The unbearable whiteness of the 19th Amendment

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In 1920, after four decades of organizing to secure the vote for women, President Woodrow Wilson signed the 19th Amendment. But 100 years after the amendment was officially certified in the Federal Register, stories of limited access to the vote — of polling locations being closed, state election officials purging names from voter rolls, and new voter ID laws being passed — shine a light on the failings of the constitutional amendment.

The Constitution is not explicitly an anti-racist document, and neither is the 19th Amendment. What was originally designed by middle-class white women continues to serve middle-class white women. Yes, the 19th Amendment was a major step toward electoral parity; it was certified on Aug. 26, which has come to be known as "Women's Equality Day." But it's a misnomer, because Native, Black, and Latinx people, whose histories were irreparably changed by U.S. colonialism and imperialism, continue to suffer from decreased access to the polls — and, by proxy, reduced political voice in local, state, and federal government.

Until 1920, women of all races lacked, to varying degrees, agency, economic autonomy, and a civic voice. Suffragettes — mainly racist middle-class white women— wanted to be able to own property, retain custody of their children after death or divorce of a spouse, and gain access to better paying jobs. The way to economic equality was through political equality, and the path to political equality was through access to the polls.

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What the 19th Amendment actually says

The 19th Amendment is just one sentence: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." Though it's commonly referred to as the amendment that granted women the right to vote, women aren't technically mentioned anywhere in the decree.

It's important to note too that the amendment isn't about ensuring access to the vote. Instead, it's just a statement that governing bodies can't restrict one's vote specifically because of their sex. In that sense, it's not about granting a "right," but more about outlining whose "right" cannot be taken away and why.

And therein lies the problem: The 19th Amendment failed to ensure access to the polls to economically disenfranchised women, descendants of enslaved people, and anyone historically unprotected by the Constitution, because it's not about access. Consider how at the time of its passage, Native women weren't granted U.S. citizenship; that wouldn't come until four years later.

The start of an ongoing voting rights battle

Even after the 19th Amendment was ratified, millions of Black women voters in the South lacked access to the polls. In fact, the expansion of voting rights prompted racist state governments to double down on efforts to suppress the vote through what were, at the time, legal mechanisms.

In Mississippi, for instance, Black women remained subjected to a racist state Constitution that was designed to exclude Black people from voting and running for office. Even if Black women did have enough money to pay a poll tax, many poll workers in the state refused to take money from Black people. Poll workers also gave Black voters more difficult passages of the Constitution to interpret to fulfill literacy tests; beyond that, the legacies of enslavement, convict leasing, and share-cropping combined with segregation contributed to an illiteracy rate of 70% among Black people at the time. By contrast, less than 20% of white people were illiterate.

Even in New York, which was a liberal state historically, "newly arriving Puerto Rican citizens had their voting rights limited by highly complex English-literacy tests," per the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

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The passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 also coincided with a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. So in addition to financial restrictions and literacy tests that favored those with access to generational wealth — i.e., white people — Black voters were forced to make decisions between registering to vote and maintaining their safety. Despite all of these institutional and social challenges, Black voter turnout continued to rival or top that of white voter turnout.

But it wasn't just the South where non-white voters were stifled. In other states, both Democrats and Republicans held "white primaries" that excluded people of color from running for office. For instance, in Texas, Mexican Americans couldn't run for office because of "white primary" laws; as a result they still to this day suffer from reduced access to the polls and diminished political representation. Until they were outlawed in 1944, these procedures explicitly diminished the political power of non-white people.

The Voting Rights Act comes to town

State and local grassroots organizing efforts, including the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, propelled the issue of access to the polls to the national stage. Student organizers of the 1964 Freedom Summer, during which thousands of young people hekped to register Black voters in the South, propelled voting rights to the forefront of national politics.

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A year after the Freedom Summer, the 1965 Voting Rights Act was signed. Unlike the 19th Amendment, the VRA laid out intentional and specific ways to increase access to the polls. According to the Center for American Progress, because of the VRA, voter participation ballooned when states were explicitly required to facilitate voter access: "From 1965 through 1988 alone, the number of Black citizens registered to vote in places such as Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana more than doubled. Mississippi experienced a more than tenfold increase in Black voter registration during this period."

The effects of expanded access to the voting booth were felt immediately. The number of Black lawmakers also increased after the VRA's passage. According to the Center for American Progress, "In just one decade — 1970 to 1980 — the total number of Black elected officials in the United States tripled, from just 1,469 to 4,912." The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that the political arena in the late 20th century was the "only area where Black(s) and white(s) encountered each other on a basis of equality — sitting alongside one another on juries, in legislatures, and at political conventions; voting together on [Election Day]."


But after the passage of the VRA and the subsequent expansion of Black political power, white legislators began to pave the way for mass incarceration in the 1980s and '90s. The prison industrial complex would function as one of the largest tools of disenfranchisement of Black and brown people across the country. Only in two states do all adults, regardless of conviction history, have the right to vote. In all other states, there are at least some limits on franchise, including some states where formerly incarcerated people are permanently disenfranchised. As women's rate of incarceration continues to outpace that of men, the number of disenfranchised women also climbs higher. And Black women in particular have become the face of felony disenfranchisement: Consider the case of Lanisha Bratcher in North Carolina or Crystal Mason in Texas.

Present-day hurdles

Even with the expansion of voting rights through the 19th Amendment and voting access through the VRA, women of color face the most immediate consequences of voter suppression. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, which paved the way for states to introduce unnecessary voter identification laws, cut early voting periods, and reduce same-day registration. All of these mechanisms effectively function as modern-day poll taxes and literacy tests in that they explicitly target voters with less privilege — whether it be in the form of time, money, or access — who tend to be Black and brown.

And states that were previously hostile to women voters of color have continued their dubious history. In Texas, where white people once had institutionalized supremacy in political parties, voters are required to present a state-issued photo ID, despite the fact that many poor people can't afford an identification card and elderly people who don't drive may not use an ID in their daily life.

In Ohio and Georgia, their respective secretaries of state purged voter rolls ahead of the 2016 general election and the 2018 midterm election. The idea was to ostensibly to clear deceased people and inconsistent voters from the rolls, but many people who had voted in the most recent election were wiped from the voting records too. They weren't notified that they were removed, and by the time Election Day rolled around and they got to their polling place, it was too late to for them to re-register.

Despite the gains made in the 100 years since the 19th Amendment was ratified, there's still much work to be done to ensure the franchise is intact for everyone. But it seems fitting that in this, the year of the amendment's centennial, voters will have the option to cast their ballots for a woman of color on the presidential ticket for the first time. It's by no means a panacea — but after looking at the past century of halting progress, it's a start.