The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has upended plans to celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment on August 26. In addition to the practical obstacles like the closure of indoor spaces and the suspension of large gatherings, political considerations complicate the commemoration. How are we to celebrate the 19th Amendment when many non-white women remained barred from the polls decades after its ratification? How do we celebrate a fundamentally incomplete victory?
The New-York Historical Society’s exhibition, Women March, addresses this conundrum by focusing on women’s collective action to expand their citizenship beyond “the vote.” While the Museum is temporarily closed, we are committed to sharing its ideas from afar.
Since the 19th century, American women have consistently argued that protection from interpersonal violence was an essential component of their citizenship. Advocates for temperance directly linked the overconsumption of alcohol to rape and domestic violence and looked to the vote as a tool to hold men accountable for their abuse. For women of color, who faced racial and sexual violence and significant obstacles to voting, the demand for state protection against violence rivaled the push for the ballot. While addressing the National Women’s Rights Convention in 1866, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper punctuated her calls for suffrage with stories of Black women like Harriet Tubman being brutally assaulted while riding public transit. In addition to being an ardent suffragist, Ida B. Wells crusaded against the lynching of African American men and the sexual assault of African American women by white men. Before becoming the national icon of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rosa Parks worked as an NAACP field secretary demanding justice for Recy Taylor, an Alabaman sharecropper gang-raped by white men in 1944.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 made the 19th Amendment meaningful for women of color by banning the discriminatory practices that had barred Black communities from the vote. However, the extension of the franchise to larger numbers of women did not quiet their calls for protection from violence. To the contrary, an emergent women’s liberation movement amplified them. In January 1971, the New York Radical Feminists hosted its “rape speak-out” where they realized what Wells and Parks had articulated decades earlier. Men routinely assaulted women as an act of political aggression. Women were denied full citizenship when their ability to navigate public space in the same manner as men was compromised by fear of assault. This could only end when sexual violence was taken seriously by society and offenders faced real consequences.
In the 1970s, women of color equated full citizenship with freedom from violence and claimed full citizenship for themselves by physically fighting back against their assailants. Between 1974 and 1977, Joan Little, Inez Garcia, and Yvonne Wanrow were tried for the murder of men who sexually assaulted them or their children. Little, a young African American woman who was incarcerated in Beaufort County, NC, fatally stabbed a white prison guard with his own icepick after he attempted to sexually assault her in her cell. She narrowly escaped death row when the jury acquitted her of first degree-murder because she acted in self-defense. Garcia, a Hispanic woman living in Soledad, CA, served two years in prison for killing her rapist before winning a reprieve on the grounds of self-defense. Wanrow, a Native American woman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, also successfully claimed self-defense after she shot a known pedophile who threatened her son. Feminist groups rallied behind these women and generated national publicity for their trials.
Little, Garcia, and Wanrow were all citizens of the United States and their right to vote was at least nominally safeguarded by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But their citizenship was constrained by their vulnerability to violence due to their race and gender. By taking matters into their own hands and fighting back against their assailants, they claimed their right to live free of violence. Through their successful self-defense cases, they also compelled the state recognize this right and to protect them (if only after the alleged crime had been committed).
These calls for freedom from violence in addition to enfranchisement echo into the present day. The #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements, both founded by women of color, both decry the routine violence visited upon women by abusive men in power. For example, a performance piece against sexual violence that originated in Chile has spread to protests around the world, proclaiming:
“And it’s not my fault
Not where I was
Not how I dressed
And the rapist is you”
Contemporary protests can be traced to Black women activists before and after the ratification of the 19th Amendment who defined citizenship as the right to expect safety and security while navigating the world. They demand that we move past commemorations and continue to demand a safer and more equitable America.
Read more from our suffrage centennial series:
- Commemorating an Incomplete Victory: The 19th Amendment at 100
- Why Suffrage? A Broader Look At Women’s Collective Action in the 19th Century
- The Many “Official” Colors of the Suffrage Movement
- White Supremacy and the Suffrage Movement
- “Girls in Caps and Gowns”: The Deltas March for Suffrage
- Obstacles to Suffrage after 1920
- “Get Ready to Vote:” Black Women after the Voting Rights Act
- Many Fronts, One Struggle: Native American Women’s Activism Since the 19th Amendment
- The Suffrage Centennial: Righting, and Rewriting, Historical Wrongs
Written by Caitlin Wiesner, Andrew W. Mellon Predoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History
Above image: New York Radical Feminists, Rape is a Political Crime against Women, 1971. Al Jazeera, courtesy of Susan Brownmiller