Women’s Right to Vote and the Whitewashing of History
By Brigid Mullen
The importance of the right to vote is the basis on which our country is founded. As Jolie Schrage, a freshman at La Follette and future voter stated, “Voting is the best way to represent yourself in government, and create systemic change.” 2020 marks the 100-year anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which states 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 sex.” In more straightforward terms, the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. But in reality, this was not the end of the struggle for women’s suffrage (the right to vote). Though it’s not explicitly stated, in practice the 19th Amendment only really gave white women the right to vote. Women of color would continue to fight for decades to gain the right to vote. To say that the fight for women’s suffrage ended with the 19th Amendment would be a disgusting whitewashing of history, and would erase decades of history of women of color fighting for their right to vote, the thought of which had been ignored and dismissed by white women during the initial suffrage movement. To reflect on the flawed legacy of the 19th Amendment, one must first review the fight that led up to it. The suffrage movement, beginning in the mid-1800s, was rife with divisions and blatant racism. In a society where slavery was still legal, it was inevitable that white suffragists wouldn’t exactly be considered “woke” by today’s standards. Well known white suffragists, like Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott, claimed to fight for equality while actively working against African Americans in an attempt to uplift white women. White suffragists separated themselves from Black suffragists, excluding them from organizations such as the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, and forcing them to march at the back of suffrage protests. It has to be noted that at this time, Black women were doing more for women’s suffrage than anyone else, as they were fighting for women’s rights as well as rights for African Americans. Important African American female suffragists that deserve better than to be lost to history include Fannie Barrier Williams, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Sarah Parker Remond. These women were groundbreaking pioneers in activism and civil rights and should be remembered as such. Fighting for the rights of white women while continuing to oppress people of color was a common throughline of the women’s suffrage movement, and similar divisions can be seen in fights for social justice today. White activists are quick to forget their privilege and disregard issues facing people of color. The necessity of the intersectionality of feminism can not be understated, and it’s extremely important to learn from history like this and apply it to our lives today. So obviously, the passage of the 19th Amendment was not the end of the fight for women of color to get the right to vote. Even though the amendment doesn’t state anything about race, and theoretically it should have allowed women of all races the right to vote, that’s not what actually happened. States passed absurd voting laws that were designed to keep prospective Black voters out of the polls and unable to actually vote, in the form of literacy tests, poll taxes, discriminatory legislation, and violent intimidation tactics. It wasn’t until 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act that African Americans were actually guaranteed the right to vote. This act prohibited the use of literacy tests, decreed federal oversight on voter registration in order to register more non-white voters, and gave the US attorney general the right to investigate poll tax use in state and local elections. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited racial discrimination in voting, and ensured the right to vote freely and safely for women of all races across the nation. Whitewashing of important history like this is a huge problem in our society today, and it’s becoming more important than ever to be sure to educate yourself on history that is often overlooked or actively ignored. Celebrate the 19th Amendment and women’s right to vote this year, sure, but also be sure to discuss and remember the history of women of color that fought to get the right to vote decades after the 19th Amendment was passed.