2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the constitution giving women the right to vote. The amendment was an important milestone in the long, complex struggle towards gender equality—a struggle still not completely resolved today.
Many women voted before the 19th amendment, as several western states had already granted them voting rights; the earliest was Wyoming in 1890. However, many women were denied the vote for decades after the amendment passed—especially Black, indigenous, and women of color. Controversial issues related to gender, race, and the struggle over state’s rights and political power all influenced the story, much of which is not well known.
The fight for women’s voting rights was over seven decades long, carried out by three generations of women. While these women represented different socio-economic levels, educational backgrounds, and races, they came together to organize and mobilize their efforts to gain a powerful political voice. They employed a wide range of strategies—including some of the first nonviolent civil protests, educational street speeches, and, in the 1910s, a more militant approach. The story is skillfully told by The Vote, a recent two-part documentary on PBS’s American Experience.
While they didn’t always agree on strategy, the combined passion and will of thousands of suffragettes fueled a sustained political movement that eventually resulted in ratification of the 19th Amendment. These strategies can be explored further at She Resisted, an interactive website.
The struggle for Black women’s voting rights continued long after 1920. Many discriminatory practices precluded their full participation until passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The suffrage story touched me as relevant today, as we face similarly complex social challenges—many of which are also related to gender, race, and power. The suffrage movement was more than just a fight to gain women’s votes; it was part of a larger struggle against discrimination of any kind: be it due to race, religion, orientation, gender, or anything else. The strength, resilience, and determination of the women involved is humbling and inspiring, as we seek solutions to our own ongoing challenges and injustices. Learning about this moment in history gives me hope that when we come together to face issues openly, inclusively, and with determination and vision, great strides can be made towards real solutions.