Today is National Women’s Equality Day, which celebrates the addition of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on August 26, 1920. The 19th Amendment granted women the legal right to vote. For nearly a century, women protested, went on hunger strikes, gave speeches, lobbied, and organized marches to win the right to vote. It’s easy for many of us to take for granted the history behind this milestone.
The right to vote means the right to be heard, and to be heard gives one the power to create a society they want to live in. 101 years ago today, millions of women finally had a say in our democracy, and for that, this day is celebrated by many.
But it’s not as simple as that. That’s only a small fraction of the story.
The full story of women earning the right to vote has many more painful layers to it that are complex and often overlooked. For one, the 19th Amendment did not end the struggle for voting rights.
Not All Women Were Guaranteed The Right To Vote
The 19th Amendment was added to the Constitution in 1920
Women who lived in US territories couldn’t vote until 1935
Asian American women couldn’t vote until 1952
Native American women couldn’t vote until 1962
Black women couldn’t vote until 1965
Latinx women couldn’t vote until 1975
For Women of Color, the ratification of the 19th Amendment was only the beginning of a much larger struggle for equality, which spans several more decades through numerous challenges often faced alone. Each group faced unique voting struggles based on their race.
Today is a day to reflect and take a deeper look at this historic anniversary, break down its layers to reveal a more inclusive story, shed light on stories that are often overlooked, and understand how it’s all relevant today by taking it all the way back to the beginning.
The Beginning of the Women’s Suffrage Movement
So, when was the beginning exactly?
Whilst conducting research for this post, I searched up the question myself on Google and found an overwhelming amount of sources that insisted that the women’s suffrage movement began with the Seneca Falls Convention on July 13, 1848.
Then again, Google also said that the 19th Amendment marked the end of voter discrimination. Both are only partially true; it’s more of an oversimplification.
The roots of the Women’s Suffrage Movement emerged from the Abolition Movement in the 1830s. It all began with Black women’s mission to be fully recognized citizens; a part of that mission was winning the right to vote. Participating in the Abolition Movement, women gained experience as leaders, organizers, writers, and lecturers, and the discrimination they continually faced prompted them to come together to promote a new, separate women’s rights movement.
The Women’s Suffrage Movement Was Not Inclusive To Women Of Color
The movement towards gender equality was not always inclusive. We’ve all seen pictures of parades, marches, and conventions of the movement, there’s a reason most of those images include mostly white women. Women of Color never found a comfortable home in women’s suffrage associations. When early suffragists spoke about women’s rights, what they really meant was prioritizing those rights for middle and upper-class white women.
In the Seneca Falls Convention, for instance, the only participants were middle and upper-class white women, a handful of white men supporters, and Frederick Douglass. Women of Color were left out of the convention.
People with marginalized identities were continuously excluded from the movement despite also playing a pivotal and active role in the fight for voting rights in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The National American Woman Suffrage Association prevented Black women from attending their conventions. When it came to parades and marches, Women of Color had to march separately, not at all, or at the back. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony wrote the History of Woman Suffrage in the 1880s; they only featured white suffragists, largely ignoring the contributions of suffragists that were Women of Color. In addition, white suffragist leaders ignored the unique challenges that marginalized groups of women faced and continued to face after the 19th Amendment was passed.
The Role Women Of Color Played In The Movement
Women of Color were fighting a two-headed dragon. They weren’t just fighting for gender equality, they were fighting for racial equality as well. Black reformers like Mary Church Terrell, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Harriet Tubman understood that their race and their sex affected their rights and opportunities. Because of their unique position, Black women tended to focus on human rights and universal suffrage.
Women of Color played a significant role in paving the way for equality, but that work is only now being recognized by historians. From the earliest years of the suffrage movement, Women of Color worked side by side with white suffragists during the 19th and 20th centuries. They participated in political meetings and organized political societies. They attended political conventions at their local churches where they planned strategies to gain the right to vote.
Because they were continuously excluded from the moment, Black women formed their own clubs and organizations to secure and protect the rights of all women and men while focusing on issues that affected their communities as well. Black reformers like Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Harriet Tubman, Helen Appo Cook, Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Church Terrell, and Charlotte Forten Grimke founded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896. In 1914, Ida B. Wells founded the Alpha Suffrage Club, the nation’s first Black women’s club focused specifically on suffrage.
Challenges Women Of Color Faced After The 19th Amendment
On paper, the amendment made voting legal for women, in practice, this was far from reality.
The 19th Amendment read, “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.”
Although this was significant in that it enabled millions of women in the country to cast their ballot, the job was far from finished. While the government recognized women’s right to vote, many women from different backgrounds still faced discrimination and were kept from the polls. Subsequent legislation was needed to ensure equality for all. That wasn’t easy, and it took several decades to achieve. It’s still a prevalent issue today.
When the amendment passed, women’s voting rights were no longer a “hot topic,” several suffragist organizations disbanded by that point, so the work of those who couldn’t vote continued alone. For many white women, it was the end of a long fight. For Women of Color, the story of voting rights is an extremely long one and it was the beginning of an uphill battle to exercise those rights.
There’s nothing in the 19th Amendment that prohibits individual states from continuing to disenfranchise Black voters. African American women and men faced several challenges including intimidation, fear, racial violence, lynching, and access to the polls. Black women and men waged several powerful campaigns throughout the decades and put their lives on the line in order to eventually win voting rights legislation in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act.
There’s nothing in the 19th Amendment that guaranteed voting rights for Native American women. Native Americans weren’t even considered US citizens until the Indian Citizenship Act that was passed in 1924 and even after that Native American men and women were disenfranchised from the ballot due to discriminatory laws implemented by some state governments actively working to suppress their voting rights. State-by-state, they fought the right to vote. The last state to guarantee Native American voting rights was Utah in 1962. Certain laws today at the local level made voting less accessible to their communities; their struggle to protect their rights as U.S. citizens continues.
There’s nothing in the 19th Amendment that guaranteed Asian American women the vote due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration acts of 1917 and 1924. They were denied the right to vote until 1952 when the immigration and nationality act allowed them to become citizens.
There’s nothing in the 19th Amendment that guaranteed Latinx women, particularly Mexican-American women the right to vote. Latinx women couldn’t vote until the 1975 extension of the Voting Rights Act which ended the discrimination against minorities who spoke another language and made it possible to require translation of voter registration materials into Spanish and other languages.
There’s nothing in the 19th Amendment that guarantees women living in US territories including Hawaiian women the right to vote. They faced many similar challenges to other minority groups. In Puerto Rico, literate women won the right to vote in 1929, but it wasn’t until 1935 that all women were given that right.
People of Color worked over several decades to secure voting equality for all. Attaining subsequent legislation represents more than a century of work by them to make voting easier and more accessible for all.
Powerful Ways To Celebrate Today
What should I celebrate?
Who should I celebrate?
I had those same questions when I first started learning that although the 19th amendment guaranteed gender equality, it did not necessarily guarantee racial equality. Because of this, not all women got the right to vote. These are important details often glossed over.
But there is one powerful way to celebrate Women’s Equality Day.
One word. Intersectionality.
Intersectionality is a call to take into account every piece of a person’s identity. This quote by Aude Lorde sums up the term well, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”– Aude Lorde
If we want to celebrate the women’s suffrage movement that helped women gain the right to vote, it’s important that we educate ourselves and acknowledge the true history and not settle for glorified or cherry-picked versions of the story.
I mentioned throughout this post that Women of Color weren’t just battling against gender inequality, they were battling against racial inequality as well. If we want to celebrate or discuss “women’s issues,” we must understand and listen to those with multiple identities. Women are not a monolith; the oppression and struggles women face differ based on different parts of their identities.
The fight for women’s rights continues today with issues such as voter suppression and the wage gap which is even more prevalent for minorities. Women and men who are incarcerated on felony charges cannot vote, and not all trans people can vote with an ID that correctly reflects their gender identity. When we advocate for women’s rights, we must consider the diversity of women, their identities, and their experiences. We must look through these issues with an intersectional lens. When we want to champion equality for women, we must seek to champion equality for all women.
“When we say ‘women’, we need to mean every combination of Old, Young, Gay, Bi, Straight, Trans, Black, White, Brown, Disabled, Poor, Rich, Middle-class, Incarcerated, the list goes on. We need to do the same for men, and we need to acknowledge individuals who don’t fall neatly into the categories of men and women.”– Alan Parley Buys
Celebrate women who often didn’t get the recognition they deserved in the women’s suffrage movement such as Wilhemina Kekelaokalaninui Dowsett, a suffragist from Hawaii; Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, a Chinese immigrant who advocated for women’s suffrage for years; or Ida B. Wells, an African American woman who fought for suffrage and racial equality. Talk about them, share their stories, and tell a more inclusive story about this day by acknowledging women from all backgrounds who fought heroically to make the right to vote a reality.
Celebrate women of today who are continuing the legacy of the inspirational women mentioned above such as the Black Lives Matter founders and organizers Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.
Celebrate by getting to the voting booths and fight for the rights of those who still can’t.
Celebrate by educating yourself on history and present-day struggles that women continue to face by being ready to take action with the resources mentioned below.
Women’s Equality Day Resources
The Women’s Suffrage Movement
By Various Authors
A comprehensive and singular volume with a distinctive focus on incorporating race, class, and gender, and illuminating minority voices.
By Martha S. Jones
This book is all about How Black Women broke barriers, won the vote, and insisted on equality for all.
A storytelling-focused podcast all about healing, sisterhood, finding your power, and making your voice heard.
Stuff Mom Never Told You
Tacking the women’s issues that often get left out or under-discussed.
League of Women Voters
The League of Women Voters is committed to ensuring voters have the information they need to successfully participate in elections. Donations help the league provide up-to-date information for voters in both Spanish and English.
Manages grassroots voter protection field programs. It works with organizations in all 50 states to identify election reforms at all levels of government.