Staple writes, is that "millions of . . . women — particularly African-Americans in the Jim Crow South — remained shut out of the polls for decades afterward."

While African American women had worked toward suffrage alongside white women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, their struggle continued "until activists such as Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash won the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 200 years later."*

Nor did the Nineteenth Amendment "extend" the right to vote to indigenous women--in 1920, Native Americans were not considered to be citizens of the United States, so native women could not vote. The vote came much later for them: 
With the passage of the Snyder Act in 1924, American-born Native women gained citizenship. But until as late as 1962, individual states still prevented them from voting on contrived grounds, such as literacy tests, poll taxes and claims that residence on a reservation meant one wasn’t also a resident of that state.
And for Asian American women? The situation was equally complicated, the right to vote still not guaranteed. Although Asian Americans born in the United States were U.S. citizens in 1920, at the time of the Nineteenth Amendment, "first generation Asian Americans did not [have citizenship]. Asian American immigrant women were therefore excluded from voting until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 allowed them to gain citizenship more than three decades after the 19th Amendment."

And for Latinx women? Again:
. . . in Puerto Rico, suffragists like Luisa Capetillo worked to attain women’s voting rights, which were first given to literate women in 1929 and all Puerto Rican women in 1935. Yet literacy tests remained an effective means of keeping some Hispanic and other women of color from voting long after the federal amendment was passed. It took a 1975 extension of the Voting Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination against language minority citizens, to expand voting access to women who rely heavily on languages other than English.
Generations of women participated in the long "slog" (love Gail Collins's word here) toward suffrage --it encompassed "what suffragists counted as 480 campaigns to get state legislatures to submit the issue to the voters." Women who first took up the cause did not live to see its end.

No one gave them the right to vote. They planned for it, organized for it, demonstrated for it, and worked toward it. They argued and reasoned and shouted. They struggled for the cause and suffered for it. They committed acts of violence, and they were the victims of violence. They were mocked, ridiculed, beaten, and jailed. They went on hunger strikes, and they were force fed. Over and over again, they were defeated in the fight--nevertheless, they persisted.

Women demanded the right to vote, and they did not give up until they took it.

Now use it.

*This quotation and those that follow come from an essay posted at the PBS American Experience website, one of a series of pieces published in connection with Michelle Ferrari's documentary The Vote. No author is named for the piece I've quoted from, "Not All Women Gained the Right to Vote in 1920."