Early in the morning on August 26, 1920, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby unceremoniously certified the ratification of the 19 Amendment at his home, depriving suffragists the opportunity to celebrate this moment representing decades of activism. One hundred years later, in the midst of a public health crisis and political unrest, we once again are limited in our capacity to gather together and take stock of how women have fared over the past century. The New-York Historical Society’s exhibition, Women March, which commemorates the centennial of the 19th Amendment as it explores the efforts of a wide range of women to expand American democracy in the centuries before and after the suffrage victory, is temporarily closed, but we are committed to sharing its ideas from afar.
All this month, Women at the Center will draw from the exhibition to commemorate and complicate the centennial of the 19th Amendment. Blog posts will highlight the multiplicity of suffrage activism preceding the amendment’s ratification; the obstacles to suffrage that persisted even after the ratification of the 19th Amendment; and why the vote alone has been seen as an insufficient tool for fully exercising citizenship by activists whose work continues into the present.
Women March emphasizes that there was not one single suffrage movement in the years preceding ratification, but in fact many movements. While groups and individuals may have agreed on their end goal of achieving the vote for women, they often disagreed on why, and on how the expansion of the franchise should be achieved. Some women sought the vote as recognition of their service to the country during World War I; others by their unique perspective as mothers; and still others because of their status as workers. Some women pushed for suffrage as a tool to fight against white supremacy—and others wanted it as a mechanism for upholding it. Looking at this full range of activism around suffrage tells a more diverse—and nuanced—story about the ratification victory.
The 19th Amendment technically did not “give” women the right to vote: it prohibited states from using sex as a barrier to the franchise. States could, in fact, use other factors to keep certain segments of the population from voting—and they did. So many other obstacles restricted women, as well as men, from exercising this key facet of citizenship, that the actual impact of the 19th Amendment was primarily limited to white women. Jim Crow laws and mob violence prevented Black Americans from voting in much of the country, while Native and Asian Americans would wait decades to be citizens. Women who married foreigners lost their U.S. citizenship. States could provide ballots only in English, restricting Spanish and other language speakers from voting. Women in colonial territories to this day lack representation in Congress. Thus, although ratification marked a dramatic shift in American democracy, the suffrage victory came with limitations—and was not the end of the story, as women continued the fight against these barriers.
Women March also stresses that voting and political rights are not sufficient on their own. Women, especially women of color, have organized around issues of social and economic rights in order to fully exercise citizenship over the past two centuries. Campaigns to protect women from sexual violence and to promote Indigenous rights, for example, continue into the present.
The story of women’s collective action is an ongoing story of engagement with democracy. Over the past two centuries, American women’s activism has faced a complex array of issues. The exact concerns shift with the times, but the larger questions still resonate, not only for women, but for all people. How do we create a just and equal society? How is citizenship defined and enacted—through the vote and beyond? Commemorating the landmark victory of the 19th Amendment leads us to further scrutinize the injustices that remained after ratification and the responsibilities of citizenship in their own times and beyond. Diverse communities of women have long found ways to make their voices heard, both without and beyond the vote. Their numerous forms of collective action serve as a powerful reminder of the progress that is possible when people stand together.
Written by Anna Danziger Halperin, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History