What the 19th Amendment Can Teach Us About Voting in 2020

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This year, we’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave American women the right to vote. But even after the 19th Amendment passed in 1920, in reality many women of color were still barred from voting, or they were underrepresented in their districts. 

Martha S. Jones is a historian and author of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All. Her book explores the history of African-American women and politics and voting rights in America. CircleAround caught up with Jones to discuss her work, and how we can learn from our past to create a better future for voting.  

CA: What inspired you to write the book? 

MSJ: I became a historian, in part, because I was interested in family history… I had some questions about African-American women generally in politics, but even questions about the women in my own family, so the book starts with them. But I also came to write the book because I knew that the anniversary of the 19th Amendment was coming up.

[The book] has turned out to be more than I could have imagined, in that there really has been a great deal of interest generally, and a strong interest in understanding African-American women's history. I definitely didn't know that the Vice-Presidential nominee for the Democratic party was going to be a woman who was Black-American and Indian-American, and that would raise a whole interesting set of questions about the past. But here we are, so I'm sort of ready for that.

CA:  Is there a particular woman in the book you’d like to highlight? 

MSJ: I think if there is somebody who really exemplifies the spirit of the book, it is a woman named Mary McLeod Bethune. Bethune's life, from the Civil War era to the early modern Civil Rights period, really captures much of the heart of the story that I try and tell. Because for African-American women, the struggle for voting rights didn't end in 1920. Too many Black women were kept away from the polls by Jim Crow laws by violence. Mrs. Bethune had to continue working all those years to win political power, including the vote for Black women. They really didn't get the vote until 1965, when Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act [in 1965] into law. So, I'm very inspired by her courage, I'm very inspired by her tenacity, I'm very inspired by her capacity to organize her community under very difficult circumstances.

CA: What can we do today to further such women’s work?

MSJ: The women I write about know that constitutional amendments are never enough [...] and that even a constitutional amendment can be undermined by state laws along with intimidation and violence. So, it's a reminder that we have to be on guard. We have to be vigilant and recognize that still today, because the Voting Rights Act has been, in essence, gutted by the Supreme Court. Again, states are using state law and policy to do an end-run around the spirit of the 15th Amendment and the spirit of the 19th Amendment.

CA: What can we do to ensure marginalized voices are heard? 

MSJ: Voter suppression in 2020 disproportionately affects Black Latinx communities in particular. The women I write about know what’s up. It’s no surprise to them that people are organizing using law and more to keep them from the polls. And what they teach us is the meaning of the word “persistence,” which is to say the women I write about [are] teaching each other how to pay poll taxes, how to pass literacy tests, how to overcome the hurdles. They come out to register, they come out to vote in strong numbers together because there is safety in numbers. 

[Today], it is our work to put pressure on officials in Washington, on our local voting officials in our towns, and cities, and our states. It is our job to teach one another how to vote in 2020. They're going to be lots of new rules and hurdles to jump through. We have to teach one another. 

CA: What are some ways we can encourage our communities to take action?

MSJ: Do you have a neighborhood chat on Facebook, or [do you] use NextDoor? Well, that's a place to show up and to tell people what you know about voting rights in your neighborhood. Are there people who need to get to the polls? How are they going to get there when carpooling is dangerous? How are we going to get elders to the polls? So this is our moment to dig in and get granular about voting rights, to get close to the ground, and to do it locally and make sure that you, and everybody in your orbit, know how to vote

However you vote, take young people with you. When I talk about voting rights, I encounter so many stories of the first vote, which for many Americans is not the first time they switched the lever or filled out a form — it was when an elder in their family took them to the polling place, and they got behind the curtain or in the box and were too small to see everything but could understand something important was happening and that soon it would be their turn to do that. And so, if you're in a community where there are young people — and you can scoop them up and have them sit with you as you fill out that ballot, or walk with you to the post box, or show up with you to the polls — this is the year to pass on the tradition of voting rights to the next generations. There are Americans whose parents have never voted, who may never have voted. So we really have to do that as a community and make sure that young people understand why this is important.

Tags: Social Justice, Black History, Career, Career

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Written By

Katka Lapelosová

Katka is a writer from New York City, currently living in Belgrade, Serbia. See Full Bio

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