The 19th Amendment, despite its dramatic expansion of the electorate, did not protect every American woman’s access to the polls. After 1920, millions of women, especially women of color and poor women, were still denied the vote for reasons other than sex. This section examines ongoing struggles for the vote since the ratification of the 19th Amendment. In the past 100 years, millions more women (and men) secured their voting rights as laws changed and discriminatory practices designed to keep certain voters from the polls were eliminated. The promise of the 19th Amendment, however, is yet to be enjoyed by all American women as election laws continue to change and many women still face barriers to voting.
Struggling for her 14th, 15th and 19th Amendment rights
After ratification of the 19th Amendment, election laws and procedures implemented by Southern states to keep black men from voting despite the 14th and 15th Amendments were equally effective at barring black women, like Lula Mury of Birmingham, Alabama, from the polls. In 1923, Mury wrote to President Calvin Coolidge for help, stating that she remained unable to register to vote despite having the constitutional right to do so.
Fighting an unfair test
Mary Hampton of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, argued in this 1958 affidavit, “because of race or color I have not been allowed to register” after a clerk claimed she failed her voter test. Until a 1970 amendment to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed literacy tests nationwide, officials often unfairly administered state-required literacy or civic knowledge tests to keep away from the polls those whom they did not want to vote.
Protecting immigrant, indigenous, and illiterate Americans’ voting rights
Congress has renewed the Voting Rights Act five times to counter ongoing voting discrimination. Among those pressing for these renewals was the League of Women Voters (LWV). This letter from the LWV of Southern Marin, California, urged Congress to extend the act’s protections to language minority voters. The Voting Rights Act of 1975 required bilingual ballots and election materials in areas with significant minority populations and permanently banned literacy tests.
Partial success for Puerto Rican women
The 19th Amendment prohibited states from denying the vote on the basis of sex but did not mention U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico. In 1929, the president of the Asociacion Puertorriqueña de Mujeres Sufragistas, Ana López de Vélez, sent this letter to President Calvin Coolidge, urging his support for legislation that would enfranchise Puerto Rican women. Only literate women gained the right to vote that year.
Early attempt to win the vote for Puerto Rican women
Puerto Ricans gained U.S. citizenship with the passage of the Organic Act on March 2, 1917. This newspaper clipping from the Washington Post on August 17 of that year shows that Puerto Rican suffragists wasted no time in trying to win their right to vote. They had a long struggle ahead. Voting rights were not extended to all Puerto Rican women until 1935.
The “Voteless” flag
Calls for participation in national and local elections began soon after the District of Columbia was created as a territory under Federal control in 1801. The voting rights of residents varied during the 19th century, but all were lost by 1874, when a Federally appointed commission began to govern the city. In this 1932 cartoon, Clifford Berryman depicted Washington residents as dependent children marching under a “voteless” flag.
Washingtonians appeal for voting rights
This 1944 pamphlet argued that the District had a population larger than five of the states yet had no voice in the Federal Government or control over its own affairs. The pamphlet called this disfranchisement “repugnant to the spirit of American liberty.” Several more decades passed before women and men in “Voteless Washington” obtained any of the voting rights they sought.
Dorothea Lange photograph of internees lined up to vote for the Tanforan Assembly Center Advisory Council, June 16, 1942
Although the civil rights of Japanese immigrants and Japanese-descended U.S. citizens were violated when they were forced into internment camps during World War II, internees with citizenship remained allowed to vote while incarcerated. Non-citizens could also vote in some camp elections—a first for Japanese immigrants, who lacked voting rights because they could not naturalize. After the war, citizenship and voting rights gradually opened to Asian immigrants.
Old enough, mature enough, and responsible enough to vote
Calls to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 began in 1942, when the minimum age for the military draft dropped to 18. The World War II slogan, “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote,” resonated during the Vietnam War as thousands of young men were drafted. Although opponents questioned 18-year-olds’ maturity, the 26th Amendment—lowering the voting age to 18 for women and men—was ratified in record time.
Dissent from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Citing bipartisan support for reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006, Justice Ginsburg argued in her dissenting opinion in Shelby County v. Holder that the “evolution of voting discrimination into more subtle second-generation barriers is powerful evidence that . . . preclearance remains vital to protect minority voting rights.” She insisted that the Supreme Court acted inappropriately by overriding Congress when striking down Section 4(b). The struggle over voting rights for women and men continues.
Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote
Corinne Porter, curator
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration