Women’s suffrage 100 years later: Systemic sexism, disenfranchisement of Black women, still block equitable access to ballot

New York City suffragist parade, 1912. Women, dressed in white and wearing sashes "Votes for women," carrying flags and banner. Credit: Library of Congress.

Like other disenfranchised people in the United States, women have employed many strategies over the years in their fight for the right to vote.

In the late 19th century, some women pushed for equal suffrage laws in individual states. Others turned to the courts. Still others made their voices heard through public protests, silent vigils and hunger strikes.

They faced a swift and sure backlash, much like other groups seeking their constitutional rights, such as the activists who emerged decades later in the civil rights movement who were thrown in jail or physically assaulted for the right to vote.

Nevertheless, they persisted.

By 1916, the movement for women’s suffrage had failed to garner support in every state, so it unified around a loftier goal: a constitutional amendment that would mandate ballot access for women across the country. That amendment, which was first introduced in Congress in 1878, wasn’t ratified until Aug. 18, 1920.

As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment – which officially gave women the right to vote – we must ensure that all women have equitable access to the ballot box.

Over the last century, while the political power of women has grown, seemingly gender-neutral ballot requirements have disparately impacted women’s voting rights.

Black women, in particular, have suffered disproportionately from voter suppression tactics that have made it harder for them and other women of color to vote.

As director of the Voting Rights Practice Group at the Southern Poverty Law Center, I fight to ensure that everyone has the right to vote – regardless of race or gender.

Systemic sexism and disenfranchisement

The centennial of the 19th Amendment’s passage is an opportunity to celebrate the courage and conviction of the countless women who have fought on the front lines for equal rights.

But after successfully expanding women’s suffrage to all states, the movement essentially split into two camps: those who wanted to forge ahead for creation of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and those who focused on registering and turning out the vote of as many women as possible.

While both endeavors were laudable, the split undermined the united front that was crucial for either strategy to succeed.

Although a significant number of states have ratified the ERA, almost none in the Deep South have done so. Even to this day, women face voter ID laws that penalize them when they do not legally change their names upon marriage or divorce. What’s more, restrictions on early and no-excuse absentee voting create additional hurdles for women juggling work and family obligations that still overwhelmingly fall upon them.

Another obstacle is the growing impact of felon disenfranchisement laws over the last several years. Added to this is the imposition of legal financial obligations as a prerequisite to voting. In other words, they must pay court costs, fees and other obligations before voting.

Disparate impact on Black women

This onerous financial burden on women who have been incarcerated is effectively a poll tax that disparately impacts Black women.

Formerly incarcerated Black women have an unemployment rate of 43.6%, putting them at an economic disadvantage against formerly incarcerated Black men (35.2%), formerly incarcerated white women (23.2%), and formerly incarcerated white men (18.4%), according to a report from the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit that conducts research on the harm of mass incarceration.

Even before they are incarcerated, women who go to prison earn less than men who go to prison, and less than nonincarcerated women of the same age and race.

In November 2018, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 4 to restore the vote to 1.4 million of their fellow residents with previous felony convictions. It was the largest single expansion of voting rights since the Voting Rights Act.

But that victory was quickly undermined when Florida lawmakers enacted a new law, Florida SB 7066, that prevented hundreds of thousands of newly enfranchised people from voting because of legal financial obligations that they cannot afford to pay.

An SPLC federal lawsuit seeks to strike down Florida SB 7066 because it violates the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law and freedom from poll taxes and excessive fines. A tremendous victory was secured in district court that allowed people to vote even though they are too poor to pay off their legal financial obligations.

But Florida officials have appealed that decision, putting the voting rights of thousands of people in limbo as the November elections draw closer.

The litigation also states that the new law violates the constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

For women, the fight to vote is not just about casting a ballot. Our vote represents a real opportunity to influence the policies that affect – and in some ways hinder – the ultimate attainment of political, social and economic parity with men.