Today is Women’s Equality Day, celebrating 99 years since the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted, guaranteeing women the right to vote. This major milestone in the history of our democracy was achieved over decades, even beyond the lifetimes of some of its greatest champions. Passing an amendment to the Constitution is no small feat; after all, it’s only happened 27 times in our country’s history. But as we kick off the centennial year of women winning the right to vote, we mustn’t romanticize the story of the 19th Amendment. The truth is that it did not break down voting barriers for all women—and even today, there is more work to be done.
The path to women’s suffrage was complicated, and sometimes ugly. History books tend mostly to credit the courage and tenacity of white women. It is past time to amend the history books and tell the real story of the suffrage movement. It is past time we all celebrate the women of color who were at the center of the movement alongside their white counterparts. And it is past time for our country to acknowledge that when the 19th Amendment was ratified, many women still weren’t able to cast a ballot because of Jim Crow laws that denied them full enfranchisement.
Now, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t celebrate all the amazing women who fought for the 19th Amendment. We should. But in doing so, let us also ensure significant black suffragists like Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, and Mary Church Terrell have their place in history, a place equally as prominent as that of white suffrage leaders. Famous photographs of suffrage marches and historic meetings often failed to capture the many African American women who fought equally as courageously as white women to win the vote. Every little girl should learn about women’s history in America and see themselves represented, and not only during Black History Month.
In telling the true story behind the 19th, we must also stop perpetuating the myth that women were “granted” the right to vote. Let’s be clear: women “won” the right to vote. It was not “given” to us. It was a fight, decades in the making. And many suffragists, like Susan B. Anthony, didn’t live to see the victory at the end of that struggle. But the movement itself was not fully aligned. There was division in how to accomplish the shared vision: demonstrations and arrests such as those in front of the White House, versus a heavily coordinated lobbying and advocacy campaign to pass a constitutional amendment.
The political strategy that ultimately resulted in the passage of the 19th Amendment was a shrewd state-by-state campaign. It was led by the suffragist and founder of the League of Women Voters, Carrie Chapman Catt. In the years leading up to 1920, Catt shopped her “Winning Plan” for achieving suffrage in front of state legislatures all over the country. She was a brilliant political operative who successfully modified her case for women’s suffrage based on her audience, even if it meant pandering to racist politicians in the south who feared having their votes outnumbered if black women were to become enfranchised.
Ultimately, her tactics succeeded in building enough support to pass the 19th Amendment. Women won the right to vote. But not all women gained equal access at the ballot box. Women of color, especially those in the south, did not have full voting rights. Poll taxes and literacy tests deliberately kept African Americans from fully participating in democracy until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Denial of citizenship, property requirements, and sanctioned violence against voters barred Native Americans from the polls. Literacy tests were used to disenfranchise racial minorities as late as 1970.
Fast forward to 2013: the U.S. Supreme Court rolled back voter protections in the Voting Rights Act in the Shelby County v. Holder decision and, since that time, we have seen countless attacks on the right to vote—too often targeting racial minorities, as has been the case throughout our country’s history. In the aftermath of that decision, we have seen rollbacks to early voting, unjust voter purges, and strict voter photo ID laws that make it harder for young people, women, people of color, and individuals with low incomes to register and exercise their right to vote.
So, as we celebrate this great achievement, we do so with recognition that women’s suffrage was not perfect. Progress towards a more perfect democracy is often messy, but we can’t allow the ends to justify the means, especially if perpetuates oppression. Let us use the lessons of our history to inform our present and our future. Let us seek out ways to ensure all eligible voters have their voices heard and their votes counted.
Virginia Kase is CEO of the League of Women Voters.