The Women Who Carried the Fight: Understanding the Limits of the 19th Amendment
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While the ratification of the 19th Amendment 100 years ago (August 18, 1920) was a key achievement in women’s suffrage, the road to voter equality spanned generations – from the early efforts of suffragists and abolitionists in the 1800s, to breaking down barriers to voting for women of color in the mid-1900s.

You may recognize the names Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Ida B. Wells as famous suffragists, but there are many more women of all backgrounds who have made contributions leading up to and continuing beyond the ratification of the 19th Amendment. 

Lisa Tetrault, Ph.D, Associate Professor of History at Carnegie Mellon University and a leading scholar of voting and democracy, writes about one of the grass-roots heroes of the voting rights struggle–Ms. Fannie Lou Hamer.


“Ms. Fannie Lou Hamer, a Mississippi sharecropper, stepped to the microphone and gave lie to a venerated American story–that in 1920, with the insertion of the 19th Amendment into the U.S. Constitution, American women had won the right to vote. 

Hamer, along with the all-Black Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, had shown up at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, insisting they be seated as the delegation from their state. Over the previous 100 years, Mississippi’s government had—through vigilante violence and later, legal means—reduced Black participation at the polls and in state governance to almost nil. 

Testifying before the DNC’s Credential’s Committee, Hamer explained why they (and not Mississippi’s all-white delegation) should be seated.

“It was the 31st of August in 1962 that eighteen of us traveled twenty-six miles to the county courthouse in Indianola to try to register to become first-class citizens.” Hamer then described a tale of intimidation, assault, shots, eviction, jailing, and ongoing violence that targeted her and her fellow travelers for months in the wake of their 1962 effort—merely to register to vote.

“And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now,” she roared, “I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?”

Hamer’s brief but powerful testimony went viral and shocked parts of white America. Although the DNC refused to seat the all-Black delegation, Hamer and others had intensified pressure that would help push landmark civil-rights reform through Congress the following year, the seminal 1965 Voting Rights Act. In the wake of that law, millions of women of color finally secured the ability to vote, many for the first time, accessing a right they had supposedly won in 1920. 

Hamer’s testimony the year before underlined an important reality too often unseen in this centennial. Women did not win the right to vote in 1920, although just about everyone and everything will assure you that they did.  

The 19th Amendment simply stated that states could not discriminate in voting “on the basis of sex.”  Many states still required voters to be “male,” which had disqualified millions of women from voting. In those states, the amendment struck down that word as now unconstitutional, eliminating the one obstacle many faced to exercising the franchise. 

While a necessary and enormous victory, it was not sufficient, however, to enfranchise all women. The 19th Amendment left standing all the racially-inflected obstacles that states had erected in the 1890s—literacy tests, poll taxes, and more. Those stood, continuing to disenfranchise millions of women of color well after 1920. 

Such laws—which extended across the nation, not just throughout the South—remained perfectly legal, because there is another gaping misunderstanding in our national lore: our belief that citizens possess a basic democratic right to vote. 

That’s right. There is no Constitutional right to vote, although just about every American will tell you otherwise. The framers decided not to create one. Those same framers then gave voting governance to the individual states, who drew up lists of qualifications one had to meet in order to vote. Those qualifications have changed over time, but states were free to erect them, precisely because there was no pre-existing, federally-guaranteed right to vote that such requirements abridged. 

Where the 19th Amendment struck down “sex” as a qualification, the 1965 Voting Rights Act struck down other state qualifications, like literacy tests, as unjustly discriminatory. Black voting participation skyrocketed in its wake, from single digits to 65-85%. 

Even the Voting Rights Act did not create a positive, affirmative, federal right to vote. Rather, like the 19th Amendment, it used the federal government to bar specific, targeted discriminatory practices in the states. But like that amendment, it left undisturbed the larger right of states to create voting eligibility criteria. Both have nevertheless extended democracy dramatically, creating some of the largest expansions in voting in U.S. history. 

What federal protections the Voting Rights Act gave voters in states have largely been gutted since 2013, however, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in Shelby Co. v. Holder, struck down important provisions of that law, arguing that voter suppression in the states was a thing of the past. Thus, federal oversight was no longer needed there.  

In response, state legislators have been rapidly erecting creative, new voter state qualifications (voter ID laws, closing polling locations, etc.) that are now—in 2020, the centennial of women supposedly winning the right to vote—disenfranchising tens of millions of women, disproportionately women of color, many of whom voted prior to these new state laws without incident.  

This is possible because American citizens still have no federally guaranteed voting right—which is surely this 1920 centennial’s most surprising lesson.  

That fight for an affirmative, federally-guaranteed right to vote—a fight kept alive by women like Ms. Hamer—remains unfinished, handed down to you and me, to run with.”

by Lisa Tetrault, Ph.D, Associate Professor of History at Carnegie Mellon University and the prize-winning author of The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898



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