Welcome to The Moment. I’m Susan Smith Richardson, CEO of the Center for Public Integrity.
This week marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Some women, that is. The primary beneficiaries of the amendment were white monied women.
Today, we commemorate this milestone, while recognizing that American democracy is still a work in progress. The narrative behind the law and its legacy are interwoven with this country’s history of white supremacy. In theory, the 19th Amendment applied to all women, but not in practice, says Shoniqua Roach, an assistant professor at Brandeis University whose research and teaching focus on the intellectual history of Black women, Black feminist thought and LGBTQ activism. Indigenous, Black, Asian and other women of color, in most cases, didn’t benefit from the amendment for years because of racism and state laws that prevented them from voting. There was racism within the suffragist movement as well.
The complex narrative behind the 19th Amendment explains why women of color, though participants in the cause of suffrage, had their own unique battles within the women’s and racial justice movements to have their voices heard and centered in political life. That’s still the case today, Roach says.
And now a moment with Shoniqua Roach…
*This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Why didn’t women of color benefit from the 19th Amendment?
The legal reproduction of white supremacy has always hinged on the violence and exploitation of Black and women of color in particular. There is a legal principle that Black feminist scholars point to in order to ground this claim — it is called partus sequitur ventrem. In Latin it translates to “the condition of the child follows that of the mother.” And though it existed in the U.S. prior to the 1800s, it became especially important after 1808, when the U.S. passed an act prohibiting the importation of enslaved Africans.
Now we know that slavery continued and was not legally abolished until 1865. So, partus sequitur ventrem ensured the enslaved Black people with reproductive capacity, Black women, would continue to reproduce a slave labor force. Put another way, slavery legally required the rape and sexual exploitation of Black and women of color. When we have that as our legacy in this country, it becomes challenging to unequivocally celebrate the centennial as a gain for women. Though Black women were certainly part of the suffrage movement, we have never been fully covered by the legal protections promised and premised by U.S. citizenship.
What were the barriers to voting for women of color?
The 15th Amendment granted Black men the right to vote; the 19th Amendment granted white women the right to vote. Black women and other women of color did not acquire those legal protections until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Women of color, particularly Black and Indigenous women, were quadruply marginalized by racism, classism, misogyny and homophobia.
Chinese immigrants and their American-born families remained ineligible for citizenship until 1943 with the passage of the Magnuson Act. It wasn’t until 1924 that Native Americans were admitted to full U.S. citizenship. Even with the passing of this citizenship bill, Native Americans were still prevented from participating in elections because the Constitution left it up to the states to decide who has the right to vote.
And for the small minority of women of color who may have felt empowered by the passage of the 19th Amendment, poll taxes, literacy tests, fraud and intimidation, kept Black Americans, Indigenous and Asian citizens from exercising that right.
How did race and class among women in the suffrage movement and in society at large at the time affect the politics behind the ratification of the amendment?
If we contextualize the suffrage movement within the ongoing Black civil rights and liberation struggle, the right to vote was one among many protections and provisions Black and women of color were agitating for. Black abolitionist and suffragette Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, for example, had to consistently remind Black men and white women that Black women deserved legal rights, specifically the right to vote. Some of the most iconic and revered suffragettes, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, openly opposed Black male suffrage.
Well after the passage of the 19th Amendment, organizers such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker and Diane Nash continued organizing Black voters in the South. And these organizers, working well after the 1920s, battled legalized and [extrajudicial] white supremacist racial terror on an everyday basis. The ratification of the 19th Amendment did little to quell Jim Crow, to stop the persistence of state and local laws enforcing segregation that we are still living with today.
In the context of intersectionality, what is the significance of the centennial [of the amendment] today?
It’s been a long road and we still have a way to go. Black feminist legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in Reagan-era 1980s to conceptualize a framework through which to understand Black women’s [ineligibility] under anti-discrimination laws. [The laws] could not offer redress to Black women who sat at the intersection of racist and sexist practices and policies in the workplace and domestic sphere. …
When we celebrate the centennial, we have to be clear on how fraught and limited women’s enfranchisement was and continues to be, and we must consistently mark Black electoral politics as one among many political strategies and efforts Black women have been and continue to be engaged in.
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Shoniqua’s must reads:
“How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective” edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor – This collection of essays and interviews explores the legacy of a radical Black feminist lesbian collective formed in the 1970s that talked about intersectionality before there was the term.
“Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All” by Martha S. Jones – The book chronicles how Black women fought racism and sexism long after the passage of the 19th Amendment to gain access to the ballot.
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