ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO, on August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted American women the right to vote. The actual fight began a century before the 19th Amendment was ratified. A century after ratification, in August 2020, the battle for safe and universal access to the voting booth continues.
Before Europeans settled the U.S., Native American women had the power to vote. Lucretia Mott visited the Seneca tribe in 1848. She observed the power of women who had equal responsibilities with men in all aspects of their lives—spiritual, family, government, economic. The women nominated the tribe’s chief. They also insisted that no treaty should be valid without the approval of three-fourths of the “mothers of the nation.” Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton found inspiration in the equal status of Native American women. So inspired, they planned the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls.
African American women also influenced voting rights activism. In the 1830s, they founded interracial Female Anti-Slavery Societies in New York and Philadelphia. These groups became actively involved in voting rights activism before and after the Civil War.
Cruelly and sadly, in the later 19th century, the women’s suffrage movement became increasingly racist and exclusionary. Because African American women were marginalized, they organized without the support of women of European descent. White women activists focused on the right of the individual woman to vote. They did not take into account the struggles of African American/Black women or working-class white women.
Black women founded their own National Association of Colored Women. Their activism had a broader focus. They not only wanted the right to vote. They wanted the betterment of their whole communities. As some said, “We live for the We.” In other words, they fought for the entire community’s rights, not only an individual’s rights.
The struggle for Black women’s franchise continued after 1920. Racial terrorism in southern states prevented many African Americans from voting, regardless of gender. Women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, and Diane Nash continued the fight for voting rights for all, culminating in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed on August 6, 1965, by President Lyndon Johnson, did African American/Black women and men have the freedom to vote.
The Act outlawed the discriminatory voting practices adopted in many southern states after the Civil War, including literacy tests as a prerequisite to voting. However, the struggle against voter suppression continues today. Voter suppression threatens the integrity of the upcoming election.
Voting is the way we, as citizens, influence the policies and legislation that shape our lives. By voting for pro-choice candidates, we elect legislators who stand for reproductive justice. Our access to the polls is more important than ever.
All women—black, white, people of color—let us unite to assure that everyone, regardless of their race, their creed, their class, their political affiliations, or their ZIP code, has the right to vote. That will make our democracy a real democracy. That is how we will defend reproductive justice for all!
Photo Credit: National Endowment for the Humanities
—National Women’s History Museum