On this day in 1920, the 19th amendment was certified and prohibited denying citizens the right to vote based on gender. This was a huge victory for women all over the nation. Though, Black women’s activism helped gain these rights, Black women did not gain full access to vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Additionally, the voting rights of Native American women were not recognized until 1924. For Chinese American women, it was 1943, and for Japanese and other Asian American women it was 1952. Women’s Equality Day is a reminder that even through progression, there continues to be barriers for women of color to exercise their rights and this, in part, is why the fight for voting rights is an ongoing battle.
The 19th amendment emphasized that citizens’ rights to vote could not be denied based on their gender but this did not mean that women from all backgrounds could exercise their right to vote. For example, unnecessary state laws often added additional barriers to limit women exercising their right to vote. Some unique challenges Black women faced at the polls were grandfather clauses and literacy tests to deny suffrage to Black Americans. These limitations of state laws also expanded in other communities. Many Native Americans waited decades after 1920 to even be considered voting citizens. Despite the intimidation, mob violence, and threats of lynching, Black women still showed up to the polls. Today, Black women continue to have some of the highest turnout rates in the country. Roughly 68% of Black women voted in the 2020 elections — more than 2 percent higher than the national turnout rate.
With the passage of The Voting Rights Act of 1965 Black women and men finally had protections for their right to vote — this was after decades of protest, organizing, and advocacy. Many sacrificed their lives in the fight for voting and civil rights. The VRA of 1965 outlawed racial discriminatory practices at the voting polls so Black women, men, and every person of color could partake in the democratic process. Section 7 of the VRA of 1965 provided a federal check on state and local discriminatory practices that helped further secure voting rights. This law provided a necessary foundation for building a more equitable democratic system but this did not mean intimidation nor inventive discriminatory practices ceased to exist. In 2013, section 7 was gutted thus leading to the increase in anti-voter policies we see today. Now, Black women are fighting even harder to secure elections for communities that are under attack.
The 2020 elections showed the incredible political power Black people had. In Georgia, Black people all over the state took action. 64% of Black people in Georgia voted an increase of 4.4 points compared to Black turnout in Georgia in 2016. This helped achieve, what just ten years ago seemed unthinkable, turning Georgia blue. Not only that, electing this achievement was due to the incredibly hard work from Black women such as Stacy Abrams, Nsé Ufot, and so many others that believed in the power of Black Georgians and made sure Black voters also understood the collective power of the Black vote. Unfortunately, we know history repeats itself. There continue to be efforts to pass anti-voter policies in Georgia, Texas, and many other states across the country. These restrictions target policies such as vote by mail and early vote, the same policies we know many Black people and other people of color use to cast their ballot. After Georgia made history, the Republican controlled legislature took no time to implement new restrictions that would heavily impact Black voters. For example, the GOP criminalized giving out food and water to voters in line as well as outlawed mobile voting buses which helped voters with disabilities cast their ballots.
We’ve seen this before, when there are gains that expand the political power of the marginalized, those protecting the status quo often respond by pushing policies to try and tamp down that growing power. Despite these challenges, we see progressive leaders across the country using innovative and thoughtful organizing strategies to not only protect voting rights but to pass proactive policies that strengthen our democracy.
On this day, it is important to remember that the fight for voting rights is not over until everyone has equitable access to the ballot. On this day we also take time to recognize, celebrate and thank the countless women leaders that have and continue to fight for our voting rights. Civil and voting rights leaders such as Sojourner Truth, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells, Vilma Martínez, Dolores Huerta and countless others have worked relentlessly to strengthen our democracy and move us closer towards equity and justice.