By Rachael Warecki ’08
The 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, was ratified 100 years ago. How did this amplify American women’s voices, and what limitations still exist for voter enfranchisement?
On August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified, declaring 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” and guaranteeing American women the right to vote. The ratification was celebrated by suffragettes such as Ellen Browning Scripps—the amendment had been adopted just in time for women to vote in the 1920 presidential election. And in the century since its passage, women have shown up at the ballot box in increasingly greater numbers: in 2019, the Center for American Women and Politics reported that the proportion of eligible female adults who voted has exceeded the proportion of eligible male adults who voted in every presidential election since 1980, with women outvoting men by 10 million ballots in each of the last two presidential elections.
However, the amendment’s guarantee has not fully lived up to its promise. After its ratification, state violence and legal loopholes still prevented African American women from exercising their right to vote, and Native American, Latinx, and Asian American women faced state citizenship policies, literacy tests, and national immigration laws that kept them from voting for decades. As the 2020 presidential election approaches, race-based gerrymandering, poll taxes, and other voting restrictions have continued to create barriers at the polls for women of color and other historically underrepresented groups.
“Especially in light of what we’re seeing right now, it’s important to acknowledge the role that white supremacy has played and continues to play in voting behavior,” says Associate Professor of Politics Vanessa Tyson, who ran for a California State Assembly seat in the 57th District earlier this year. “The 19th Amendment was disproportionately a White women–only approach toward suffrage and extending the franchise of voting. So, it allowed for states, which control election laws to this day—including how long the polls are open and whether voting by mail is possible—to create additional barriers to participation. And most of them did.”
State-level disparities in voting access have become even starker during the COVID-19 pandemic. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has challenged several states whose requirements make it difficult to vote via mail-in and absentee ballots, which puts their residents’ health at risk by requiring citizens to break social-distancing guidelines and brave in-person voting. South Carolina, for example, requires an “eligible excuse” to vote by mail and a third-party witness signature on mail-in ballot envelopes. Georgia requires voters to provide their own postage, a poll tax the ACLU says is unconstitutional. New York cancelled its primary election altogether. Meanwhile, states that switched to all-mail primaries after the coronavirus outbreak, such as Kansas and New Mexico, experienced an increase in the number of ballots requested compared to 2016. But as more states, such as Michigan and Nevada, have attempted a pivot to exclusively mail-in and absentee ballots, President Trump has responded by threatening to withhold federal funding meant to help those states’ efforts to combat the coronavirus. The Washington Post reported that the Republican National Committee is attempting to limit the expansion of mail-in voting before the November election, an effort that could further disenfranchise already marginalized voters who have historically voted by mail in fewer numbers.
Barbara Arnwine ’73, president and founder of the Transformative Justice Coalition, warns that voters should be especially vigilant of the ways in which election officials could use the pandemic to exacerbate voter suppression. In a conversation for WhoWhatWhy’s Scrutineers Series podcast, Arnwine noted that ballot spoilage—where election officials determine that a ballot has not been cast correctly and therefore should not be counted—was especially high among African American voters in the 2016 election, with an estimated one to two million fewer ballots counted than in previous elections. The reasons given, Arnwine said, ranged from incorrect postmarks to unsigned ballots to absentee ballots that were received too late. Now, with states moving toward online registration and mail-in ballots during the pandemic, there are more opportunities for officials to declare ballots as miscast or raise concerns about election security. And with 13 states disallowing online voter registration entirely—not to mention the 14.5 million American households without internet access, according to the U.S. Census Bureau—it’s clear that registering and voting remotely is not an accessible option for everyone.
The voting accessibility issues highlighted by COVID-19 are also intertwined with feminist issues. Writers and economists have noted that the pandemic has had a disproportionately negative effect on women and, more broadly, that it could create setbacks for women’s equity movements—what Helen Lewis, writing for the Atlantic, called “a disaster for feminism.” In heterosexual households, she writes, chores and caregiving roles primarily fall to women. Because one in three jobs held by women has been deemed essential, according to the New York Times, the burden of household tasks is now accompanied by severe health and economic stressors. Even before the pandemic, women were more likely to live below the poverty threshold and rely on social services. These additional economic hurdles reinforce existing social and cultural barriers to participation in the political process. For example, women who now represent their family’s sole source of income, look after immunocompromised loved ones, and live in states without mail-in voting are even less able to take time off from work and risk their health to stand in long lines at the polls.
Suffragettes likewise faced social and economic challenges in 1918 and 1919, when the Spanish flu killed 50 million people worldwide and more than 670,000 people in the United States: in addition to shouldering their domestic duties, women joined the workforce to replace men who had been felled by the flu or World War I. Yet the resulting increase in women’s financial independence, as well as their contributions to the economy, forced President Woodrow Wilson and other politicians to acknowledge that women deserved the right to vote. Similarly, recognizing the structural inequities that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated, members of the Hawaiian state government have proposed a feminist economic recovery plan, with a focus on women of color and Indigenous women who are essential workers as well as household caretakers. Rather than the “disaster for feminism” that some envision, recovery plans like Hawaii’s could make way for a new, more inclusive feminist movement.
“There’s always talk about breaking the glass ceiling, but there’s not a lot of talk about lifting the floor,” Tyson says. “What we’re seeing during this pandemic is a greater loss of women’s jobs. If you’re lifting the floor, you’re trying to help women who are barely surviving in modern-day society by providing structural resources, a stronger, more robust safety net, and the ability to truly thrive.” Tyson sees efforts like Hawaii’s recovery plan as an example of how, by centering groups that have historically been marginalized and carefully assessing the obstacles they’ve experienced, government policies can help create a more equitable society.
Support for these structural changes is often demonstrated at the ballot box, with women of color, who typically vote for more liberal policies, representing the fastest-growing segment of the country’s largest voting bloc. Black women, in particular, tend to vote at a higher rate than any other demographic group, according to a 2014 Center for American Progress report. But archival records show scarce evidence of support for the voting rights of women of color until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, even though women of color were active in early suffragette movements. For example, Black suffragette Hettie B. Tilghman and Latina organizer Maria de Lopez both played vital roles in advocating for Proposition 4 in 1911, which gave women the right to vote in California. Broad disenfranchisement and a whitewashed history are part of the voting rights conversation we have today, according to Jennifer Martinez Wormser ’95, Director and Sally Preston Swan Librarian for the Ella Strong Denison Library, which houses an extensive collection of materials from the suffrage movement from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Martinez Wormser’s favorite artifact from that period is a flyer titled “¡Dad a la Mujer de California el Derecho de Votar!,” published by the Political Equity League in Los Angeles. “What I love about this ephemera leaflet is the fact that it shows the importance of calling on all the people of California—including those who read and write in Spanish—to vote in favor of women’s suffrage,” Martinez Wormser says. “Regardless of the languages one may speak, voting is a way to make your voice heard.”
After women in California gained the right to vote, Ellen Browning Scripps encouraged them to support their principles through the electoral process. It’s an idea that continues to resonate with today’s Scripps students, who are facing the 19th Amendment’s limitations head-on by advocating for more equitable voting access. Last year, as part of the Civic Engagement Initiative, student workers at the Laspa Center for Leadership held voter registration drives and participated in workshops that addressed voter rights and disenfranchisement. The Laspa Center has also launched Scripps Votes, a campus-wide nonpartisan movement designed to prepare and empower the Scripps community for participation in the election; partnered with TurboVote to facilitate registration and the request of absentee ballots for residents of all 50 states; and created a webpage devoted specifically to resources and information about voter registration, becoming an informed voter, and getting involved.
Vicki Klopsch, executive director of the Laspa Center, notes that the process for first-time voters can be burdensome, especially for students attending colleges outside of their home states. There’s also an intangible barrier: many young people feel that the candidates on the ballot don’t represent them or offer adequate solutions to the issues they care most deeply about, such as the climate crisis, equitable access to education, and antiracist policies. This perceived lack of good political options disincentivizes them from voting. “The students in our center feel very strongly that the whole political system is corrupt but also understand that they have to get involved in order to see that change,” says Klopsch.
“That’s why becoming educated about candidates and ballot initiatives is so important,” adds Julia Brock ’22, who was involved in the voter registration drive. “Once students are more informed voters, they become more engaged in the voting process and elections, ranging from the local to the federal level.”
Barbara Arnwine agrees that involvement in the election process is critical to change. “Never think that you are disempowered,” she told WhoWhatWhy. “You have power in this moment to help people become registered voters. You have power in this moment to talk to people about the importance of voting. You have power in this moment to call your county election official and talk about the need for them to remove some of [these] barriers.”
Vanessa Tyson is heartened by the conversations she’s witnessed in her classroom, and, like Arnwine, she encourages advocates for voting accessibility to get involved at the county level, where voting procedures are determined. “One of the best things about teaching at Scripps is that the students are willing to think outside the box,” she says. “They’re innovative, they open their minds to various possibilities, and they acknowledge the obstacles, but they’re not willing to believe that those obstacles can’t be overcome. They understand equity as a necessary component of equality—they give the feminist in me hope, they give the Black feminist in me hope, and it’s amazing to watch them as they find their voices. There’s no apathy here. It’s all inspiration.”