Commentary: Reflecting on the 19th Amendment as a beginning, not an end

By Randi Proukou
BridgeTower Media Newswires

August was an important month for our nation’s history and for women’s rights in particular.  We celebrated 100 years since the 19th Amendment was ratified and women achieved the right to vote in the United States, after almost a century of protest.

Earlier this year, we celebrated 150 years since the 15th Amendment was ratified, prohibiting states from denying a male citizen the right to vote based on “race, color or previous condition of servitude.”

Last month we also celebrated 55 years since the Voting Rights Act was signed into law, aimed at overcoming legal barriers that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote as guaranteed under the 15th Amendment.

While these landmark amendments and legislation are most certainly worthy of celebrating, it would do them, and the individuals that fought for them, injustice to fail to recognize both their histories and shortcomings.

I have been spending time reading and researching the history of the 15th Amendment, the 19th Amendment, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I have read about what has changed (and not changed) in our country over the last 150, 100, and 55 years since these have been enacted.

I could go on and on, but will summarize as best I can: the 19th Amendment was not an end, but a beginning. It was the start of a social reform movement, one of the longest in the history of this country, born of revolution and passion, and an incredibly important creation of democracy.

This article should not be read as an undercut on what has been achieved, but as educational efforts to the opportunities that still lie ahead.

The 19th Amendment is a foundation of “gender equality” in our country, although most of us know the suffrage movement only as told by stories centered around Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

We have not viewed it through the lens of African-American women like Mary Church Terrell, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Juno Frankie Pierce, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Elizabeth Piper Ensley and Ida B. Wells-Barnett; of Native American women such as Susette La Flesche Tibbles and Zitkala-Sa; of Latina women like Jovita Idár; or Asian-American women like Mabel Ping-Hua Lee.

When the history of voting rights is amplified by these additional voices, we see that woven throughout the movement for universal suffrage was a campaign for human rights.

The threads of the campaign for human rights in the suffrage movement were faint at the outset, though. When suffragists gathered in 1848 in Seneca Falls, they advocated only for the right of white women to vote. Advocates included middle- and upper-class white women, some white men, and one African-American male — Frederick Douglass.

As we neared the year 1900, Black suffragist Mary Church Tyrell began to champion the cause. She joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) as one of very few Black members, and took the group to task for excluding women of color.

The National Association of Colored Women, which Tyrell co-founded, had a motto at that time: “lifting as we climb.” Tyrell embodied it, seeking to bring women of color to the movement and proclaiming to NAWSA that an inclusive movement would grow in both power and perspective.

Key leaders such as Frederick Douglass and Francis Ellen Watkins Harper also promoted the vision of human rights intertwined with the suffrage movement, understanding that rights and identities are intersectional.

Douglass, in one speech in the context of woman’s suffrage, declared: “No man, however eloquent, can speak for woman as woman can for herself.

Nevertheless, I hold that this cause is not altogether and exclusively woman’s cause. It is the cause of human brotherhood as well as the cause of human sisterhood, and both must rise and fall together.”

These ideals helped to shape the movement of women coming together to demand universal suffrage, in solidarity, stepping out from the shadow of exclusion, slavery, and violence.

Nonetheless, ratification of the 19th Amendment left Black women marginalized, as they still faced far-reaching measures adopted as backlash against Reconstruction.

Then, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was adopted. Although it was often outright ignored, it gave African-American voters legal means to challenge these restrictions and greatly improved voter turnout. Despite these advances, unsupported claims of voting fraud create more barriers to voting today, ultimately affecting minorities.

Understanding the role of Black women in building the coalition between abolitionists and suffragists, and creating this vision of human rights, is essential for producing durable coalitions and reform today.

Let us not forget that within our celebration of women’s right to vote, there remains injustice and voter suppression; there remain women of color whose voices, struggles, and suggestions must be acknowledged and uplifted as a part of the feminist movement; and there remains opportunity to form coalitions to unite around voters that fully embody the promise of the 15th and 19th Amendments.
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Randi Proukou is a founding partner of her firm, Zea Proukou PLLC, practicing Workers’ Compensation and Social Security Disability, representing injured workers.

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