On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, declaring the right to vote could not be denied based solely on one’s sex. This was certainly a monumental victory and an important step towards equality. But it is vital to remember: This right was not extended to all women at that time.
Is this a day of celebration or a day of reckoning? Maybe it’s both, maybe it’s neither. But it needs to be a call to action.
The exclusion of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) women from the suffrage movement has created an incomplete version of history and has not honored their efforts appropriately. In the lead up to this centennial anniversary, the narrative is shifting and the failure to attribute efforts to BIPOC women is being addressed.
The focus on suffrage and racial equality remains a topic of high concern given the upcoming election, the recent activism towards racial justice, and the potential impact of COVID-19 on voter turnout.
Native American and Asian American women would face citizenship issues for years after the amendment’s ratification. It wouldn’t be until the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights of 1965—more than 40 years later—that African American women would see their right to the polls become protected by law.
The recent selection of Sen. Kamala Harris as Vice President and Joe Biden’s Democratic running mate is historic on many levels. Yet within minutes, President Donald Trump and other Republican allies touted sexist and racist remarks in their responses to her candidacy.
It feels fitting that Harris’s addition to the ticket happens within the month of the anniversary of an amendment that would not have even granted her the right to vote.
But we simply cannot celebrate this day without recognizing that white women were the main benefactors, which unfortunately still remains true too often in our country.
Similar to the Fourth of July, the celebration of freedom does not apply to all Americans. While millions learned in a whitewashed version of history that these are days worthy of mass celebration, for so many Americans the “holiday” is simply a reminder of white privilege and institutional racism.
Yes, the brave suffragists fought for access to the ballot box—leading them to be jailed or embark on hunger strikes. However, it is possible to commend their courage and resilience, while also recognizing that they failed to be inclusive.
To be sure, many Black women voted prior to 1920, and in that year’s presidential election, so it is factual that white women were not the only ones guaranteed the right to vote. Though overlooked in suffrage history, the movement was diverse, and included women of color, immigrant and working class women—a critical component to their success.
Black women had created influential organizations focused on suffrage, but unlike their white counterparts, they also sought to advocate for economic, social and educational needs. Organizations, such as The National Association of Colored Women, which became the largest federation of local clubs, played an integral role in the suffrage movement and continue to fight for social justice matters today.
Now is the time to do what many suffragists did not: to ensure this time, the effort lifts up all women.
The fight for voting rights and equality is far from over. Voter suppression is still prevalent—as seen in the rise of voter ID and proof-of-citizenship laws, the reduction of early voting and polling hours, gerrymandering, and even the purging of registered voters from polls, all of which disproportionately affect voters of color.
In the lead up to the November elections and beyond, with a BIPOC woman as a vice presidential candidate for the first time in history, it’s important to carry on the work of the suffragists.
To continue their legacies, but also create a new movement of true equality, here are nine actions to take:
1. Donate and support campaigns who will fight for voter rights.
Before casting a vote for a candidate, ensure they will not hinder or suppress the vote. Support women and candidates of color. A record number of black women are running for congressional office; find out who is running in your districts.
2. Support organizations taking on the challenge.
Efforts by voting rights groups such as Let America Vote, Rock The Vote, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the League of Women Voters often rely on volunteers and financial contributions in order to do their work, so take a moment to find a chapter near you today.
3. Write to your representatives.
Put the pressure on leaders and let them know you support voting initiatives such as automatic voter registration, expanding early voting, voter restoration efforts and mail-in voting. Inform them that you will not tolerate efforts to discredit this election. Let them know you support a new Voting Rights Law.
4. Volunteer to be a poll watcher.
If you see something during elections that you think will keep people from voting, speak up and take action. Check to see your state’s required qualifications and reach out to your local elections office for information.
5. Complete your census and encourage others to do so.
With the deadline for the collection of data moved up, it’s critical that everyone completes the form. Census data is important for the allocation of representatives and funding for a district, among many other things, so work to push participation in your area.
6. Write an op-ed or get media attention.
Local, state and federal official keep tabs on what their constituents are demanding, so be sure to take up space in the papers they read or the channels they watch so they know this is a priority in their district. The OpEd Project offers resources and webinars in OpEd writing and pitching.
7. Run for office.
Make the difference by being the decision maker. Local office has an incredible impact in your everyday life, so consider positions such as, school board, city council, and state office. There are many non-partisan training organizations that support female candidates throughout the entire campaign process.
Bring your networks together to support in any of these efforts. The pandemic has changed traditional methods of campaigning and organizing, so be creative and use your social media channels to inform your networks of candidates and important dates. Schedule zoom meet and greets with candidates running in your districts so they can engage and interact with constituents. Write postcards and letters to remind others to take action and how their votes could impact the community.
Since 1980, women have had a greater turnout at the polls than men, but with less than half of eligible women voting during non-presidential elections, it’s important to encourage engagement during local elections and midterms.
This monumental anniversary of the 19th Amendment gives us an opportunity to reflect on the progress that has been made in the last 100 years. But is also a great reminder of the progress that still very much needs to be made.
We can see this as an opportunity to include all women in the fight for equality and ensure that 100 years from now, people will be celebrating these latest efforts.