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Daily Herald: A century of promoting everyone's right to vote, not just women

This article originally appeared in the Daily Herald.

Today, we proudly celebrate the 100th anniversary of Illinois' ratification of the 19th Amendment, which prohibited the denial of the right to vote on the basis of sex. As the first state to ratify this pivotal amendment, Illinois led the rapid succession of state ratification until the 36th and final state, Tennessee, on August 18, 1920.

For the League of Women Voters of Illinois, an organization born directly out of the decadeslong fight for women's suffrage, June 10 is a day of special significance. The League was founded by renowned suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt at the Congress Hotel in Chicago on February 14, 1920, during the convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Our name is an homage to our origin as a "mighty political experiment" designed to help 20 million women carry out their new responsibilities as voters.

Today, we are a nonpartisan, grass-roots organization that believes that active and engaged citizens, irrespective of gender, ethnicity or political affiliation, are the hallmark of a democracy.

But in the midst of this celebration, we must acknowledge that ratification of the 19th Amendment was only the beginning of a long, arduous fight to remove barriers to voting for all citizens. The fight for suffrage was inextricably tied to the odious legacy of racial subjugation and class warfare. Until recently, the deep legacy of black suffragists and their fight alongside their white counterparts has been minimized or completely omitted from many historical accounts.

Over a nearly centurylong crusade, activists had to counteract a host of arguments against women's suffrage, including concerns that allowing women to vote would undermine male hegemony or tear at the fabric of the nuclear family. But in a sad irony, what helped to ensure passage of women's suffrage was the belief that allowing white women to vote could, in fact, ensure that guarantee of white supremacy.

Unfortunately, such a sentiment proved to be true. The ratification of the 19th Amendment was followed by a long, dark chapter of Jim Crow laws. The voting rights codified in the 15th Amendment (for black males) and 19th Amendment were constructively neutralized via the immediate implementation of poll taxes and literacy tests. Another 45 years would pass before passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the law that finally eliminated de jure discrimination.

It is unfathomable that 100 years after ratification of the 19th Amendment and 54 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act that we must still contend with surreptitious attacks to impede the rights of citizens to cast their ballots, from manufactured claims of rampant voter fraud to insidious schemes to disqualify voters for purely partisan advantage.

The right to vote is among the most hallowed of American freedoms. Whether white female suffragists truly subscribed to the same racist ideology as their male counterparts or were faced with an unfortunate Hobbesian choice for the greater cause of securing the right to vote is of little consequence today. Nearly 100 years after its founding, the League knows that its mission will not be complete until all citizens have the ability to cast their ballots without interference and will spend the next century, if necessary, to protect that freedom.

Audra Wilson, of Chicago, is executive director of the League of Women Voters of Illinois, a 3,000-member branch of the national League of Women Voters. The League is a nonpartisan, civic engagement group that seeks to influence public policy through education and advocacy.