For these first-time women voters, the 19th Amendment looms large
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that every vote — past, present, and future — matters a lot. And with a pivotal presidential election coming up this November, it's only fitting that this year also marks the 100-year anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the constitutional right to vote. For women who are voting for the first time in the 2020 election cycle, the centennial looms large.
Amelia McNeil-Maddox, an 18-year-old voter from Maine, says the coincidence of the anniversary with her first time voting underlies just how monumental the right to vote even is.
“One of my mothers is very politically active, and she’s also a historian,” McNeil-Maddox tells Mic. “So we have a lot of historical discussions in our house, and that’s how the centennial of the 19th Amendment came up. We were talking about this being my first year to vote and that I actually have a right to vote, which is just really cool.”
The centennial should certainly be appreciated as a milestone in American democracy. The efforts of women suffragists led to the single largest enfranchisement in American history, with more than 8 million women voting for the first time in the 1920 elections. Moreover, the movement’s 72-year struggle before the amendment was officially certified on Aug. 26, 1920, has earned it a place in history as one of the longest running social justice causes. The feat is even more impressive when you consider the fact that both the Democratic and Republican parties wanted to keep women from gaining the right to vote.
"I don’t want to celebrate too much when it hasn’t been 100 years for a lot of people in this country."
Today, the hard-fought victory is now enshrined within our Constitution. The amendment was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920, but it’s Aug. 26 that lives on now as “Women’s Equality Day,” with the vote assumed to be an innate right of citizenship and womanhood.
The historical struggle for the right to vote is not lost upon Mikenzie Roberts, a 19-year-old voter from Indiana. Voting isn’t entirely new to Roberts, who voted in the midterm elections in 2018. But the fact that she can vote for president this year for the first time ever, in the same year as the 19th Amendment's centennial, has prompted her to consider the history that brought her here.
But revisiting the legacy of the 19th Amendment inevitably means grappling with its complex and exclusionary history. “The 1920s and the 19th Amendment was a big milestone for certain people,” she tells Mic. "But I don’t want to celebrate too much when it hasn’t been 100 years for a lot of people in this country."
An exclusionary past
It’s true: The 19th Amendment’s legacy is undermined by white suffragists’ racism and classism. They fought to expand the right to vote, but only for a select population of women that they themselves were part of: white, educated, and middle- or upper-class. In spite of their racism, though, they did find their precedent for the 19th Amendment in Haudenosaunee women, who provided a model of freedom with their political authority and control over their bodies and property. Moreover, women could already vote in certain elections in some states and western territories.
So, in 1878, Sen. Aaron Sargent of California introduced women’s suffrage legislation — drafted by history textbook-famous suffragists Elizabeth C. Stanton and Susan B. Anthony — for the first time to the U.S. Senate. Its wording would remain unchanged when it would pass through Congress 41 years later:
"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.”
Roberts notes that Stanton and Anthony’s exclusionary view of the right to vote reflected how “the first wave of feminism was white feminism, specifically for white women.” Stanton condemned the particular fact that white women were politically subordinate to Black men, who in her eyes were “unlettered and unwashed ... fresh from the slave plantations of the South.” Anthony infamously stated that she would rather “cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work for or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.”
As a result, even on this seminal anniversary, some young women are cautious about celebrating — especially given that 100 years later, women of marginalized identities are still sidelined.
"When we talk about feminism, it’s for white women; when we do racial justice, it’s for Black men; and so the Black woman tends to fall away in that advocacy work."
Mehr Kaur, a 19-year-old first-time voter from Illinois, notes that such marginalization still pervades in ominous ways — so much so that hearing the personal stories of families and communities impacted by harmful policies over the past four years has only increased her desire to vote in the upcoming election.
Kaur cites one theory in particular from Black feminist writings that explains how these women are cast aside. “The author talks about how we often advocate for either the Black man or the white woman, and the Black woman often gets left behind,” she explains. “When we talk about feminism, it’s for white women; when we do racial justice, it’s for Black men; and so the Black woman tends to fall away in that advocacy work. I would imagine that if that’s happening in situations across racial justice, it would happen with voting as well.”
That is in fact exactly what happened in the 1920s. In the words of Black activist Mary Church Terrell, blackness and womanhood were perceived together to be a “double burden.” As a response to being excluded from the suffragette movement, Terrell and other Black women, including Harriet Tubman, Frances E.W. Harper, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, formed the National Association of Colored Women Clubs (NACWC). But their political, economic, and social demands were left unaddressed by their white counterparts; they were excluded from the white suffrage conventions, as well as protests and demonstrations throughout the early 1900s.
When the 19th Amendment was finally ratified in 1920, disenfrachisement was still rampant in the South, where the majority of Black people lived at the time. Many states targeted and erased Black civic engagement by exploiting loopholes in the 19th Amendment, as well as the 14th and 15th Amendments, and employing devices such as poll taxes, white-only primaries, and literacy tests.
Meanwhile, Native Americans were not classified as citizens until 1924, and they weren’t guaranteed the right to vote in every state until 1962. Puerto Rican and Asian women could not truly exercise their right to vote until 1935 and 1952, respectively.
In Roberts’s words, it’s crucial to “recognize when we talk about 100 years of women being able to vote, who was included in that and who wasn’t.” For a huge swath of women, it wasn’t until the 1965 Voting Rights Act criminalized disenfranchisement that they were truly empowered.
An exclusionary present?
Still, women’s barriers to voting aren’t gone for good. Voter ID laws, passed anew after the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, require voters to show specific forms of government identification — a requirement that is costly and burdensome for legitimate voters who struggle to obtain the documents necessary for valid IDs. With women overall being more likely to be economically disadvantaged and face poverty than men, the costs that come with voter ID laws can hit women disproportionately hard.
For women of minority groups, obstacles to voting prevail through even more insidious loopholes too.
“It is common knowledge that Black people are disenfranchised in the voting system,” Kaur notes, “from gerrymandering to mass incarceration, to shutting down poll places before they should be, or reducing the number of polling places in Black neighborhoods.” Rampant voter suppression has been documented as recently as the 2018 midterm elections, as well as the 2020 presidential primaries.
Meanwhile, inaccessible polling locations disenfranchise voters living with physical disabilities. Those with intellectual, cognitive, or developmental disabilities may be stripped of their voting rights via “incompetence” laws, which lack a legal standard for measuring one’s “capacity” to vote, leaving it up to judges to form their own subjective definitions. And though there have been state-level reforms that have restored voting rights to citizens who were formerly or currently incarcerated, many states still block them from voting due to outstanding court fees. As the number of women in prison has increased at twice the rate of men, this may position more women — disproportionately Black women — to lose voting rights over time.
Looking to the future
For McNeil-Maddox and many other young voters, the right to vote is more than a line in the Constitution saying that they can; it’s the discussions surrounding voting that pass lessons to the next generation of voters. McNeil-Maddox is particularly thankful for the conversations she's had with her mother about politics, which always engendered in her the importance of voting. But she also recognizes that other young voters may not have been able to have the same types of discussions at home.
Enter the new arena for critical debate: the school lunch table. “I have a really specific memory,” McNeil-Maddox explains, “of lunch table discussions before the primaries that were basically all of us discussing the pros and cons of every candidate to people who didn’t follow politics too much and didn’t know the implications of different candidates. We all got to talk and share what we knew about voting together.”
While McNeil-Maddox and her peers energized each other by swapping facts, for others, a lack of knowledge often translates to a lack of engagement. That was the case for 21-year-old Meghana Pandit, who was eligible to vote in the 2018 midterms but didn’t. She tells Mic she passed on her first voting opportunity because she didn’t know a lot about politics then.
But that’s certainly not the case now. Living in Florida, a swing state that currently has one of the highest numbers of coronavirus cases in the U.S., has changed the game, she tells Mic.
“Based on what my state has done, it’s really important to elect the right state officials. Our governor is the one making the decisions regarding PPE, masks, and more,” Pandit says. “A lot of change can happen if we just vote the right people in office.”
For Pandit, voting in state and local elections is just as important as voting in the presidential election. A state’s coronavirus response is literally a matter of life or death, particularly for the marginalized communities who’ve been hit hardest. Though the pandemic is the foremost factor in Pandit’s mind in this election cycle, she notes that her identity as a woman has enabled her to better empathize with the struggles of these communities.
And the more communities that can be represented in office, the better. For Ananya Hajra, a 19-year-old first-time voter from New Jersey, voting is a chance to further women’s representation, something that became important to her as a woman in STEM — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. At her STEM magnet high school this year, she was only one of three women in her class.
“There needs to be a push to have women in all fields. Because now you can’t really look up and down the playing field and say ‘I kind of see myself there,’” Hajra tells Mic. “It’s tough, but I think representation is important so anyone can say ‘Okay, I can do that too if I want to.’”
Though the 19th Amendment wasn’t exactly the inclusive boon it was painted to be, it did pave the way for women’s involvement in the political sphere. Now, the question is whether a new generation of women voters, armed with 100 years of knowledge and a commitment to real equity, can move us forward from the past century of messiness and unfinished business.