One Hundred Years Later
WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?
ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO, U.S. women gained a political voice—they were granted the right to vote.
The Aug. 18, 1920, ratification of the 19th Amendment was a historic achievement that followed a more-than-70- year fight by women’s suffrage activists. These women, dubbed suffragettes, went to great lengths to secure the right to vote, from picketing in front of the White House to lobbying in political settings where females were prohibted. Many of the activists were arrested.
Marian Mollin, an associate professor of history at Virginia Tech, studies U.S. women’s history and social and political movements. She offered her thoughts on the anniversary of the 19th Amendment and its significance for American society then and now.
Did the 19th Amendment guarantee that all women could vote?
Mollin: The amendment applied to all women who were American citizens. In practice, that meant that women of different races and classes had different access to the vote, access that mirrored that held by men of their same social location and status.
White middle-class women could easily access the ballot just like their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons. Women of color, however, faced numerous barriers.
Black women in northern states were generally able to put their suffrage rights into practice. But those in the south, like their Black male counterparts, found it almost impossible to enter the voting booth due to discriminatory Jim Crow laws intended to disenfranchise people of color. Some of these laws also effectively disenfranchised poor southern white women and men.
How did the ratification of the 19th Amendment change U.S. society as a whole?
Mollin: The 19th Amendment did more than just admit women into the voting booth. By the early 1900s, women had already been moving into the public sphere, into the world of business, commerce, education, and labor. Politics remained what I call a “no-women’s-land.”
Politics, because it was limited to men, was a place that men used to define their masculinity. So what did that mean when women could be political, too? It was a very clear statement that the entirety of the public sphere was now open to women; it was not just a male space anymore. And it meant that women could now be treated as full citizens, with all of the rights that citizenship entails.
What can we learn today from this historic movement?
Mollin: One of the main lessons is about making a commitment to the long haul. We live in a time where we want immediate gratification. It’s hard to think that you’re pushing for something now, and it could be 70 years before there is even a partial solution. JKB