The 19th Amendment, which was ratified 100 years ago today and provided women the right to vote, is worthy of celebration. It should, however, be viewed as an important milestone on a journey that continues today, rather than the arrival at a destination.
On Aug. 18, 1920, Tennessee became the last of the necessary 36 states to ratify the amendment, which had been passed by Congress the previous year. That event, which was greeted by celebratory marches in many parts of the country, often is portrayed as the conclusion of a century-long battle led by suffragettes Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
But many people overlooked by history books — including women of color — long had sought the rights this nation promised them. Black women such as Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells had campaigned for suffrage before the 19th Amendment. And civil rights leaders such as Fannie Lou Hamer continued the fight in the decades that followed.
That fight was necessary, because women’s suffrage was far from universal despite a constitutional amendment declaring it so. The repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, adoption of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1952 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 all played necessary roles in making the basic right of voting accessible for more Americans.
In Washington, some women had exercised that right until the Territorial Supreme Court in 1888 — one year before statehood — ruled that the legal term “citizen” really meant “male citizen.” But in 1910, Washington passed a state constitutional amendment extending women the right to vote. Prior to ratification of the 19th Amendment, 15 states had approved women’s suffrage, and another 12 allowed women to vote in presidential elections.
Yet in many locales, poll taxes, intimidation and other methods of vote suppression were common. Particularly in the Jim Crow South, people of color had their voting rights violated for a half-century after passage of the 19th Amendment.
As Olympia-based historian Shauna Stevenson told The Columbian last month: “It was a long time until all women and all people gained voting rights. We can learn from what they went through. We’re commemorating this anniversary, but it was a long way to go and in some ways we are still working toward equality for all.”
Amid the complexity of the effort to pass women’s suffrage — including marches, picketing of the White House and hunger strikes — the amendment itself is elegantly simplistic: “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.”
Those 39 words triggered a slow wave that eventually washed over American politics. Studies have estimated that 36 percent of eligible women voted in 1920; now, women typically have higher turnout rates than men.
Still, universal suffrage must not be taken for granted. In 2013, the Supreme Court removed a provision of the Voting Rights Act calling on jurisdictions with a demonstrated history of discrimination to obtain approval before changing voting laws, clearing the way for numerous suspect restrictions. Even today, the Trump administration is working to undermine the U.S. Postal Service and put up roadblocks to voting by mail.
Defending voting rights requires diligence from the public. The 19th Amendment was an important step, but it was not the end of the journey.