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Votes for women: The centennial of the 19th amendment

This article was submitted by the President’s Advisory Committee on the Status of Women.

The year 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women the right to vote. If you are a woman and you voted earlier this month, you can thank many “sheroes” (and heroes) of the suffrage movement.

It was a long fight — over 70 years.

In 1848, a group of women and some men, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass, met at Seneca Falls, New York, where they issued the “Declaration of Sentiments” — modeled on the Declaration of Independence. It declared “that all men and women are created equal.”

For nearly 20 years, these activists worked together for universal suffrage and the abolition of slavery. But, in the late 1860s, there was a split in the movement. Frederick Douglass and other prominent abolitionists, such as Lucy Stone and Wendell Phillips, felt it was urgent to capitalize on the passage of the 14th amendment to secure the vote for black men. They thought that including “sex” in the language of the 15th amendment would doom it. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were stung by what they viewed as a betrayal, and began employing racist arguments that white women were more qualified to vote than black men. In 1870, the 15th amendment — which affirmed that the right to vote cannot be abridged due to “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” — passed. Frederick Douglass continued to fight for women’s suffrage, and ultimately reconciled with Stanton and Anthony. It would be 50 more years before the 19th amendment prevailed.

Following the passage of the 15th amendment, the ability for African-Americans and other citizens of color to exercise voting rights was extremely circumscribed, especially in the South. States were allowed to set conditions that excluded people from voting. (Utah was the last state to fully guarantee Native Americans the right to vote — in 1962). While the Voting Rights Act of 1965 strengthened voting rights, Shelby v. Holder, a 2013 Supreme Court case, rolled back some of these provisions; challenges to truly universal suffrage proliferated.

In this election year, it is fitting to mark the centennial of the 19th amendment and to celebrate some of the lesser-known “sheroes” of the women’s suffrage movement.

Mary Church Terrell — one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree (from Oberlin College) and a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — founded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896.  The NACW worked to advance causes important to black women, including suffrage, education reform and lynching. Terrell was one of the few black women allowed to take an active role in the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA), where she gave several speeches aimed at educating NAWSA members about black women’s situation and urging the organization to fight for all women.

Alice Paul and Lucy Burns organized the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington, D.C. on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. This was the first organized march on Washington. Tired of fighting state by state for partial enfranchisement, they advocated for a national strategy and an amendment to the Constitution. In 1917, Paul and Burns organized the Silent Sentinels, a group of women who protested outside of the White House continuously for two and a half years. They were arrested multiple times, beaten and force-fed when they went on hunger strikes. They highlighted the irony of the country fighting for democracy abroad during World War I, while denying it at home. President Wilson finally changed his mind and the 19th amendment passed in 1919. It was officially ratified on August 26, 1920 by a single vote.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett is renowned as a prominent African-American journalist, educator, abolitionist, anti-lynching activist and civil rights leader who also played a key role in the women’s suffrage movement. In 1913, she established the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago — a voting rights and civic education club for black women — after white women excluded her from suffrage organizations. One of her first acts was to attend the 1913 Woman Suffrage Procession. She and her delegation were told to march at the back of the parade. However, she slipped into the Illinois delegation and marched with the Alpha Suffrage Club’s two white co-founders, Belle Squire and Virginia Brooks.

Celebrate the centennial and honor these inspiring women by remembering to vote this November. Learn how to register.


Image: Internet Archive Book Images

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