Push for women’s voting rights didn’t stop with 19th Amendment

Michigan

This infamous 1965 photo shows President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act which banned voting laws from discriminating against people based on race. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other equal rights activists look on. (Public domain photo)

UNDATED (WOOD) — Wednesday, Aug. 26 marks 100 years since Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed a proclamation that approved the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution – guaranteeing American women the right to vote. But the push for voting rights didn’t stop there.

In fact, some of the leaders of the suffragette movement knowingly capitalized off the obstacles placed in the way of women of color – using it as leverage to get the 19th Amendment passed.

Most historians say the women’s suffrage movement started at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, with nearly 200 women gathered to discuss equal rights. At the time, the fight for women’s rights was closely tied with the anti-slavery movement. But eventually some leading suffragettes, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, split off from the anti-abolitionists, upset that the 15th Amendment guaranteed black men the right to vote, but not white women.

When discussions around the 19th Amendment heated up in the 20th century, some leading suffragettes used Jim Crow laws as a selling point to get Southern lawmakers on board – pitching women’s voting rights as a way to get more white voters into the pool – while still blocking the new black female voters. In 1918, Carrie Chapman Catt, who led the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association, wrote a letter to North Carolina Congressman Edwin Webb that said in part, “If the South is really in earnest in its desire to maintain white supremacy, its surest tactic is to endorse the Federal Suffrage Amendment.”

A portion of a 1918 letter from Carrie Chapman Catt, sent to North Carolina Congressman Edwin Webb. (National Archives)

Women of color were forced to press on for their fight for voting rights. Investigative journalist Ida B. Wells and teacher-turned-activist Mary Church Terrell are among the most well-known. Through the 20th century, they made strides in the fight for civil rights, but the biggest blow to Jim Crow laws didn’t land until 1965 when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act that outlawed voting restrictions based on race.

The fight for voting rights wasn’t solely for black women, either. Chinese Americans had to fight for their rights, too. Back then, Chinese Americans were not allowed to become naturalized citizens (meaning no voting rights) until a law was passed in 1943.

Native Americans weren’t declared citizens until 1924. But some states instead named them wards of the state, restricting their right to vote. That was also changed by the Voting Rights Act.

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