Not All Women Gained the Vote in 1920
For many women, the 19th Amendment was only the beginning of a much longer fight.
This article is part of She Resisted, an interactive experience celebrating the pioneering strategies of the women’s suffrage movement.
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States on or by any state on account of sex.
When the 19th Amendment became law on August 26, 1920, 26 million adult female Americans were nominally eligible to vote. But full electoral equality was still decades away for many women of color who counted among that number. The federal suffrage amendment prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex, but it did not address other kinds of discrimination that many American women faced: women from marginalized communities were excluded on the basis of gender and race. Native American, Asian American, Latinx and African American suffragists had to fight for their own enfranchisement long after the 19th Amendment was ratified. Only over successive years did each of those groups gain access to the ballot.
In 1920, Native Americans weren’t allowed to be United States citizens, so the federal amendment did not give them the right to vote. The first generation of white suffragists had studied Native communities to learn from a model of government that included women as equal democratic actors. But the suffragists did not advocate for indigenous women. Nonetheless, Native American activists like Zitkála-Šá continued to organize and advocate with white mainstream suffragists. With the passage of the Snyder Act in 1924, American-born Native women gained citizenship. But until as late as 1962, individual states still prevented them from voting on contrived grounds, such as literacy tests, poll taxes and claims that residence on a reservation meant one wasn’t also a resident of that state.
Native-born Asian Americans already had U.S. citizenship in 1920, but first generation Asian Americans did not. Asian American immigrant women were therefore excluded from voting until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 allowed them to gain citizenship more than three decades after the 19th Amendment. Despite being barred from citizenship and from voting, Asian American suffragists such as Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee worked alongside white Native-born women in the years leading up to 1920; Ping-Hua Lee and others advocated within their communities and even marched in suffrage parades.
Latinx women contributed to the success of the suffrage movement at both the state and federal levels, particularly with their efforts to reach out to Spanish-speaking women. And in Puerto Rico, suffragists like Luisa Capetillo worked to attain women’s voting rights, which were first given to literate women in 1929 and all Puerto Rican women in 1935. Yet literacy tests remained an effective means of keeping some Hispanic and other women of color from voting long after the federal amendment was passed. It took a 1975 extension of the Voting Rights Act, prohibitingdiscrimination against language minority citizens, to expand voting access to women who rely heavily on languages other than English.
Some African American suffragists in the north were able, with the 19th Amendment, to realize the rewards of their activism, but throughout much of the country the same voter suppression tactics that kept black men from the polls kept black women from voting, too. Literacy tests, poll taxes, voter ID requirements and intimidation and threats and acts of violence were all obstacles. The struggle for suffrage, which began for black women in the early 1800s, continued until activists such as Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash won the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, 200 years later.
After the 19th Amendment, the work to secure the vote for all women has continued. Beyond 1920, diverse women expanded voting access to more Americans, and their project of creating a more equitable society through voting rights persists today.