Votes For Women

This month we celebrated the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which banned discrimination on the basis of sex at the ballot box. The fact that women organized, created a national movement, and ultimately a constitutional amendment is a major achievement. Now with more women having access to the vote than ever, our collective voice is carrying weight. We have seen the passing of Title IX and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, and issues such as equal pay and reproductive justice have reached the forefront of American politics.

Truly, we have much to celebrate, and it is important that we do. However, we must also acknowledge the women who were excluded—even outright erased—from the 19th Amendment and its legacy. For the first few decades after the 19th Amendment, men significantly outvoted women. Newspapers even decreed women’s suffrage a failure. Women still faced societal expectations and stigma that continued to center and confine women to the domestic sphere. 

In addition, a significant portion of women was excluded from the franchise on the basis of race or national origin. A combination of voter suppression tactics and citizenship laws made it difficult for many women, especially BIPOC women, to exercise their newfound right in 1920. Native Americans and Asian Americans were ineligible for citizenship, and in turn voting, essentially ensuring their lack of political power. They did not gain legal access to the polls on paper until the 1940s and 50s, respectively. 

Black, Hispanic, and “new immigrant” women, technically enfranchised by the 19th Amendment, were severely limited by poll taxes, literacy tests, and intimidation tactics originally designed to suppress the Black male vote. Black women faced long lines trying to register, as some counties purposefully understaffed their offices to process their registrations. Some women were able to vote, but they tended to live in states with competitive races where parties were eager to mobilize this new voting bloc. 

In reality, the 19th Amendment wasn’t as revolutionary as presented in our history books. For many women, especially BIPOC women, their political power came from the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and other Civil Rights Era legislation. A hundred years later, women no longer trail behind men at the polls. In every presidential election since 1980, women have outvoted men.

Throughout my childhood, women routinely played a pivotal role in politics and government. I witnessed the first female Speaker of the House, women running for president and vice-president from both parties, as well as the nation’s first Black First Lady. When the time came for me to vote, the possibilities for women, even BIPOC women, seemed endless. In 2016, the first election I voted in, I had the opportunity to vote for women at the federal, state, and local levels. While the 2016 presidential election brought a major blow to women’s rights, the 2018 midterm election brought in a record number of women in public office across the country leading to our most diverse Congress to date. This year, we saw six women launch presidential campaigns and the nomination of the first female vice presidential candidate of Black and South Asian descent—something I did not anticipate occurring so early in my lifetime, if at all. 

With this increase in representation and power has come an increase in efforts to suppress the vote, especially for BIPOC. Stringent voter ID laws, restrictive vote by mail conditions, and closed polling places have become the new polls taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses. While these tactics don’t discriminate by race or sex outright, we know that BIPOC are disproportionately affected, effectively weakening the voices of our communities as a whole. We cannot afford for our voices to be suppressed or silenced any longer. 

The recent demonstrations for racial justice, attacks on trans women, and extra costs and labor women have had to bear due to the pandemic remind us how urgent it is that our laws and practices are truly inclusive of everyone. In order to see advancement, we cannot afford to leave any women behind. As history has shown, our causes have only come to the forefront when all women are enfranchised and are able to exercise that right. So as you prepare to vote on Election Day, remember our foremothers, both celebrated and forgotten, the women who stood and will stand in line for hours, the women whose votes were and will be dismissed, the women whose domestic duties kept and will keep them away, and the women who were ineligible or are ineligible to vote. Remember when you cast your vote, you vote for her. 

About the Author

Rachel is the Communications Associate at The Andrew Goodman Foundation. She recently graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Economy with a concentration on The American Legal System. Rachel was previously an Andrew Goodman Vote Everywhere Ambassador and helped relaunch the program on campus, as well as was the Voter Education Manager through the student government. She co-founded the Civic Engagement Committee which brought together student leaders and key administrators to centralize and institutionalize Berkeley’s official civic engagement efforts. She revamped and created digital voting resources ahead of the 2020 primary and had her work featured and promoted by the Chancellor’s Office and the University of California, Office of the President. Rachel is excited to continue working with The Andrew Goodman Foundation and to help equip students with the tools and education they need ahead of election day.