When it comes to the story of women’s suffrage and the 19th Amendment, two competing myths dominate. The first is that when the amendment became law in 1920, all American women won the vote. The second is that no Black American women gained the vote that year. Marking the amendment’s centennial, it’s time to replace both falsehoods with history.
Voting rights in America have always been borne of struggle. And the battles women fought 100 years ago—for a constitutional right and against segregationist and discriminatory Jim Crow laws in the South—echo in 2020 as American women continue to work against voter suppression and for full access to the polls.
On August 26, 1920, the U.S. Secretary of State certified that the 19th Amendment to the Constitution had been ratified by the required 36 states. It became the law of the land: “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.”
The 19th Amendment did not, however, guarantee any woman the vote. Instead, laws reserving the ballot for men became unconstitutional. Women would still have to navigate a maze of state laws—based upon age, citizenship, residency, mental competence, and more—that might keep them from the polls.
The women who showed up to register to vote in the fall of 1920 confronted many hurdles. Racism was the most significant one. The 15th Amendment expressly forbade states from denying the vote because of race. But by 1920, legislatures in the South and West had set in place laws that had the net effect of disenfranchising Black Americans. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses kept many Black men from casting their ballots. Unchecked intimidation and the threat of lynching sealed the deal. With the passage of the 19th Amendment, African-American women in many states remained as disenfranchised as their fathers and husbands.
Nevertheless, in fall 1920, many Black women showed up at the polls. In Kent County, Delaware, their numbers were “unusually large,” according to Wilmington’s News Journal, but officials turned away Black women who “failed to comply with the constitutional tests.” In Huntsville, Alabama, “only a half dozen Black women” were among the 1,445 people of all races and genders who were registered, recounted Birmingham’s Voice of the People, an African-American newspaper. The explanation was clear: Officials applied “practically the same rules of qualification to [women] as are applied to colored men.”
In Savannah, Georgia, officials imposed the letter of the law: “Many negro women have registered here since the suffrage amendment became effective,” reported Ohio’s Hamilton Evening Journal, but “the election judges ruled that they were not entitled to vote because of a state law which requires registration six months before an election.” This ruling meant that no woman in the state of Georgia could vote—too little time had passed between the ratification of the 19th Amendment and Election Day in 1920. This was a reading of the law meant to suppress Black women’s votes because “no white women presented themselves at the polls,” the paper noted.
Many Black women did manage to vote in 1920, though. Some had been exercising that right for several years in states like California, Illinois, and New York where women’s suffrage became law before the 19th amendment was ratified. Even more registered and cast ballots after its passage.
The political contest of 1920 got underway for Black women months before the November election. If they hoped to vote, they’d have to get their names on the rolls. When registrars opened their books to women that fall, many Black women gathered their courage and their savvy and insisted on the right that the 19th Amendment promised. (Black men and women were fundamental to the suffrage movement, arguing, "We are all bound up together.")
In St. Louis, Missouri, Fannie Williams, a teacher-turned-organizer, set up a “suffrage school” at the city’s Black YWCA—the Phillis Wheatley Branch, named for the 18th-century enslaved poet. There, Black women prepared for their chance to register, teaching one another how to pay poll taxes and pass literacy tests administered by begrudging officials. Newspapers reported that nearly every woman in the city, Black or white, registered that season.
Florida educator and women’s club leader Mary McLeod Bethune traveled her state in 1920 to encourage other Black women to register, only to be confronted by brutal opposition at each step along the way. Black women managed to join voters’ rolls, but the intimidation continued. On Election Day eve, white-robed Ku Klux Klansmen marched onto the grounds of Bethune’s girls’ school in Daytona, aiming to scare Black women away from the polls. When the women turned out to vote anyway, they took their courage from leaders like Bethune and each other.
Today the 19th Amendment continues to prohibit states from denying the vote based upon sex, just as the 15th Amendment forbids states from using race when determining voting rights. Yet many American women do not have the unqualified right to vote. As was true in 1920, a woman’s access to the polls is determined by where she lives—and that, because of the United States’ long history of housing segregation, often correlates with her race. A resurgence of voter ID laws, the shuttering of certain polling places, and the purge of voter rolls in some states following a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that rolled back provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have deprived both men and women of color of the right to vote.
Especially during a pandemic, the policies of voting officials—some of whom have suggested restricting polling stations or limiting vote-by-mail—may mean that fewer American women will cast ballots in fall 2020. The history of the 19th Amendment is more than myth; it is a cautionary tale for our own time.
Martha S. Jones is the author of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All. She teaches history at Johns Hopkins University where she is the Society of Black Alumni Presidential Professor. Follow her on Twitter at @marthasjones_.