The fact that voting rights are still so contested today — from Georgia’s purge of its voter rolls in 2018 to the debate over mail-in ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic — speaks to just how powerful the vote remains in U.S. politics.

These contemporary conflicts make reflection on the struggle for the 19th Amendment, ratified 100 years ago this month, particularly salient. And as this anniversary comes in the midst of a national movement for Black lives and racial justice, we must remember that women’s suffrage was the product of a long, radical struggle, one that continued well after white women gained the right to vote in 1920.

Voting rights offer an antidote to economic and other forms of domination. This was as true for early women’s suffrage leaders as it is today. Until the early 19th century, women lost their legal personhood to their husbands upon marriage. It was not until nearly the turn of the 20th century that they would control their own earnings.

To gain political power, U.S. women needed to organize for the long haul. The fight for the 19th Amendment lasted more than 70 years, from the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 to ratification in 1920. But it took over a century and many more generations of activists to make suffrage a reality for all women. Black, Indigenous, Asian American and Latina women continued to mobilize for decades to claim the right to vote alongside white women — a right not fully realized until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Change comes, but only through persistence.

Change also comes from radical action. Suffrage activists invented many of the tactics still used by U.S. social movements, including marching on Washington. At the Woman Suffrage Procession of 1913, women activists were beaten by male onlookers. In a scene parallel to that of the tear gas and rubber bullets experienced by Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020, police in 1917 arrested and jailed 33 suffrage activists for picketing outside the White House. Borrowing tactics from her radical British peers, suffrage leader Alice Paul staged a hunger strike in protest of their mistreatment.

To be sure, the 19th Amendment provided opportunity — but that opportunity was highly circumscribed and marred by racism. Despite their roots in abolitionist movements, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony refused to support the 15th Amendment, which gave Black men the right to vote. Black women were asked to march at the back for fear that the movement might lose the support of Southern legislators. Native Americans were considered “wards” of the state and denied the right to vote until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. First-generation Chinese residents would be restricted from the ability to claim citizenship until 1952. And for decades, African Americans in the South faced violence when they attempted to vote.

Our historical understanding is incomplete if we forget the leadership of women of color and Indigenous women in advancing voting rights both before and after the 19th Amendment was ratified. As historian Cathleen Cahill writes, women of all backgrounds were central to the movement.

African American activist Ida B. Wells refused to stay at the back of the Woman Suffrage Procession, joining her Illinois delegation at the front; former Minneapolis resident and Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa member Mary Louise Bottineau Baldwin also marched. Historian Annelise Orleck argues that working class immigrants gave this originally middle-class movement a much needed surge in the 1910s, while contributing to its radical tactics. And as Historian Martha Jones documents, it would take continued, steady work by activists like Hallie Quinn Brown, who organized in churches and Black women’s clubs, for the circle of suffrage to expand.

A century later, ongoing debates over mail-in ballots, redistricting and felons’ voting rights show that the promise of universal suffrage remains out of reach for many. Maybe the biggest lesson we can take from the women’s suffrage movement is that democracy is a work in progress. Defense of hard-won political rights, and their expansion, requires dogged persistence, inclusion and more than a little radicalism.

 

Christina Ewig is professor of public affairs and faculty director of the Center on Women, Gender and Public Policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.