How racism almost killed women’s right to voteRoundup
tags: racism, voting rights, womens history, womens rights, Womens Suffrage
Kimberly A. Hamlin is an NEH Public Scholar and an associate professor of history at Miami University in Ohio. Her biography of suffragist Helen Hamilton Gardener will be published in March 2020.
Today, senators will assemble in the Capitol to mark the 100th anniversary of congressional passage of the 19th Amendment, which made it illegal to bar citizens from voting on the basis of sex. They will offer moving tributes to pioneering suffragists, speeches that will no doubt be markedly different in tone and content from those that senators delivered on June 3 and 4, 1919, as they were preparing to vote on the Susan B. Anthony Amendment for the third time in nine months. On those days the debate was not about gender. It was about race.
Why? Because, in many ways, the 19th Amendment was a debate about the 15th Amendment, which decreed that a citizen’s right to vote could not be “denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” On a swelteringly hot June day 100 years ago, senators invoked states’ rights, their hatred of the 15th Amendment and their desire to keep African Americans from the polls as reasons to oppose the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.
As we approach the second presidential election after the Shelby Co. v. Holder decision that dismantled a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act — the law that truly made the 15th and 19th Amendments reality across America — we should reflect on the intertwined histories of these two amendments. Their histories highlight the intersections between race and sex, as well as the promise and failures of our democracy.
By the time Congress voted on the Susan B. Anthony Amendment in 1919, women’s rights activists had weathered three generations’ of objections to the idea of women casting their ballots. Women voting will destroy the family, opponents cried. Women lack the intellectual and rational capacity to vote, critics claimed. Only “bad” women would vote, while “good” women who understood their proper place would stay home.
By 1915, though, hundreds of thousands of women voted in 11 states, and thousands had graduated from college, entered the professions and joined public life. Though birth rates dropped and divorce rates increased, the family had not been destroyed. And the nation had withstood, perhaps even prospered from, these challenges to traditional gender norms. In the final years of suffrage activism, then, the primary barrier to a national amendment ensuring the vote for women remained objections to black women and men voting in the South.