The ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 was an expansive political step, representing years of work from a diverse range of women’s activists. However, the 19th Amendment technically did not “give” women the right to vote: it prohibited states from using sex as a barrier to the franchise:
“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.”—19th Amendment, 1919
States could, in fact, use other factors to keep certain segments of the population from voting—and they did. After the ratification of the 19th Amendment, 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. After the 15th Amendment of 1870 ensured that the right to vote could not be denied “on account of race, color, or previous position of servitude,” many states found new ways to prevent Black Americans from the polls, including literacy tests and poll taxes. Civil rights activists challenged these restrictions for nearly a century, as their efforts bore fruit after decades of blood, sweat, and tears. The Civil Rights Act of 1960 criminalized voter suppression by establishing federal penalties for obstructing someone from registering to vote. The 24th Amendment was ratified in 1964 to ban poll taxes in federal elections. And in 1965, the landmark Voting Rights Act banned these discriminatory voting laws. It established federal oversight of voter registration and elections, allowing hundreds of thousands of African American men and women, as well as Spanish speakers, to vote. The Act was amended in 1975 to prohibit English-only ballots in areas where a single-language minority group comprised more than five percent of the voting-age population. Even after the passage of this act, states refused to comply and developed new methods to discriminate against voters of color.
Many Native and Asian Americans would wait decades after 1920 to be considered voting citizens, as would women who married non-citizens. While the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act conferred citizenship to all Native Americans born within the borders of the United States, it left the legislation of Native American citizenship rights to the states, and many indigenous citizens remained disenfranchised. For example, the Alaska Territorial Legislature had allowed indigenous women since 1915 but only if they gave up tribal customs and traditions. In 1948, this balance changed with a legal case in New Mexico. State judges ruled in favor of Miguel Trujillo, a World War II veteran and member of the Isleta Pueblo, declaring that denial of Native Americans’ right to vote violated the 14th and 15th Amendments. This victory prompted other states to eliminate their legal barriers to voting as well. Chinese Americans were not extended citizenship and the right to vote until the 1943 Magnuson Act was passed, and other Asian Americans born outside the U.S. were not eligible for naturalization until 1952 when the McCarran-Walter Act overturned the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924. Women who married foreign men also lost citizenship and the right to vote until 1931—unless they married men who were ineligible for naturalization, such as Asian Americans.
American women residing outside of state borders could not vote in 1920, and many to this day lack voting representation in Congress. For example, although Puerto Ricans have been recognized as United States citizens since 1917, the 19th Amendment did not apply to Puerto Rican women because it is a territory rather than a state. The Puerto Rican legislature granted literate women the right to vote in 1931, and all women the vote in 1935. Women in other colonial territories waited even longer: Women’s suffrage was enacted in 1935 in the Virgin Islands, 1937 in the Philippines, 1950 in Guam, and not until 1967 in American Samoa. Residents of Washington, D.C., did not have the right to vote in presidential elections until 1961 when the 23rd Amendment was ratified and did not have a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives until the 1973 Home Rule Act. This act also allowed residents to elect their own mayor and city council rather than having these local offices filled through Congressional appointments.
The story of women’s voting rights has not been one of linear progress. The 2013 Supreme Court case, Shelby County v Holder, undermined portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 regarding preclearance, the requirement imposed on some states—based on their histories of discrimination—to seek approval from the U.S. Department of Justice before changing their voting laws. Many states responded to the case by passing laws that have significantly restricted voting. Citizens’ groups continue to fight these barriers, including laws that require proof of citizenship to vote, arguing that this measure disproportionately impacts voters of color. Activists also accuse the state of failing to provide sufficient polling places, voting machines, and election staff. For example, the Navajo Nation has alleged that Arizona has violated the Voting Rights Act by failing to provide language assistance and polling locations on reservations. Activists in Florida continue to fight laws that disenfranchise felons, arguing that a requirement that formerly incarcerated citizens pay any fines and court fees before regaining the right to vote disproportionately impacts voters of color.
This broad sweep of the state and federal legal landscape is indicative of the fact that although ratification of the 19th Amendment marked a dramatic shift in American democracy, the suffrage victory came with very real limitations. Far from the end of the story for women’s voting rights, women in fact have continued the fight against these barriers into the present.
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
- “Get Ready to Vote:” Black Women after the Voting Rights Act
- Fighting Back: Women of Color and the Ongoing Struggle for Citizenship Beyond the Vote
- Many Fronts, One Struggle: Native American Women’s Activism Since the 19th Amendment
- The Suffrage Centennial: Righting, and Rewriting, Historical Wrongs
Written by Anna Danziger Halperin, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Women’s History and Public History, Center for Women’s History