Most of us were taught that the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote in 1920, after decades of work to gain support for and pass the law. Of course, the history books aren’t quite wrong—they just leave out crucial context about the role of race during that time.
In fact, in 1918, leading suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt tried to convince North Carolina Congressman Edwin Webb to vote yes on the 19th amendment with this abhorrent argument: “[The] present condition in the South makes sovereigns of some negro men, while all white women are their subjects. These are sad but solemn truths. If you want white supremacy, why not have it constitutionally, honorably? The Federal Amendment offers the way.”
White supremacy, that most insidious institution, strikes again.
The 19th Amendment was indeed certified on August 26, 1920, and it did indeed give some women the right to vote; however, this right as a United States citizen was extended only to white women.
So Who Won the Vote, and When?
- 1920 – White women
- 1924 – Some Native American women (and men)
- 1929 – Literate Puerto Rican women
- 1935 – All Puerto Rican women
- 1952 – Asian American immigrant women who were allowed to become naturalized citizens
- 1962 – Native Americans in Western states such as Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah
- 1965 – Black and Latinx women, as a result of the Voting Rights Act
- 1975 – “Language minority citizens,” or folks for whom the English language was a barrier
- 1984 – Disabled and elderly voters
(See Teen Vogue’s 2020 timeline for comprehensive descriptions of acts passed granting the vote.)
Who Actually Got to Vote?
As Black men and other men of color had seen since the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870, being granted the right to vote in law was different from being able to vote in practice. Despite decades of laws allowing different groups to vote in theory, in reality there were many barriers to people of color voting, including:
- Literacy and interpretation tests
- Complicated registration forms
- Poll taxes
- Unequal access to primary elections and political party membership
- The threat of violence
White voters were often not required to jump through these hoops, even if they were illiterate. In some states, it was actually illegal for registrars to explain why someone had not passed a test, or was denied the right to vote.
Why Does This Still Matter in 2021?
As a result of the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a critical component of the Voting Rights Act which maintained oversight of voting laws in states and localities with histories of voter discrimination.
Unfortunately, many of those states and localities took advantage of this change to disenfranchise vulnerable voters, including people of color, the elderly, low-income people, transgender people, and disabled people.
- Changing district boundaries to disadvantage certain voters (commonly known as “gerrymandering”)
- Instituting strict voter identification laws
- Changing polling locations with little notice
- And many more
All hope is not lost, however. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was passed in the House in 2019 as a way to restore these protections. As of now, it has not yet been reintroduced in congress.
What Can You Do?
Tell your representatives to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act! As the ACLU says, “Our democracy works best when all eligible voters can cast their ballot freely and fairly.” Take two minutes to send a message to your representatives.
It is time to create a future by and for everyone, and that begins with you shaping the future of your community. Be an Ally.