A Century after the Ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment — A Reminder that Justice for Some Is Not Justice for All
Although the amendment purported to guarantee all women the right to vote, racism has continued to limit voters’ rights.
By Eva Berlin, Digital Content Specialist, High Museum of Art
One hundred years ago today, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified. The amendment is often described as “guaranteeing women the right to vote” — but this statement is not true. Although it was a momentous step toward equal voting rights for women, and a huge achievement won through the hard work of generations of suffragettes, the victory was extremely limited.
What did the Nineteenth Amendment do? What did it not do?
Passed by Congress on June 4, 1919, and ratified on August 18, 1920, this constitutional amendment effectively granted White women the right to vote — it did not guarantee all women the right to vote. Women of color — including Black, Native American, and immigrant women — were left unprotected from restrictions imposed at the state level.
Here’s the actual text of the Amendment:
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. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Although the amendment federally acknowledged that women were allowed to vote, and although it declared that states cannot limit that right, things didn’t play out that way. Many states still found ways to limit certain voters’ rights through something called voter suppression.
Voter suppression is any effort, either legal or illegal, by way of laws, administrative rules, or tactics that prevents eligible voters from registering to vote or voting. Voter suppression disproportionately affects people of color, women, people with disabilities, older Americans, and low-income or houseless voters.
Voter suppression tactics can be overt or covert and have included gerrymandering, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, literacy tests, photo ID requirements, limiting early voting, closing polling places, and purging voter rolls. Many of these tactics are still used today.
In the 1960s, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) took on the task of getting Black voters registered in the Deep South. At first, the group was internally divided over whether this would be a worthwhile effort to truly effect change. As they dug into the work in places such as Mississippi, they saw that the issue very much needed their activism.
Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied: The Jessie Telfair Story
Jessie Telfair lived in the small community of Parrott, Georgia. In the 1960s, SNCC’s efforts to get African Americans registered to vote encouraged Telfair to register in Georgia.
After her employers learned that she had voted in the general election, she was fired from her job as a cafeteria worker at an elementary school. Telfair created Freedom Quilt in the mid-1970s in response to her experiences during the civil rights movement, affirming her personal freedom and the freedoms that should be guaranteed to all Americans.
This quilt, while in the High’s collection, is not currently on view, but you can see other quilts by Black women artists in the Folk and Self-Taught Art galleries; or check out Pioneers, Influencers, and Rising Voices: Women in the Collection to see works by women artists installed in honor of the centennial.
Know Your Rights: Links on Voter Suppression in 2020 and How to Exercise Your Right
As we mark this complicated anniversary in 2020, let’s remember the importance of critically analyzing history and resisting the whitewashing and simplification of historical narratives.
The Nineteenth Amendment did not end inequality in voting. Even the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which expanded voting protections by prohibiting racial discrimination in voting, was deeply weakened in 2013. Those who seek to benefit from disenfranchising voters continue to find ways to do so. Right now, in this new movement for equality, the fight for voters’ rights continues.
Here are some links on how to stay vigilant about voter suppression tactics, and how to exercise your hard-won constitutional right to vote.
- Register to vote: https://vote.gov/
- Know your voting rights, and report voter intimidation
- Share your story of voting difficulties in Georgia with Fair Fight Action
- Learn about voter suppression:
ACLU: Facts about Voter Suppression
Demand the Vote: What Is Voter Suppression?
Now.org: Voter Suppression Targets Women, Youth, and Communities of Color
PBS: How Restrictive Voting Requirements Target Minorities
Know Your History: Links on the History of the Women’s Suffrage Movement and the Black Women’s Suffrage Movement
Women, both Black and White, fought for the right to vote for generations leading up to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Learn about the complex history at the intersection of race and gender.
- National Parks Service: Between Two Worlds: Black Women and the Fight for Voting Rights
- National Endowment for the Humanities: How Black Suffragists Fought for the Right to Vote and a Modicum of Respect
- National Geographic: For Black Women, the 19th Amendment Didn’t End Their Fight to Vote
- AARP: Black Women Had to Fight for the Right to Vote on Two Fronts
- 2020 Centennial: Suffrage 101 Resources
- Gilder Lehrman Institute: African American Women and the Nineteenth Amendment