Impact

The Centennial of the 19th Amendment: Reflections & Radical Next Steps

Last month marked the 100th anniversary of the passage of the historic 19th Amendment and throughout August, we saw the country celebrating and honoring the women of the Suffrage Movement, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. They stood on the frontlines, faced jail time and violence; they displayed fearlessness, courage, and tenacity; and, ultimately, they fought and ushered in more rights for women. White women. 

Upon closer look, we now recognize that the journey to the ballot box for women was filled with more obstacles for some than others — and not just because of process mandates that varied state to state. The reality is that we’ve silently and collectively agreed to gloss over the fact that the 19th Amendment did not enfranchise all women. In fact, the often described “definitive book” on women’s suffrage was a six volume series, and over 5700 pages, featuring profiles of women who could afford to pay for their portraits to be in the series. Not surprisingly, almost exclusively, white women of means were included and remembered as mothers of this movement. 

But that is changing, thanks to a growing number of feminist journalistsstory-tellers, curators and academics, mostly of color, who are no longer accepting a whitewashed narrative of women’s history. We were inspired by the stories that came out around the centennial and Women’s Equality Day that challenged the history of the Suffrage Movement and celebrated women of color who played a central role in the movement, like voting rights activist Gertrude Simmons Bonnin of the Sioux tribe — also known as Zitkala-Sa — and lesser known Black suffragists such as Mary Church Terrell, Augusta T. Chissell and Margaret Gregory Hawkins – who all played a pivotal role in enfranchising women left out of the Suffrage Movement. Black women remained disenfranchised for decades after the 19th amendment did not end their fight for the right to vote. The stories of Fannie Williams of St. Louis who set up a school for Black women “teaching one another how to pay poll taxes and pass literacy tests administered by begrudging officials” must be told as it impacts how we govern and legislate today. Because, too many women of color, mostly Black women, are still largely faced with disenfranchisement today through devious redistricting, misinformation campaigns, voter suppression, invaliding of ballots and innumerous fraudulent efforts.

This centennial is marking a shift for women in the modern movement. To right the wrongs of the Suffrage Movement, we must know our history, warts and all, to not repeat the mistakes of the past. When we understand our history, we see that the struggles of one woman is the struggle of all women. Today, our votes directly influence the shape of government, as we aim to uplift and increase our “firsts” and our representation in political positions across this nation. Women like Cori Bush of St. Louis who is able to serve as Missouri’s first Black woman in Congress because of the struggles of women like Fannie Williams.

“This centennial is marking a shift for women in the modern movement. To right the wrongs of the Suffrage Movement, we must know our history, warts and all, to not repeat the mistakes of the past. When we understand our history, we see that the struggles of one woman is the struggle of all women.”

Our power is stronger than we sometimes realize. However, it is not lost on the “old guard” — in particular, white men — who are running scared. Their patriarchal stronghold is crumbling and it frightens them. It’s evident in their actions as they hurriedly introduce legislation aimed at disenfranchising voters and in their audacious language, as witnessed by a U.S. Congressman, Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), brazenly calling Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) a “f-cking b-tch” — on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, no less!

Our power lies in our unity. Unity that recognizes and sees one another. A movement of women who aren’t afraid to tackle tough conversations and commit to doing better to heal racial divisions and eradicate class hierarchy.

It’s hard work but the stakes are too high to not do this right. The time for playing nice is over. It is time for radical leaders to do radical acts! That is the call to action. We can no longer “lean in” to women’s empowerment, we must demand it, shape it and vote it into office. It is time to kick in the door. Wondering what that looks like? It looks like anything and everything, from changing school curriculums to include the full story of women’s suffrage (and more!), to calling for statues and symbols that represent our full contributions, to getting a Mount Rushmore of our own and, most importantly, continuing to elect more women of color to public office. 

“It’s hard work but the stakes are too high to not do this right. The time for playing nice is over. It is time for radical leaders to do radical acts! That is the call to action. We can no longer “lean in” to women’s empowerment, we must demand it, shape it and vote it into office. It is time to kick in the door.”

This year has been particularly challenging, unsettling and unpredictable. While we all have fatigue at times, we must seize this movement and push even harder. Amplify your voices at rallies and protests. Put your money and your mouth behind female candidates and races — locally and nationally — that are still in play. Be a Census 2020 evangelist and become a virtual volunteer to campaign and fundraise for candidates and/or causes.

Mobilization at home is equally powerful. Share responsible social media posts, especially about our truthful past. Become an information hub and promote voting dates, Census information, absentee and mail-in deadlines, polling areas, and resources for getting to polls. Help make calls and raise money for female candidates. Donate money to candidates; create a personal voting plan for you and others (which has been proven to result in the increased likelihood someone will vote. Check out your state’s election website and visit sites, such as www.healthyvoting.org and www.turbovote.com.) Hold voter and census drives with your organizations; serve as a poll worker; contact your current elected officials; and go on record with your current elected officials against any legislation that lessens civil rights or voting acts for women or marginalized people. Join Vote Run Lead’s boot camp on September 12 and learn how to turn out voters in your community. 

As we reflect on the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and prepare for what’s to come, let’s correct history and not whitewash it. Let’s celebrate the courageousness of the Women’s Suffrage Movement and those that continued to fight for enfranchisement today, its pioneers and what was and has been accomplished since then. Despite it not being created to be inclusive of all women at the time, it did open the door so that women could continue to make strides and to gain the increased privileges and rights that we hold so important today. But we know we can do better. 

Our work isn’t done. The fight continues at the ballot box and is within each of us. It’s time to get radical — together.

Erin Vilardi is the Founder and CEO of Vote Run Lead, the nation’s largest and most diverse training program for women to run for office and win. She is the co-author of the Athena CORE10©, an innovative set of leadership competencies for 21st century women leaders based on the latest research and gender analysis for the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College.