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100 years of the Nineteenth Amendment and women’s political action

On 28 August 2020 we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the day the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified. Although the Amendment did not enfranchise all women –African American, Native American, and Latina women would wait decades before they could vote on equal terms– the event is an important milestone in women’s political history.

Suffrage activists on the eve of the Amendment disagreed heartily over how the struggle for women’s equality should continue, and the recent rise in women’s activism in the form of the Women’s March and #MeToo movement suggests comparison to the earlier suffrage work. What can we conclude about the progress towards women’s political equality and what connections exist between this early woman’s movement and the current wave of women’s activism?

In 1920 there were varying expectations about how women would take up their roles as voters. The best estimates suggest that women’s turnout lay more than twenty percentage points behind men’s in the first couple of elections. But since 1980, women have voted at higher rates than men. in the 2016 Presidential election women’s turnout was 4% higher than men’s, and women’s votes have determined some election outcomes. There are also no differences between men and women in how often they volunteer in politics or whether they contact a government official or make a campaign contribution.  The only remaining difference is that men tend to donate more money than women to political causes.

Although thousands of women ran election campaigns  and several, like Jeanette Rankin and Clara Cressingham, were elected to legislatures before 1920, an important remaining barrier for women is gaining elected office. Women constitute less than 25% of the elected legislators in Congress and 22 of the 50 states. No woman has been elected to the Presidency or as Governor in 23 states.  Women continue to face an uphill battle to gain elected office despite 100 years of women’s activism focused on electing women – from the early years of the National Woman’s Party   to EMILY’s List to She Should Run.

The suffrage movement, with its success in gaining the Nineteenth Amendment, serves as a model to later generations on effective women’s organized social movement activism, and the earlier movement and women’s current protest politics are connected in many ways. Most obvious is women’s visible and influential roles in extra-institutional activism. Not only was the 2017 Women’s March the largest one-day protest event in US history, but women have played  pivotal roles in other movements, from civil rights to environmental movements.

Despite their leading role in movement activism, organizing, and leadership, women activists in 2020 continue to experience marginalization. For example, women activists in the Occupy movement confronted gender bias and discrimination that impeded effective organizing.  And just as past gender discrimination mobilized women, so gender inequality today continues to spur women’s activism.

Many other links between women’s movements past and present exist, but there are also clear indications that one important similarity is on the decline. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women’s rights activists were divided by race, with some white suffragists excluding African American women from the movement (and the vote). While these tensions remain, the 2017 Women’s March took an explicitly intersectional approach, purposefully seeking a broad coalition across women of different racial groups, class, citizenship, and sexuality. Such a broad-based coalition to fight for greater gender, racial, and ethnic equality will serve women well should they need the 70-plus years it took women to get the vote to achieve full equality in both electoral and protest politics.

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