88. Who Could Actually Vote
Carrie Chapman Catt summarized the effort involved with securing the passage of the 19th Amendment as such: “to get the word ‘male’ in effect out of the Constitution cost the women of the country fifty-two years of pauseless campaign….During that time they were forced to conduct fifty-six campaigns of referenda to male voters; 480 campaigns to get Legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters; 47 campaigns to get State constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions; 277 campaigns to get State party conventions to include woman suffrage planks in party platforms, and 19 campaigns with 19th successive [federal] Congresses.”
Despite the new amendment, the fight for equality was far from over. In 1947, Mary Philbrook (1872-1958), the first female lawyer in New Jersey, organized a coalition to replace the word “he” in the New Jersey state constitution with the word “person”. From 1776-1807, New Jersey had been the only state that allowed some women and persons of color to vote precisely because it did not specify gender nor race in the original state constitution (Episode 2). In 1979, almost two decades after her death, the New Jersey supreme court changed the state constitution to once again be gender neutral.
More importantly, the 19th Amendment does not actually give women the right to vote. It only prevents discrimination on the basis of sex. This amendment did not prevent the states from enacting laws to suppress certain populations by other means. Laws included skewed literacy tests, poll taxes, fewer polling stations in certain areas or having voting in places like police stations rather than a place more friendly to a voter of color such as their local school, community center, or church. Collectively these rules are often labelled “Jim Crow” but there were also “Juan Crow” laws designed to disenfranchise Latinx voters.
Native Americans could not even become American citizens until 1924; even then, it was contingent upon fully integrating into white society and permanently leaving tribal lands. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Chinese immigrants had no path to citizenship until 1943, however their American born children could vote. Japanese immigrants had to wait until 1953 to be able to become citizens and due to the Expatriation Act of 1907, American women who married a foreigner instantly lost her citizenship and became the nationality of her husband under American law even if a white woman married a white European. She would also have to reapply to become an American but only after her husband was naturalized as a citizen. However, a foreign bride marrying an American man became a citizen. (The Expatriation Act wasn’t fully removed until the 1940s.)
There were also a lot of logistical problems in the 1920 election because the voting population instantly doubled less than three months before ballots were going to be cast. Not every place had enough equipment, extra ballots, or workers on hand to handle all the new voters. Of course equipment and additional polling accommodations were not always evenly distributed. Areas with a majority of white voters had less trouble making it convenient to vote whereas in predominantly Black voting districts, fewer accomodations were made. Some states made the choice to stop women from taking part in the 1920 election because they had missed the deadline for registration which was before August 26, 1920. Other states made an exception and allowed late registration given the fact women couldn’t legally register until after the 19th Amendment passed. Discrimination such as this happened in the northern states as well as the southern ones. “The Chicago Defender”, a historic Black-owned newspaper, published many reports of violence towards people trying to help register Black women to vote and warrants put out for Black women who “registered illegally”.
Even today states do not have an official duty to help people vote. Political parties and politically active groups have stepped up to fill this void. In 1920, the newly formed League of Women Voters did their best to help the transition. There were tea parties and events designed to help educate newly enfranchised voters and excite them about going to the polls, but the results were mixed. There are no exact records of what percentage of voters were women in 1920, but it has been roughly calculated as 36% compared to 68% of eligible male voters.
As early as 1924, there were articles in women’s magazines expressing doubt on whether woman’s suffrage actually made anything better. In 1936, women were still 20% less likely to vote than men, but within individual voting districts the highest turnouts for women, especially women of color, were in states with greater accessibility to polls and fewer voting restrictions.
This week’s song pick:
“I Am Woman Hear Me Roar” by Helen Reddy https://youtu.be/rptW7zOPX2E
Episode 88 Sources:
Mary Philbrook Biography: