Federal suffrage for women began on August 18, 1920, with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. This year women will exercise the right they gained over 100 years ago when they vote in the 2020 Presidential Election, but the fight for universal suffrage for women in the United States is far from over.
Women as Property
Despite the passage of the 19th Amendment, women continued to be subjugated to men. The common law practice of coverture was still alive and well in 1920, which meant a woman who may have previously been a United States citizen would magically lose her citizenship if she married a man who was not a United States citizen. The loss of citizenship status meant many women lost their previously gained right to vote. Women would not gain legal status as citizens in their own right until 1940.
Women of Color
Women of color faced an even steeper hill to climb, and continue to climb this hill today. Racial limitations to naturalizations meant Latinx, Asian, and Native American women were immediately disenfranchised because their inability to gain citizenship meant they were excluded from voting. Even after gaining citizenship, women were excluded from the polls based on literacy, “moral character”, and an inability to pay poll taxes. These policies disproportionately affected women of color who were less likely to meet literacy requirements and also less likely to be able to afford to pay poll taxes. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 helped remedy some of the ways in which Women of Color were disenfranchised and outright banned from voting. Unfortunately, the VRA did not remedy all of the ways in which Women of Color are kept away from the polls, and the Supreme Court rolled back many of the protections of the VRA in its 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder.
Current Events Highlight Impediments to the Right to Vote
Florida is in the news due to the ripple effect of its 2018 Constitutional Amendment and SB 7066 which restores the vote for those with felony convictions. This restoration is not automatic and requires “full payment of any ordered restitution and the full payment of ordered fines, fees or costs”. The requirement for the payment of fines, fees, or costs, operates identically to a poll tax. This has led to a battle between those who seek to enfranchise all Americans to vote and a confusing amount of political leaders opposing efforts to restore the vote through philanthropic payment of outstanding fines, fees, and/or costs of those with felony convictions in Florida. Because Black people are disproportionately convicted and imprisoned, laws prohibiting or restricting the voting rights of those convicted of a felony has a disparate impact on people of color. This means a significant portion of United States citizens lack representation on local, state, and federal levels, which operates to perpetuate the cycle of disenfranchisement in almost every aspect of life.
This article is a starting point to understanding just a few issues voters faced and continue to face even after the ratification of the 15th and 19th Amendments to the United States Constitution. From voter ID laws, to disinformation campaigns, we can see history repeating itself and voter suppression rearing its ugly head. In the words of an anonymous suffragist more than 100 years ago:
For the work of a day,
For the taxes we pay,
For the laws we obey,
We want something to say.