In an effort to correct the narrative that the 19th Amendment gave all women the right to vote, here’s a glimpse into when the (written) law actually allowed other women to vote.
By Vanessa Taylor
Often hailed as giving American women the right to vote, the 19th Amendment celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. However, just as the constitution effectively placed an asterisk after the words “all men are created equal”, the 19th amendment’s promise that no United States citizen would be denied the right to vote “on account of sex” wasn’t intended for all by neither lawmakers nor the white suffragists who helped pass it.
Take this quote as an example: “[I]f you will not give the whole loaf of suffrage to the entire people, give it to the most intelligent first. If intelligence, justice, and morality are to have precedence in the government, let the question of the woman be brought up first and that of the negro last.”
These words were not written by unknown women nor the result of a fringe organization intent on sowing discord within the growing suffrage movement. Rather, these words appeared in Revolution, a paper launched by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who together formed the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869, the same year this quote was published.
The above quote is just one example of the anti-Black and otherwise racist framework utilized by white suffragists. Although Black women were involved in the Suffrage Movement, the names and organizations often remembered today leveraged a whites-only framework, appealing to the logics of anti-Blackness in order to secure voting rights for white women alone. It is why the lie that the 19th Amendment granted every woman the right to vote has been permitted to spread for so long. In an effort to correct that narrative, here’s a glimpse into when the (written) law actually allowed other women to vote.
The Indian Citizenship Act (1924)
The notion of who is a citizen has not remained static throughout U.S. history. This can be seen in both the practices of the U.S. — such as enslavement and genocide, all permitted because the category of the “human” and thus “citizenship” only applied to white people — along with both its written laws and interpretations of them.
Although the 14th Amendment states that those born in the U.S. are citizens and entitled to all the rights of one, that wasn’t true for everybody. In 1876, a federal court decided that Indigenous people couldn’t vote because they weren’t properly citizens under the 14th Amendment.
This would not change until Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. Theoretically, this act — stating that Indigenous people born in the U.S. were indeed citizens — should’ve given them voting rights, period, but it was left up to each state to govern. This leniency resulted in Utah becoming the last state to grant Indigenous people full voting rights in 1962 and voter suppression aimed at Indigenous people still runs rampant nationally.
McCarran-Walter Act (1952)
Surprise: the U.S.’ systematic targeting of immigrants didn’t begin under the Trump administration. In fact, the first major immigration law to target a specific ethnic group took place decades before Trump came into office with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
Not only did the Chinese Exclusion Act place severe restrictions on immigration but it prevented Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens and thus voting. It helped allow for the passing of additional laws that targeted immigrants from other Asian countries. All of these laws existed alongside the Naturalization Act of 1790 which only allowed immigrants who were “free white persons” to become naturalized.
It was not until 1952 that the McCarran-Walter Act lifted some of these restrictions so Asian immigrants could become citizens. Even though this act allowed some people to vote by doing so, it didn’t do away with every discriminatory immigration practice and allowed national origin quotas to remain in place.
Voting Rights Act (1965)
You’ll notice that there was no law mentioning Black people’s right to vote. That’s because Black men were given the right to vote in 1870 with the 15th Amendment which barred denying people the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” That, in combination with the 19th Amendment, would together grant Black women the legal right to vote — or at least the basis to make an argument for it.
But again, a law being written doesn’t mean it will be applied. States implemented their own methods to disenfranchise Black voters. These included literacy tests, flat out lying about the time or polling place and utilizing more obvious forms of violence like calling upon the police.
Sometimes framed as the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 aimed to address those legal barriers preventing Black people from voting. Some of the changes included banning literacy tests and making it more difficult for jurisdictions to switch up voting procedures by requiring they receive permission from the US Department of Justice or the US District Court. The Voting Rights Act also saw an extension in 1975, including language accommodations for those who didn’t speak English like providing translation materials, which was huge for Latinx communities.
Barriers To Voting Today
Even if women of color have a legal right to vote, that doesn’t mean voter suppression has disappeared. From defacto disenfranchisement of people within the jail system to identification barriers — such as voter ID laws harming homeless and LGBTQ+ people— to a federal judge ruling citizens of U.S. territories like Puerto Rico cannot vote in federal elections, it operates everywhere.
Perhaps one of the most consistent themes throughout U.S. history is that a written law can mean little to nothing. Laws are open to interpretation in ways that allow for the continued exclusion or targetting of already marginalized groups. A written law can be put on the books — or amended to the constitution — but if the same systems of power that oppressed people previously continue to function then they can choose to ignore the law as they wish.
Vanessa Taylor is a writer based out of Philadelphia, although the Midwest will always be home. She has work in outlets such as Teen Vogue, Racked, and Catapult. Her work focuses on Black Muslim womanhood and the taboo. You can follow her across social media at @bacontribe.