The 19th Amendment: 100 Years Later

On August 18, RPJ, along with the rest of the country, celebrated the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guaranteed women’s right to vote. In this post, our intern, Oluwabukola Sarah Lawal, a student at Ithaca College, discusses the historical backdrop and continuing significance of this milestone.

The 19th Amendment: 100 Years LaterThe ratification of the 19th Amendment still stands as one of the most significant and wide-ranging moments of political mobilization in all of American history. Among other outcomes, it produced a substantial one-time increase in voters in America. It had taken women over a century to gain the right to vote in 1920; now, a hundred years later, women in America are an integral part of the political realm.

The movement to give women the vote started long before the efforts to ratify the 19th Amendment, however. Women demanded the right to vote as far back as the 1840s, but did not call for a federal amendment until after the Civil War, when a new battle over the status of recently emancipated freed people divided the country. The histories of the women’s suffrage movement and abolitionism are closely intertwined, as many early suffragists were active in the abolitionist movement. It was through their opposition to slavery that middle-class American women became increasingly politically active and vocal about their beliefs. Advocating for the rights of enslaved people inspired them to examine their own role in American political society and demand the right to participate fully in the democratic process.

As we celebrate this historic accomplishment, it’s also important to highlight some of the harsh realities and challenges that many women of color faced as they also fought for their rights. After the passage of the 19th Amendment, women of color were often kept from the polls. Black women faced extensive racial discrimination and were routinely discouraged from voting through intimidation and fear tactics. But despite these obstacles, their political activism continued.

Other groups were also excluded from the process: Native American women were not considered U.S. citizens and given the right to vote until 1924—four years  after ratification. Even today some U.S. nationals are disenfranchised. The people of American Samoa, for example, are not permitted to vote in federal elections. And women who live in Washington, D.C. do not have the right to elect a member of the House of Representatives or the United States Senate.

The reality is that many of the themes that were central to the ratification debate are still with us. Americans are still fighting over voting rights, citizenship rights and, even more fundamentally, women’s rights. We are still figuring out how to address inequality and racism. We are still in the streets, protesting and marching for justice and peace, and sometimes being arrested for amplifying our voices and exercising our 1st Amendment right to protest.

Even 100 years later, the legacy of the 19th Amendment is still being written. It is up to us as individuals to continue the struggle.