Some historians consider the 19th Amendment as a decisive victory for voting rights and progress.
But upon closer examination, the women’s suffrage movement also bears responsibility for advancing a moment that harbored divisions with the suffrage platform for Blacks.
Commitment to the above-cited platform undermined both the impact of the landmark legislation and its legacy, according to Robin Bleiweis, a research associate with the Women’s Initiative at the Center for American Progress, and her colleagues, Shilpa Phadke, vice-president of the Women’s Initiative at the Center, and Jocelyn Frye, a senior fellow who works with Phadke.
The trio joined to author a white-paper on the subject which noted that “persistent and prevalent racism throughout the era when the amendment was being debated infected the suffrage movement, resulting in [one] that largely secured the vote for middle-class white women but offered women of color, especially Black women, little more than an empty promise.”
Despite the passage of the amendment, many women of color remained barred from the polls through rampant intimidation and voter suppression tactics, denial of citizenship based on ancestry or immigrant status and blatant racial discrimination, the colleagues wrote.
“Many of the white suffragists fighting for the 19th Amendment gave scant attention to the lived reality of Black women at the intersection of gender and race, often insisting that the fight for racial justice was unrelated to the fight for gender equality,” penned the researchers. “This indifference served as the ultimate betrayal of Black women suffragists and other women of color fighting to participate fully in our democracy in exchange for political expediency.”
It wasn’t until 45 years later that the 1965 Voting Rights Act brought voting rights closer to reality for African Americans who continue to disproportionately face voter suppression and denial efforts.
“For Black women outside of the South, the 19th Amendment’s effects were real and immediate. In cities like Chicago and New York, Blacks developed a strong political power base and used it to influence the Democratic party’s policies,” said David Greenberg, a professor of Journalism and Media Studies and History at the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
“For Black women – and men – in the Jim Crow South, however, such power would have to wait until the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the fall of segregation,” Greenberg said.
Voter suppression has been consistent throughout the U.S. since the Compromise of 1877, said Dr. Eric Smaw, an associate professor of Philosophy at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.
Before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, European-Americans prevented [Blacks] from voting using racial intimidation, verbal threats, poll taxes, “voter literacy tests” and physical violence from domestic terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, Smaw said.
“Since 1965, conservative groups have used the criminal justice system to suppress the vote by engaging in false arrests, wrongful conviction, and felon disenfranchisement,” he said.
David Canton, a Connecticut College associate professor of History and Director of the Africana Studies program, noted that Rosa Parks served as a suffragist and activist long before becoming the “mother of the Civil Rights Movement.”
After the 19th Amendment’s passage, the South only allowed votes from Black, middle-class women who could afford to pay the illegal poll tax, Canton said.
“Parks fought to get all Black southern women to vote. After the bus boycott, white racist backlash ensued and Parks could not get any employment and was forced to leave Alabama,” Canton said.
“In Michigan, all Black women had the right to vote but Parks supported gender equity and participated in women’s and Black women’s movements. In 2013, eight years after Parks’ death, the United States Supreme Court passed the Shelby v. Holder case that allowed states to change voting rules without any clearance from the federal government.”
“Since 2013, over 1,000 polling places have closed in many southern states which has had a disproportionate impact on Black voters. Any Republican politician who visited Parks’ body in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda and who have not fought to end voter suppression, but said they support Rosa Parks’ life and work, have disrespected her legacy and are bold face liars,” he said.
This feature is part of an ongoing Washington Informer series about the Women’s Suffrage Movement initiated by Washington Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes. It lives in the institutional home of The Washington Informer Charities.