Susan B. Anthony was one of many who devoted her life to women’s suffrage. Women’s Equality Day, celebrated each year on Aug. 26, acknowledges the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote in 1920, 100 years after Anthony’s birth. Anthony knew that the ballot was a key element in helping women become more equal.
But she didn’t believe all women merited the right.
Anthony famously said, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” This exclusion of black women from the women’s suffrage movement reflects how the intersection of gender and race historically affected their fight to vote.
For decades after the passage of the 19th Amendment, women of color struggled to exercise their right to vote because of legalized prejudicial practices that blocked them from casting ballots.
“There were suffragettes who tried to capitalize on the tension between black and white voters and who basically argued ‘How can you enfranchise African American men and not enfranchise the women of your race?’” said Blair L.M. Kelley, an associate professor of history at North Carolina State University. “There were white Southern suffragettes who argued for their own suffrage in part to buttress the white race from the presence of black voters.”
The 19th Amendment did empower some black women in Northern states, Kelley said. “It’s important to remember that there are black women who are voting, changing dynamics and getting the first black politicians post-Reconstruction into office in those communities while there is a Southern struggle going on.”
While the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, mandated that 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 race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” the voting rights of black Americans were often blocked.
Poll taxes, literacy tests and other legalized strategies to suppress black voters from casting ballots including threats of violence and job losses were a reality. Black women including Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Amelia Boynton and Diane Nash were committed activists who worked to get black Americans in the South voting rights. Their work and others’ culminated in the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act which finally offered voting rights protections.
Black women played a significant role in this nation’s voting rights struggle. As voters they continue to make a contribution, Kelley said.
We saw the power of black women voters in last year’s Alabama Senate election, when 98 percent of black women voted for Doug Jones, and helped secure his victory over Roy Moore, a Republican judge accused of molesting young women. Black women are also making progress as candidates. Kelley pointed to Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia, who would become the first black woman governor in the United States if she wins the general election in November.
Latinas also faced racial hurdles that are less widely known. Tactics used to prevent them from voting included poll and literacy taxes, said Lisa Navarrete, a spokesperson for UnidosUS, a national civil rights organization that advocates for Latinos.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act helped enfranchise more Latinas just as it did other Americans. But the 1975 extensions of it, which included mandating bilingual ballots and voting materials in certain areas, also went a long way in enabling Latinas to vote. Bilingual ballots were an institutional remedy for legalized racial barriers to education that also affected Latinas’ ability to vote, Navarrete said.
“We’re not talking about immigrants in a lot of cases. These women grew up in Texas where there were segregated schools and they were not able to go to school, were never given the proper education in English,” she said. “They were born in Texas, raised in Texas. Because they were deprived of an education were not able to have the competency in which to fully understand what can be a complicated ballot.”
When there aren’t barriers for Latinas to vote, they can make real change, Navarrete said. She pointed to the June New York Congressional primary race in which Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat out incumbent Rep. Joseph Crowley, a top-ranking Democrat. Her victory was made possible for the people of color, including women, who supported her campaign, Navarrete said.
“When we are able to exercise the right to vote we can make a difference on the issues that Latinas care most about,” she said, citing education, health care and immigration.
Asian American women also faced voting challenges. For decades, national immigration laws prevented Asians from attaining citizenship, consequently blocking them from voting, said Christine Chen, executive director of APIAVote, a national nonpartisan group that mobilizes Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to vote.
“Suffrage was a great first step, but the reality is when it was first passed there was still the Chinese Exclusion Act,” Chen said. “In terms of our rights to become citizens, it was actually really hard for this population to even take the first step to even be citizens, let alone to actually register and go vote.”
Now, Chen said, her group is working to get Asian Americans to understand that voting is their right and get them registered and to the voting booth. Asian American mothers and grandmothers are often tapped to leverage their position in families into votes, Chen said.
There are still barriers that prevent women of color from voting, said Sindy Benavides, CEO of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
“More and more, we’re seeing voter disenfranchisement by policies and laws being passed where they’re removing early voting, same-day voting, absentee voting and voters are being purged,” she said. “There are policies in place that are really an impediment to our community,” she added, citing voter ID laws as an example.
Voting challenges that affect women of color continue, Navarrete said, because the vote is “a powerful tool and there are people out there who don’t want communities of color to have such a powerful tool.”