Emory scholars reflect on the legacy of the 19th Amendment

By Susan Carini | Emory Report | Nov. 10, 2020

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Three Emory events this fall examined the 19th Amendment, celebrating its success in extending women the right to vote but simultaneously acknowledging that the fight for women’s suffrage was divided along racial lines.

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“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

— 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified Aug. 18, 1920


That the centennial of the 19th Amendment occurred in 2020 makes every bit of sense. With political debates in overdrive and a presidential election on the ballot, voting rights have been on the minds of many Americans. What, then, was learned from the battle women waged for the vote?

Three recent Emory events reveal aspects of the suffrage movement sometimes glossed over. Voting rights for women — an idea voiced before the nation’s founding — took until after the civil rights movement to be a reality for Black women, who largely were excluded from gains realized by the 19th Amendment. And what is often regarded as a movement was instead a patchwork of actions, often differing by state and region, and divided along racial lines. 

For those who like their history with music

On Sept. 29, playwright Lauren Gunderson 03C and Broadway star Ari Afsar discussed their musical “Jeannette,” which takes its name from America’s first congresswoman, Jeannette Rankin, elected three years before the passage of the 19th Amendment.

At the time Rankin was sworn in, President Woodrow Wilson was asking legislators to “make the world safe for democracy” by declaring war on Germany. Rankin, a lifelong pacifist, turned that idea around, asking, “How shall we explain the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted for war to the make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?” 

After learning about Rankin’s career, Afsar wrote a concept album about her and performed the songs at women’s marches and events. Afsar and Gunderson met through a mutual friend and settled on the notion of a musical that moves back and forth between 2019 and 1916, when Rankin was elected. Says Afsar, “We shift time, and that’s the point, so that it’s clear how relevant the fight for equal rights still is now.”

On voting rights, the founders were silent

On Oct. 22, as part of Emory’s Homecoming, Center for Women director Chanel Craft Tanner moderated “Untold Stories: Race, Place and Vulnerability in the Women’s Suffrage Movement.” Panelists included Pearl Dowe, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Political Science and African American Studies; Martha Albertson Fineman, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law; and Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science, graduate faculty in sociology and director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute.

Fineman reminded the audience of why the 19th Amendment was even necessary, saying, “Most people think that because of the role voting serves in a democracy that our constitution would guarantee the right to vote, but that is not true. The right to vote is not in the Constitution.” The 19th Amendment — with its guarantee that votes cannot be denied or abridged “on account of sex” — is one of four constitutional amendments establishing voting rights.

“A constitutional right doesn’t mean very much if you can’t implement it,” Fineman continued. In this regard, states have all the power, and Georgia lost no time in registering its view on July 24, 1919: It was the first to reject the 19th Amendment, and it was not until Feb. 20, 1970 — on the heels of the civil rights movement — that Georgia finally ratified the 19th Amendment. 

The racial divide

Dowe explained the resistance in Georgia, and more generally in the South: Because the roots of suffrage were in abolitionism, Southerners tended to see the movement as another way in which the North was trying to impose its will on the South and take away “the Southern way of life.”

Partly, that Southern mystique was based in a belief that women needed protection. Politics could be coarse and violent. “For that reason,” said Dowe, “in the minds of some women, it was what men did.”

Despite this regional resistance, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1895 chose Atlanta for its first annual meeting held outside Washington, D.C. Susan B. Anthony and 93 delegates from 28 states attended. 

Also during 1895, the movement fractured along racial lines, with white suffragists excluding Black women. During the NAWSA meeting, Anthony had to make the trek to Atlanta University to reach those interested in Black women’s suffrage. Almost 20 years later, at the famous March of 1913 for suffrage in Washington, D.C., Black women — including journalist Ida B. Wells — were asked to march at the back of the parade. Wells refused and outmaneuvered white organizers, emerging from the crowd during the parade to take her place at the front with the Illinois delegation. 

Craft Tanner asked the panelists, “How do we grapple with the complicated racist history of the suffrage movement and yet mark it as a momentous achievement?” 

Gillespie responded, “We don’t like dealing with this because it implicates us, but racism is a subtext in all of American history. For some white women, it was important to be ahead of all blacks, men and women.” 

For white women, it was about the right to vote. But for Black women, added Dowe, it was also about employment — at the time they were limited to domestic work — “and the material gains that they felt they needed to be safe.” However, the movement, led as it was by middle-class white women, disregarded the complexities of Black women’s situations as it did the needs of working-class white women.

The timeline for movements is long for a reason, according to Gillespie. “In the U.S., by institutional design, things are not supposed to happen fast. Change happens incrementally,” she noted. 

Is the suffrage movement a model for today?

Dowe acknowledged that women’s suffrage was a “messy model” but useful nonetheless. Gillespie added, “Suffrage was as much an example of incrementalism as anything in our history. Don’t use small steps as a reason not to push for change. Aim for the moon. If you land on a star, keep aiming for the moon.”

Another viewpoint about the movement’s relevance came from “Emory Election with Carol Anderson,” which featured the Charles Howard Candler Professor and chair of African American studies.

For Anderson, the fact that the suffragettes waged their fight on a racialized basis is “part of the problem we are dealing with today: the inability to conceive of this key citizenship right, voting, as available to all American citizens.”

Following the 1867 Reconstruction Act, when Black men got the right to vote, some white women were driven to erect a barrier to their fellow women. Says Anderson, “the ‘blackness’ of Black women is what precluded so many of them from having the right to vote.”

“This is why,” she adds, “we had to have a civil rights movement; this is why Amelia Boynton Robinson was brutally beaten during Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama; this is why Fannie Lou Hamer was given a ‘Mississippi appendectomy’ (a sterilization without her consent) for having the audacity to try to register to vote. Any history of the 19th Amendment must acknowledge it was refracted and inflected through the lens of white supremacy.”

Concerns about equitable access to voting remain real today for a variety of reasons, including voter ID laws and closing polling places, often in poor communities, Anderson argues in her book “One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy." 

“Citizenship remains bent, gnarled, by white supremacy,”  Anderson says. “It is a battle we still are fighting.”