By Jenn Stowe, Commissioner, Alexandria Commission for Women
Alexandria, VA – “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. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
-The 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution
Each year on August 26, the United States observes Women’s Equality Day, celebrating adoption of the 19th Amendment as part of the United States Constitution. With the adoption of the 19th Amendment, states and the federal government were prohibited from denying U.S. citizens the right to vote based on their sex. As a result, one of the areas where women achieved equal rights is the right to vote, and it was not that long ago that women were granted that right.
Last year the United States celebrated the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage and passage of the 19th Amendment. Women from all racial and ethnic backgrounds fought and suffered for the right to vote. To gain what White men had enjoyed since the beginning of the Republic and Black men “had enjoyed” since passage of the 15th Amendment, women picketed the White House, were arrested, jailed, and while incarcerated, they were abused and terrorized.
Susan B. Anthony is credited with originating the suffrage movement. She had been aligned with the anti-slavery movement, but when the 15th Amendment granted Black men the right to vote while women (of any color) were denied that right, Susan B. Anthony and her cohorts disassociated from the abolitionists and worked to secure the right to vote for White women.
Suffragists wore sashes of purple, white and green while marching and protesting. The purple represented loyalty and dignity, the white signified purity, and the green symbolized hope. These tactics worked, but not for all women. Perhaps it should be called White women’s suffrage.
Even after the 19th Amendment was signed into law, barriers still existed, based not only on sex, but also on race. It was not until 1965, with passage of the Voting Rights Act, that women of color were truly granted the right to vote. In many parts of the country, poll taxes and literacy tests discouraged Black voters and kept them from voting. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed such discriminatory voting practices.
African Americans were not the only group excluded from the right to vote. Asian Americans and Native Americans were excluded as well. Not until 1924, with passage of the Indian Citizen Act, were Native Americans granted voting rights as citizens. It was 1943 before members of the Chinese diaspora community could become citizens, and in 1952 that other Asian American populations were enfranchised.
Chinese Americans were not just denied the right to vote. They weren’t even eligible to become naturalized citizens because of their race. Federal policy barred immigrants of Chinese descent from becoming U.S. citizens until 1952.
As we celebrate the 101st anniversary of passage of the 19th Amendment and the 56th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, remember how much longer it took for women of other races to achieve that right— a fundamental right of living in the United States and one that is often taken for granted.
We have come a long way, and while there are accomplishments to celebrate, there remains much work to be done. The next time you head to the polls, think about the efforts of the women of every color that enabled you to cast your vote!
Jenn Stowe is a new member of the Alexandria Commission for Women. The Alexandria Commission for Women was established by the Mayor and City Council following a study on the status of women in the City of Alexandria. Objectives of the Alexandria Commission for Women include but are not limited to the elimination of gender discrimination, the promotion of equal opportunity for women in the workplace as well as equity in healthcare and housing, and the eradication of all violence against women.