In his first inaugural address, President Lincoln called on “the better angels of our nature” to save the great experiment of American democracy. It was President Lincoln’s rallying cry to unify a nation divided. Between his election and his inauguration, seven states had seceded from the Union. As we celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment, we should heed President Lincoln’s rallying cry.
The Centennial Has A Deeper Meaning
Something is missing among the whirlwind of celebrations to commemorate the centennial of the 19th Amendment. Because, while the 19th Amendment may have given women the right to vote, it didn’t make it “right.” I’ll explain.
The right to vote is foundational to a well functioning democracy. The 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment does not support all women. It only supports white women—black women had to fight another 45 years for their right to vote, and they are still disenfranchised. As we revel in the centennial of the 19th Amendment, we cannot blindly applaud the political and economic progress women have made. Doing so reinforces the oppression our sisters continue to face.
Instead, as we revel in the centennial of the 19th Amendment, we must view its legacy clear eyed and let that legacy be our call to action. For all women and for future generations, let the centennial of the 19th Amendment remind us that the work is not finished. Now is our time to step up.
To start, we must re-examine what we know about history through the lens of gender and race.
What You Need To Know About The 19th Amendment
The 19th Amendment guarantees women the right to vote under federal law. However, Congressional passing of the amendment on June 4th, 1919 in no way marks the beginning of women’s political involvement. Women had entered the political scene decades prior. (You’ll learn why their entrance is significant soon.)
Upon the passage of the 19th Amendment, 15 states had already granted women the right to vote. The notable shout-outs go to New Jersey and Wyoming. In New Jersey, women—unmarried — were the first to receive the right to vote, although the state later repealed this law in 1807. In Wyoming, women’s suffrage became a negotiation tool for them to join as the 44th state in the union. Our nation’s first female governor, Nellie Ross, also hails from Wyoming.
Strategy helps explain why 15 states had already granted women the right to vote by the time Congress passed the 19th Amendment. Enter: women’s suffrage movements. In the mid to late 1800s, women suffragists participated in one of two main organizations: the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). Both groups, founded in 1869, advocated for women’s enfranchisement. Their strategy and philosophy, however, divided them.
While the NWSA prioritized a federal strategy for enfranchisement of women, particularly white women, the AWSA prioritized a state-by-state strategy and inclusion of women of color. Beyond the federal versus state focused strategy, the two groups were split on the inclusion of women in the 15th Amendment. The 15th Amendment removed barriers to enfranchisement on the basis of race or color. NWSA wanted to amend the 15th Amendment to include women, believing that African American men should not have the right to vote before white women. The AWSA did not, fearing it would compromise the success of the 15th Amendment. The two groups would later merge in 1890 to form the NAWSA, whose strategy went after the right to vote on a state-by-state basis.
Was The 19th Amendment Good for Society?
Before the 19th Amendment, state laws kept women from owning and inheriting property, serving on juries, and even signing contracts. If a woman had a job outside the home, she worked in a low-paying service industry job which didn’t provide economic security. She likely obtained her economic security through a marriage contract instead. Childbearing was a duty.
Women’s suffrage brought a steady rise in social spending, gender equality, and more progressive legislative proposals. We see significant increases in municipal spending on charities and social programs as women took to the political scene. Evidence suggestions that child mortality dropped by nearly 15 percent after women gained the right to vote. Women’s suffrage lends itself to children having a greater chance of staying in school, too.
Researchers believe the societal improvements we’ve enjoyed since the passing of the 19th Amendment have eased the impact of the modern-day achievement gap. As Dartmouth College’s Na’ama Shenhav writes, “It appears that one of the main benefits of suffrage may have been to help raise the bottom and middle of the distribution of historically less-educated communities.”
Not only did women expand their political participation after the passage of the 19th Amendment, they also expanded their economic participation. The Council of Economic Advisers estimates the U.S. economy is $2.0 trillion bigger today than it would have been if women had not increased their participation and hours since 1970. Research also highlights the 34 percent increase in incomes of white students in the South whose formative schooling years happened after the 19th Amendment’s ratification.
The 19th Amendment did very little for our African-American sisters in the South. They, together with black men, continued to struggle for another 45 years to exercise their right to vote. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and other “insidious means” of voter suppression kept them from participating in their own democracy. Many American Indian and Asian immigrant women had little reason to celebrate the 19th Amendment too, as they were often denied citizenship.
The additional 45 years of African American suffrage struggle ended with a victory in 1965. The passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ensures state and local governments do not pass laws or policies that deny American citizens the equal right to vote based on race.
Unfortunately, the story does not end happily here.
“Today the Supreme Court stuck a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” The 2013 remark comes to us from Representative John Lewis.
Representative Lewis was referring to the US Supreme Court’s decision, in 2013, to gut Article 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act protects minorities from voting discrimination before it occurs. When a jurisdiction with a discriminatory voting history wants to change its voting rules, Section 5 mandates these changes obtain pre-approval. The only way Article 5 works is with the help of Article 4, which determines the jurisdictions to cover. The 2013 Shelby County v. Holder Case invalidated Article 4, thus invalidating Section 5. Without federal clearance, states now had a direct window of opportunity to change their voting policies—for better or for worse.
After the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision, Texas moved swiftly to change a voter identification law that had previously been blocked. In 2017, a federal district court found that Pasadena, Texas, had reduced Latino electoral influence by restructuring its city council, all made possible by illegally changing its election laws.
The 19th Amendment may have granted suffrage to all women. The Voting Rights Act may have sought an end to voter suppression. But they did not guarantee enfranchisement for all. The “great experiment of American democracy” is still being tested.
The 19th Amendment: A New Legacy
The only way our democracy works is if everyone can participate. When we have laws that systemically block people from voting, we weaken the entire system.
The 2018 midterm elections witnessed the repercussions of voter suppression, specifically in the gutting of Article 5, when Stacey Abrams lost the bid to become governor of Georgia. Her opponent, former Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, supervised an election process that purged voting rolls and enacted strict voter registration rules. With Kemp’s oversight, 53,000 voter registrations were put on hold, nearly 70 percent of which were for black voters.
As we remember the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, we should celebrate how far we’ve come. We should not, however, celebrate prematurely. It is at this moment in our nation’s history that we should heed President Lincoln’s rallying cry and appeal to the better angels of our nature. We must use this centennial as our wake up call and step up, because we’re not finished until we realize equity for all.