100 Years Later, the Racist Legacy and Violence of the 19th Amendment Persist
August 26 will mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which extended the right to vote to white women. Donald Trump celebrated the occasion last week by posthumously pardoning Susan B. Anthony in a move that might have stunned feminists who don’t know the murky, white supremacist history behind exclusionary, white-led suffrage movements. But no one should have been surprised—there is significant overlap in Trump and Anthony’s political goals, specifically where advancing white supremacy is concerned.
The racist history of the 19th Amendment is described at length by scholar-activist Angela Davis in her landmark text Women, Race, and Class, in which Davis weaves together the long history of intersecting oppressions targeting Black women amid capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy.
Voting rights for white women were won in no small part through proactive bargaining and colluding between white women and white supremacists, as well as the idea that giving white women the right to vote would ultimately advance white supremacist interests. The expectation was that white women would vote in line with their racist husbands or actively, autonomously vote to harm people of color, and in many ways, this expectation has been proven right: Today and throughout modern history, the majority of white women consistently vote for Republicans.
The racist legacy of white women’s tactics to achieve the 19th Amendment has persisted for years—especially throughout the 1950s, ’60s, and beyond, as white women mothers, social workers, and teachers capitalized on the privileges of white femininity and became leaders in community anti-bussing efforts and resistance to desegregation in housing and education. Today, the white supremacist politics of the 19th Amendment persist as women of color—and especially Black, Brown, and Indigenous women—are often hit the hardest by voter suppression.
Women of color are more likely to work low-wage, hourly jobs and struggle to access child care, transportation, and other basic needs that make it difficult or impossible to take time off to vote, or become politically active and engaged at all. They’re also impacted by racist voter ID laws, language barriers, restrictions on voting for incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people, and other barriers that purposefully target immigrants and voters of color.
Voter suppression and gerrymandering meant to disenfranchise women of color have direct consequences on them—namely, targeted attacks and state violence enacted on women of color through legislation. Research has shown a connection between efforts to suppress voting and political activity among people of color, and state-level abortion bans and other dangerous restrictions on bodily autonomy that disproportionately impact women of color. Because of voter suppression, state legislatures become unrepresentative of the needs and values of their constituents, and subsequently churn out pure racism and misogyny.
Roe v. Wade—the Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal on the federal level—itself shares commonalities with the 19th Amendment. It was designed to exclusively serve wealthy and middle-class white women, and intentionally leaves behind people who are struggling financially, BIPOC folks, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized groups by failing to create protections and resources to ensure people without privilege could afford abortion and reproductive health care. These aforementioned marginalized groups are also more likely to be targeted and policed for managing their own pregnancies and abortions, meaning reproductive rights still don’t fully serve them.
Women of color, and especially Black, Brown and Indigenous women, are the most likely to be uninsured and experience poverty, meaning the cost barriers to reaching abortion care through bans on coverage and laws designed to shut down clinics can be insurmountable. In some of the states with the most restrictions on abortion—which notably rely on massive voter suppression tactics—one or few abortion clinics serve millions of women and pregnant-capable people of reproductive age, forcing those seeking care to pay enormous costs of travel, lodging, child care, and missed work.
Reproductive care isn’t just essential for one to have bodily autonomy and be free from the violence of being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy; it’s also essential for parents and families who already have children. Restrictive, inherently violent reproductive health policies impact entire families and communities, and especially families and communities of color. The majority of people who seek abortion care are people of color, and if they’re unable to reach the care they need, they’re more likely to be pushed deeper into poverty or experience longterm domestic abuse.
Of course, it’s not even just reproductive rights—many of the most racist, sexist, and harmful pieces of state and federal legislation can be traced to voter suppression of people of color. States with large voter suppression operations and gerrymandered, conservative-majority legislatures have been known to slash spending on health care and other essential resources and programs, to the disproportionate detriment of people and communities of color.
The 19th Amendment may have marked a critical step forward for white women, but its legacy and foundations in selling out people of color and especially women of color can never be erased—especially when we continue to see this today. We see it when white femininity is leveraged and weaponized against communities of color—like when, not long ago, President Trump assured “suburban housewives” he would protect them from the threat of low-income housing projects, which predominantly serve people of color.
We see it when women of color are still routinely, systematically denied the right to vote through targeted restrictions and barriers, and we see it in the laws that often stem directly from a fractured electorate carved by white supremacy and the exclusion, oppression, and violence enacted upon women of color as a result.
Celebration of any partial progress that empowers some people but not others must go hand-in-hand with recognition of tough realities of who was and remains excluded or even harmed by this perceived progress. The 19th Amendment is a reminder that all of our work for social progress going forward must center those who have always experienced the greatest harm and marginalization—namely women of color and especially Black, Brown and Indigenous women.
(Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
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