Thursday, August 18, 2016

96 Years of Voting Rights

72 years after the convention at Seneca Falls and 96 years ago from today, the Nineteenth Amendment became a part of the US Constitution due to the tireless demonstrating, writing, lobbying and general hell-raising by suffragettes.
Suffrage efforts were often focused on state and local government, with many states granting women suffrage well before the Nineteenth Amendment. This was not the case in Massachusetts, which overwhelmingly voted against women’s suffrage; first in the State House of Representatives in 1869 and then again in a 1895 statewide, non-binding referendum. Women were able to vote in the referendum, though they only made up 24,000 out of 600,000 eligible voters. Predictably, 96% of Massachusetts women voted in favor of female suffrage while only 32% of men did the same. However, there was a longstanding tradition of Massachusetts women being able to vote on issues related to schools and there are records of women voting on issues of bonds and taxes as well.
By 1919, women could vote for president in 27 states, making up 61% of the electoral college. Congressmen from these states became supporters of a constitutional amendment for national women’s suffrage, although many in the general public were still opposed. Many saw suffragettes as bitter, ugly women who renounced domestic work and wanted to subordinate men. On May 21, 1919, a proposed Nineteenth Amendment, strongly supported by President Wilson, passed the US House of Representatives. A few weeks later, it was passed in the Senate. Within a few days, state legislatures began ratifying the amendment. Massachusetts was the eighth state to approve the amendment, ratifying it on June 25, 1919. Tennessee was the last state to pass the amendment, narrowly approving the amendment during a special session right before the ratification period was to expire.
In November of that year, more than 8 million women across the US voted in elections for the first time. It took 64 years for the remaining 12 states to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment with Mississippi was the last to do so in 1984. Though ratification was not necessary, it was an important symbolic gesture stating that the states supported the women’s suffrage movement.
However, terming it the “women’s” movement can be fairly misleading, as it was predominantly concerned with the voting rights of white women. Female suffragettes were divided over granting voting rights to black men. While many supported the measures, a large number, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton, thought that white women’s civil rights were more important and should come first. This attitude continued into the 20th century, with the most prominent women’s suffrage organization, the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA), explicitly excluding black women from its membership to gain the support of southern women.
Even after the passage of the 19th amendment, many women of color were barred from voting. People born in India, China or Japan did not gain the possibility of citizenship or the right to vote until the 1940s. The last state laws prohibiting Native Americans from voting were not overturned until 1948. Literacy tests and poll taxes in the south kept many black people from voting until well into the 1960s. Many “language minorities”, including Hispanic, Asian and indigenous communities, were unable to vote until the 1975 extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act which mandated that election materials must be available in multiple languages.
Even though the barriers to voting remained insurmountable for many women, the Nineteenth Amendment was a major victory. Not only did it grant a fundamental civil right to women, it brought about the first wave of feminist consciousness in America and has since influenced feminist activism. Female participation in politics has been steadily growing and in 2012, 60% of voters were women. In this election cycle, the votes of women will be key: studies have shown that when women run for office, more women turn out to vote. This shows the power that women have, not only as voters but also as leaders. Today, we celebrate 96 years of making history-- here’s to many, many more! 

--- Sarah, MWPC Intern