On the Anniversary of the 19th Amendment

By Jennifer W. Reiss

The last two weeks of August 2020 mark the centenary of the definitive thirty-sixth state ratification and certification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, removing gender-based prohibitions on suffrage. It’s both an odd and oddly appropriate time to reflect on the enfranchisement of millions of Americans. The tumult of 2020 has laid bare the fallacy of equality of all Americans under law, and the history of women’s suffrage is an artifact of this continued oozing wound in the heart of our society. Classic American textbooks present a lily-white success story of plucky ‘suffragettes’ (a pejorative term of British origin) marching in formation and dazzling the crusty male establishment into complete capitulation, like so many Nancy Drew-girl sleuths showing up a bumbling policeman. This is of course, all wrong. The fight for suffrage was long and brutal; and its success much more partial than most Americans will realize or admit. It’s a story of American failure as much as it is of American accomplishment. But, like Pandora’s proverbial box of human miseries, at its very core, the history of suffrage is a story of hope that’s worth remembering in this heart wrenching moment for the global community.

To capture the hope, though, we must grapple with the ugly side of the story. The self-appointed ‘mothers’ of suffrage – they were the first to produce a chronicle of the movement – Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, though both abolitionists, were also creatures of the racism and elitism embedded in nineteenth-century American society.[1] Each felt betrayed that the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited suffrage discrimination on account of race, but not also sex. Reflecting a belief in a biological determinism that placed white women above all Black persons, Stanton infamously wrote after the Civil War, “now, as the celestial gate to civil rights is slowly moving on its hinges, it becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see ‘Sambo’ walk into the kingdom first.”[2] Anthony, though friendly with Black women’s suffrage campaigners like Frederick Douglass, in the post-war period aligned herself with the racism-inflected Democratic Party and often refused to share the stage with Black activists like Douglass or African American educator Adella Hunt Logan. Essentially, Stanton and Anthony, and many of their successors like Penn’s own Alice Paul, capitalized upon resurgent white supremacy by seeking political support for women’s suffrage in the unreconstructed South. Paul and her fellow organizers of the famed Women’s Suffrage Parade of 1913, infamously shunted anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett and other black women to the back of the procession (Wells-Barnett, having none of that, eventually cut in and marched alongside white suffragists from her home state of Illinois).[3]  Such an approach may have appeared to be politically expedient, but it undermined the core social justice value embedded in suffrage expansion itself.

And the Nineteenth Amendment itself was in reality, a hollow victory, enfranchising millions of women while leaving out millions of others, barred from suffrage for reasons equally as spurious as sex. Campaigners like Chinese American Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin), of the Yankton Sioux Nation, and lawyer Inez Milholland were still legally barred from the vote by virtue of having their American citizenship denied.[4] Black women, meanwhile suffered from the same violence and intimidation, poll taxes, literacy tests and other measures, which had effectively disenfranchised their husbands, brothers and sons since the end of Reconstruction. It would take the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) for some semblance of full suffrage for Black Americans to be realized.

And yet, the de jure expansion of suffrage to women contains seeds of hope for today’s social justice warriors. In spite of Stanton and Anthony’s focus on white American womanhood, the coalition fighting for women’s suffrage was composed of women from all ethnic, racial and religious groups, orientations and classes in American society. In addition to Mabel Lee and Zitkala-Sa, who were active in New York and Utah respectively, Maria Guadalupe Evangelina de Lopez organized Spanish-speaking suffragists in California as the head of the College Equal Suffrage League. Adelina Otero-Warren did the same in New Mexico.[5] Polish-born labor leader Rose Schneiderman organized sweatshop workers for suffrage in the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911.[6] White women like Carrie Chapman Catt and Anna Howard Shaw were the public face of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), but it is less well known that they were also queer.[7]

But most of all, in this current moment it is imperative that we recognize the legions of Black American women whose fight for suffrage was a fight for justice and equality on behalf of all Americans. Before Wells-Barnett and Logan, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth combined calls for racial equality with gender equality. Alongside them, Mary Church Terrell spoke to NAWSA on the plight of Black women and then implemented her racial justice vision as first president of the National Association of Colored Women. Philadelphia’s Frances Ellen Watkins Harper joined Douglass to form the integrated American Woman Suffrage Association. Alice Dunbar-Nelson was a suffrage field organizer and the first Black woman to serve on the committee of the Delaware Republican party.[8] These are just a few names of the many women whose legacies in the interest of equality for all demand to be celebrated – and emulated -- on this anniversary.

In the wake of Shelby County v. Holder, in which the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the VRA, increasing efforts at racial gerrymandering of electoral districts, and the current President’s increasing attacks on the ability of pandemic struck Americans to exercise their right to vote, the issue of equal suffrage for all is now more pressing than it has been since the 1960s.[9] The anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment – and its inspiring and troubling history – is a prescient reminder of just how precious the ballot is to American democracy. It is also a cautionary tale of how long and imperfect the battle for social justice can be. But most of all, it should remind us of how worthy the fight is. In the words of British suffragist Millicent Fawcett, “Courage calls to courage everywhere.” Let the diversity of the suffrage movement, rather than the shortsightedness of its most visible leaders, be a guiding light in our current struggles.

Jennifer W. Reiss is a graduate student in the History Department. She wrote this piece in consultation with Professor Kathleen Brown, History and GSWS.


[1] Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony et al. History of Woman Suffrage, 6 vols. (Rochester, New York: Susan B. Anthony and Charles Mann Press, 1881-1922). Stanton and Anthony highlighted importance of the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention on women’s rights in the History. This has resulted in a somewhat misleading focus on 1848 as the origin of the movement and Stanton and Anthony as its most significant figures. For a recent account, see Ellen Dubois, Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2020).

[2] Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “This Is the Negro's Hour,” in The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, vol. 1, ed. Ann D. Gordon (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997), 564.

[3] Laura E. Free, Suffrage Reconstructed: Gender, Race, and Voting Rights in the Civil War Era (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015), 135; Nancy Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 68-69; Adele Logan Alexander, “Adella Hunt Logan: Suffragist and Educator,” History Now: The Journal (Summer 2020), Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-resources/essays/adella-hunt-logan... Christine A. Lunardini, From Equal Suffrage to Equal Rights (New York: New York University Press, 1986), 27.

[4] Lee was barred by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, completely overturned only by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965; Indigenous Americans like Zitkala-Sa were granted patchwork citizenship rights throughout American history, but generally excluded under judicial interpretations of the Constitution until the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act; and while Milholland died before suffrage (in 1916), she would have been barred on account of having married a foreign national, which for women rescinded their citizenship under the Expatriation Act of 1907 (ultimately repealed under the Nationality Act of 1940). See e.g., Hilary Parkinson, “19th Amendment at 100: Mabel Ping-Hua Lee,” Pieces of History (blog), U.S. National Archives, May 5, 2020, https://prologue.blogs.archives.gov/2020/05/05/19th-amendment-at-100-mab... Paige Allison Conley, “Stories, Traces of Discourse, and the Tease of Presence: Gertrude Simmons Bonnin as Orator and Indigenous Activist” (PhD diss., University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2013), https://dc.uwm.edu/etd/675/; Linda Lumsden, Inez: The Life and Times of Inez Milholland (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2004).

[5] Brett Zongker, “Counting Down with #19Suffrage Stories: 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment,” Library of Congress Blog, U.S. Library of Congress, August 2, 2020, https://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2020/08/counting-down-with-19suffrage-stories-....

[6] Annelise Orleck, Common Sense and a Little Fire: Women and Working-Class Politics in the United States, 1900–1965 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), ch. 3.

[7] Maya Salam, “What Suffrage Owes to Queer Women,” New York Times, August 16, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/14/us/queer-lesbian-women-suffrage.html.

[8] Sharon Harley, “African American Women and the Nineteenth Amendment,” National Parks Service, April 10, 2019, https://www.nps.gov/articles/african-american-women-and-the-nineteenth-a... Jessica Bennett and Veronica Chambers, “Radical, Exciting and Relevant, Especially Now,” New York Times, August 16, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/10/us/women-voting-rights-suffrage-cente.... See also Martha S. Jones, Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All (New York: Basic Books, forthcoming 2020). The groundbreaking work on this subject is Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, African-American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998).

[9] 570 U.S. 529 (2013); Patricia Okonta, “Race-Based Political Exclusion and Social Subjugation: Racial Gerrymandering as a Badge of Slavery,” Columbia Human Rights Law Review 49, no. 2 (2018): 254-296; Richard L. Hasen, “Trump’s Relentless Attacks on Mail-In Ballots Are Part of a Larger Strategy,” New York Times, August 19, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/19/opinion/trump-usps-mail-voting.html.