Women's Right to Vote is Not 100 Years Old: The Continued Whitewashing of US History.


Try Googling the sentence “US Women’s Right to Vote.” The first entry, the featured one, states, "Passed by Congress June 4, 1919, and ratified on August 18, 1920, the 19th amendment granted women the right to vote. The 19th amendment guarantees all American women the right to vote."

This is false. 

More importantly, it is ignorant and harmful. And yet, we unthinkingly accept it as true, time and time again.
           
Over the weekend I was at an American Bar Associations Women’s Caucus meeting, and a lovely speaker stood up in front of the assembled female attorneys to tell us about the wonderful things the ABA had planned to celebrate the centenary of women’s right to vote. There was clapping and silent shoulder-patting. There were three black women in the room. They were immersed in their phones. Now, I indeed cannot read their minds and I have no idea if they were simply focusing on work (as I do during most meetings) or pointedly uninterested because they knew this conversation wasn’t about them. But I sat there and pondered. If the second option is even a possibility, are we not failing?

Outlets, organizations, and history books continuously tout 1920 as the year women were “granted” and “guaranteed” the right to vote. The accurate historical statement is that white women were given the right to vote. Hispanic women, black women, Native American women, and Asian women continued to be deprived the right to vote.

Black women, although theoretically granted the right to vote as women, remained black in a country that failed to recognize their basic human rights. Black women were forced to stand in line for hours upon hours just to register, pay disenfranchisement taxes, demonstrate they could read and write, and even provide interpretations of the US Constitution before accessing their "right." Generally speaking, black women continued to face such impediments to voting until the 1960s. Certainly, the real turning point for black women was the 1965 Voting Rights Act. So when white women proudly declare they got “the right” to vote 100 years ago, they are only talking about themselves. For black women, 2020 will mark closer to 50 years—half the time white women have had political agency. It also conveniently ignores the fact that white suffragettes consciously made the decision to leave black women behind because it was less controversial for white women to get the right to vote than for all women to get such rights.

Native Americans similarly did not have the right to vote until far later than 1920. Indeed, Native Americans were not recognized as US citizens until the Snyder Act of 1924. Even then, the fight wasn’t over. States were given the authority to decide whether Native Americans could and could not vote. It wasn’t until 1948 that the Arizona Supreme Court struck down a provision of its state constitution which kept Native Americans from voting. The last state to give Native Americans access to their right to vote was New Mexico in 1962. So Native American women have only had the right to vote, across the board, for 56 years—less than half of the time white women have been enfranchized.

American citizens of Hispanic origin were similarly discriminated against. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was supposed to enfranchize them, it was not entirely effective in doing so. In fact, their particular disenfranchisement continued until 1975 when President Gerald Ford signed into law an extension of the Voting Rights Act prohibiting discrimination of so-called “language minorities.”

Not surprisingly, Asian Americans were deprived of the very privilege of citizenship. In 1922, in Ozawa v. U.S., the Supreme Court of the United States declared that people of Japanese heritage could not become naturalized citizens. In 1923, in U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind, the Supreme Court then held that “Asian Indians” were also eligible to naturalize. In 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act granted all people of Asian ancestry the right to become citizens. In other words, the Federal Government had to step in and recognize Asian Americans as US citizens in 1952, a mere 55 years ago. Asian American women, therefore, did not get the right to vote 100 years ago.

When we make blanket statements about “women’s right to vote” we whitewash history and ignore our country’s enduring heritage of racism. We ignore that not only did white women have the right to vote for 100 years but that they, in part, obtained it at the expense of other women, who had to wait another 50 years to access the same rights. We also fail to seize an important opportunity. We fail to recognize that struggle for equality is slow but relentless. We also fail to recognize our own failures, which is the most important step to guarantee growth and change. We miss the opportunity for self-reflection. We also inflict pain and continued dismissal on people of color in this country by ignoring their pain and struggle.

We can do better.

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