POV: As We Mark the Centennial of the 19th Amendment, One Question Looms
When will its aspirations be fulfilled?
“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.”
August 26, 2020, Women’s Equality Day, will mark the 100th anniversary of the certification of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, which Congress ratified a century ago today, August 18, 1920. The 19th Amendment did not “grant women the right to vote.” First, by 1920, when the 19th Amendment was ratified, 15 states had already fully eliminated gender discrimination in the franchise and 13 had done so for presidential elections. Second, there is a difference between saying that the right to vote could “not be denied or abridged on account of sex” and saying that women had the right to vote. The 19th Amendment did not eliminate other barriers women faced, like Jim Crow laws, literacy requirements, grandfather clauses, felon restrictions, and a variety of other types of voter suppression.
But the 19th Amendment did mark the first time a constitutional principle of gender equality became a part of the US Constitution, limited though that principle was. It provided a constitutional basis for gaining a right that thousands of women (and some men) had dreamed of, worked for, and gave their health and lives for over the course of 80 years.
The women (and men) who participated in the woman suffrage movement included people from every region of the country: the biggest cities and smallest villages, people of all races, classes, and religions, wealthy women and poor women, recent immigrants and people whose families had settled more than a century earlier. Some suffrage movement allies thought the vote was the most important thing. Some saw it as an instrument to help achieve other desired ends relating to securing women’s full and equal citizenship.
The history of the suffrage movement and its internal workings also reflect the larger forces of the society in which it was embedded: racism, ethnocentrism, class conflict, sectionalism, political party antagonisms, and political opportunism. Understanding this knotty and often contradictory history does not detract from the achievements. It means, rather, that the history of the conflicts, struggles, progress, and loss that led to the 19th Amendment is a great lens through which to study the realities of American aspirations for democracy.
But this amazing story—and women’s history generally, especially in its nuanced and complicated version accounting for a truly intersectional understanding of women’s experiences—is remarkably little known. It is not yet integrated into basic university-level curricula on American history. That American law did not give women full independent nationality rights equivalent to that of men until the 1930s, allowed states to bar them from juries until the 1970s, or that women still are so underrepresented in the halls of power seem to have little bearing on discussion of the quality of American democracy. Students in our gender and politics classes are shocked when they find out what they have been missing in their earlier education.
Women took some time after 1920 to use their voting rights in numbers as large as men. But women have been more likely to vote than men for some time now. This has been especially true among African Americans, but it is also true among white people and Latinx people and in every age group except the very oldest citizens.
Men and women use their votes differently. Since 1980 men have increasingly voted more for Republicans than women have. This holds true for social groups that are overwhelmingly Democratic, like African Americans, as well as for those that are split much more evenly between the parties, such as white people.
Our American democracy, however, does not yet reflect gender equality in the arena of holding positions of power and elected office. On the one hand, the 2018 elections brought in an encouragingly diverse group of women at all levels of public office, including Congress. On the other hand, women are 22 percent of the mayors of US cities with populations of 30,000 and above and 21 percent of mayors of cities with populations of 100,000 and above. They are 29 percent of the state legislators in the country. They hold 29 percent of statewide executive offices, including 18 percent of the governor positions. They hold 23 percent of seats in the US House of Representatives and 26 percent of US Senate seats. For women of color, these percentages are even lower in most categories. And, of course, no woman has ever been president or vice president of the United States.
The United States does not compare well to other countries in this regard: 59 countries have had a woman head of government. In the world rankings of women as a percentage of the lower house of a national legislature (like our House of Representatives), the United States ranks 76th. That low score is better than before the 2018 elections, when we ranked 100th. These types of statistics suggest that, on the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, a critical priority before we mark the next significant anniversary should be increasing political representation by women—particularly women of color—at all levels of office.
As the Democratic presidential primaries began with a record number of women as candidates, there was hope that the highest glass ceiling would be broken. That did not happen. Moreover, throughout the process, repeated questions about whether female candidates are “electable” or “too ambitious” have demonstrated the continuing hold of gender stereotypes about political leadership. Such stereotypes evidently played a role in the vetting process of the many women under consideration to be Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s vice president. Biden’s selection of Senator Kamala Harris as his vice president is historic: while she is the third woman to be selected as a running mate, she is the first Black woman and the first Asian American. Perhaps the glass ceiling as to the vice presidency will be broken this November; if so, it could signal actual movement on social norms about who is “electable.”
Like many colleges, universities, organizations, and communities across the country, Boston University is taking the opportunity of the centennial of the 19th Amendment to reflect critically on the history, present, and future of gender, representation, and citizenship rights. These issues will be explored more fully during a one-day Zoom webinar, The Centenary of the 19th Amendment: New Reflections on the History and Future of Gender, Representation, and Citizenship Rights, on September 25. The conference, which brings together legal scholars, political scientists, and political practitioners, will pay particular attention to intersectional understandings of gender, race, and class in marking this significant anniversary.
The Centenary of the 19th Amendment: New Reflections on the History and Future of Gender, Representation, and Citizenship Rights, cosponsored by the School of Law, the College of Arts & Sciences political science department, and the Research in American Politics Workshop, will be held Friday, September 25, 2020, from 9:15 am to 3:45 pm; the webinar is open to the public, but advance registration is required. Learn more about the program here and register here.