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The Unfinished Business of Women’s Suffrage

The women who remain locked out of the right to vote are the fractured legacy of a fractured movement.

Years before the Nineteenth Amendment would be ratified, Elizabeth Cady Stanton devised a history of women’s suffrage. In her telling, the movement traces its origins to a convention, which she convened, in a small town in upstate New York. Stanton fixed the origin of women’s suffrage there and then, as historian Lisa Tetrault methodically recounts in The Myth of Seneca Falls, to elevate herself as a rightful movement leader, and along with it, her possession of the correct strategy. She accomplished this rewriting of history with her own History of Woman Suffrage, co-authored with Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage.

Their History opens: “The prolonged slavery of woman is the darkest page in human history,” the “universal degradation of woman in all periods and nations.” This volume, published less than two decades after Emancipation, sees slavery as a “universal” condition, one Stanton and Anthony can claim, along with the freedom that follows. Their appeal—that suffrage can remedy some shared female condition—submerges Black women, their experiences of chattel slavery, and their own movement strategies.

This is no universal suffrage. “Stanton and Anthony’s continued faith in educated suffrage,” Tetrault writes, revealed “deep-seated prejudices expressed far too widely and far too often to be explained as mere demagoguery. They spared no ink in presenting them.” At an 1869 women’s rights convention, in her keynote address, Stanton made her case for suffrage with a string of racist epithets. “Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung, who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic, who can not read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling-book, making laws for Lucretia Mott.”

What Stanton leaves out of the volume are those women who challenged her on those same stages. At a convention Stanton and Anthony had called three years earlier, the anti-slavery lecturer and poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper had implored the women to recognize both their distinct subordination and their shared paths to freedom. Winning the right to vote would not be a universal salve for Black women. “You white women speak here of rights,” she said. “I speak of wrongs.”

Harper posed a question then that remains unresolved: Will white women stand with Black women for their rights not only against male domination but also against white supremacy? Or is white women’s solidarity conditional, offered only so long as white women can claim innocence of their complicity in white supremacy? By excluding Black women’s more expansive struggle for the vote and freedom from racial terror, they asserted that “educated, white, middle-class women could, and should, speak for all women,” as Tetrault writes. Not coincidentally, they also believed suffrage itself should be reserved for the educated, disenfranchising the same women—Black women, poor women, immigrant women—they claimed the right to speak for.

One hundred years on from “woman suffrage,” and women in the United States are still denied the right to vote, whether through outright disenfranchisement for past involvement with the criminal legal system, voter intimidation, bogus claims of “voter fraud,” or the realization—perhaps logical—that there isn’t much worth voting for in a political system that has so often failed and excluded them. The Nineteenth Amendment, under which no state may abridge or deny the right to vote based on sex, was ratified one hundred years ago this August. The women who remain locked out of the franchise are the fractured legacy of a fractured movement.

On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the last state needed to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment—and it’s this year that has become its centenary. This year on August 18, a federal appeals court will hear the case of Rosemary McCoy and Sheila Singleton, two Black women in Florida whose right to vote in the November election hangs in the balance.

All but two states currently deny people convicted of felony offenses their rights to vote—some can regain them upon release, some only after completing parole and probation, and some are barred from voting for the rest of their lives. It is hard to say precisely how many women are currently denied the vote due to felony disenfranchisement. Nationwide, according to a 2016 report by the Sentencing Project, 6.1 million people (of all genders) face felony disenfranchisement. And while more recent figures are not available for women, in 2000, they estimated more than 676,000 women had lost their voting rights under such laws. Over the last four decades, however, the number of women in federal prison, state prison, or jail has increased by 750 percent—from 26,378 in 1980 to 225,060 in 2017. If you add women on parole or under probation, that number goes up to 1.3 million.

All this likely makes women with felony convictions the fastest growing group of United States citizens to be denied their right to vote.

McCoy and Singleton were first stripped of their right to vote due to felony disenfranchisement laws, which date back to the days of the women’s suffrage movement. Singleton was convicted of a felony offense in 2011 and completed her six-month sentence and probation in 2014; McCoy was convicted of three felony offenses and given a two-year sentence with eighteen months probation in 2015, which she completed in 2017. They were supposed to regain their right to vote after completion of their sentences. But now the state of Florida wants to make regaining that right virtually impossible, especially for low-income Black women.

“My family, I have generations going down—many of them died—they went through a lot for us to get the right to vote,” Singleton said. “And for us to still be fighting?”

More than 150 years ago, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper appealed to white women in the suffrage movement, as historian Martha S. Jones recounts her struggle in her forthcoming book, Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All. Harper sought to unify them beyond securing their own right to vote—which meant to fight for Black women. At the time, the predominantly white suffrage movement was wrapped up in debates over who should get the vote first: Black men, or (white) women? But some formed a coalition to demand universal suffrage, not limited by race or sex or class. As Harper would argue in support of such efforts, “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity.”

At the same time, “Harper doubted that white American women would join her in this movement,” writes Jones, and when these coalitions collapsed, Black women went on to form their own organizations to rally for the vote on more expansive terms. Suffrage alone would not be enough. Their movement would span multiple terrains, long past 1920. “The Nineteenth Amendment cracked open a door,” Jones writes. But on the other side was the intimidation and violence the men in their lives already faced at the ballot box, and with the passage of women’s suffrage, “now beset Black women’s lives.”

The Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments had nominally extended the franchise to Black men. In truth, the Reconstruction era amendments launched a struggle that would span another century as the white ruling class authored yet more laws and regulations that were—though race-neutral on their face—tailored to block Black men from the vote and from political power. States had the power to demand poll taxes and literacy tests before allowing Black men to register.

So did laws barring people convicted of felonies from the vote, laws which, in some form, remain in all but two states today. Under felony disenfranchisement, more than one in five Black people of voting age in Florida have been denied their right to vote.

That includes Black women. They may make up a smaller number of women under correctional control in Florida and thus are often overlooked. Yet the number of women in Florida’s jails and prisons has skyrocketed over the last 40 years, according to the Vera Institute, from around 1,700 in 1980 to more than 14,000. McCoy and Singleton are two of those women.

On November 6, 2018, a ballot measure to amend the state constitution and end felony disenfranchisement passed in Florida, supported by nearly 65 percent of voters in the state. Disenfranchised people, like McCoy, had lobbied for the amendment and collected signatures to get it on the ballot. There were still restrictions: Amendment 4 did not extend voting rights to people with felony convictions for murder or sex offenses or to those currently incarcerated. Voting rights were only restored once someone had completed their sentence.

When Amendment 4 went into effect in January 2019, an estimated 1.4 million people in Florida regained their right to vote—perhaps the most people enfranchised under a single law since the Nineteenth Amendment or the Voting Rights Act of 1965. McCoy and Singleton registered to vote and worked to register other people, now—after years—eligible again.

It did not take long for the century-old system of disenfranchisement to reassert itself. A new state law, Senate Bill 7066, stipulated that voting rights would only be restored once someone had paid off all their financial obligations related to their conviction—court fees, fines, restitution. For McCoy and Singleton, this amounted to more than they could pay, in the thousands of dollars, with interest building. It was a return to the days of the poll tax. “What they did to us, they put a fire under us,” McCoy said.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, who represents McCoy and Singleton, argues that with nearly a quarter of all Black women in Florida living below the poverty line and with the unemployment rate for Black women with a felony conviction at more than 43 percent, hinging the franchise on the ability to pay back fines, fees, and other legal financial obligations is a violation of the women’s constitutional rights, including their right to vote under the Nineteenth Amendment.

Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, is representing McCoy and Singleton. The Nineteenth Amendment claim wasn’t in the original complaint she filed in the case, she told me by phone in July. She was reluctant, she said, because there was so little legislative record or case history. “It was such a matter of first impressions for the courts, meaning it was the first time they were even really considering that amendment in a contemporary time.” But after preparing a talk for a law school conference marking the anniversary of women’s suffrage, “looking at that history … If not now, then really, when?” And tying it as she does in the suit to the rights of low-income Black women, she said, “That was motivated from the history and the fact that that is, in some ways, the unfinished business of the Nineteenth Amendment.”

After the Nineteenth was ratified, Abudu told me, the splinters in the movement made realizing the promise of the amendment that much harder. A law might not explicitly bar women from the vote, but that could still be that law’s impact. “Where’s the teeth behind this amendment?” she asked. “Fifty years later, we see what it took to make the Fifteenth Amendment really mean something was the Voting Rights Act. And so what is the Voting Rights Act equivalent for women?”

Abudu emphasized that felony disenfranchisement is a form of wealth-based discrimination—being denied access to the ballot box “because you are too poor to vote.” But when low-income Black women already face racial and gender discrimination in employment, she argued, to make their ability to vote depending on their ability to pay? The law itself is another structural barrier. “Which also has the impact of never being able to address pay inequity. Reproductive rights. Unemployment issues. Child care”—any other gender and economic justice issue.

“That’s why we are pushing the court to recognize an intersectionality claim deserves serious consideration,” Abudu told me. “The triple burden becomes almost insurmountable.”

They won’t get a decision in their cases on August 18, the suffrage centenary, but they might before the November election. “Before the coronavirus, we were out there registering people to vote,” McCoy told me. “And to remind them to vote,” Singleton added. Now they both were worried about all the people who had registered, not knowing their eligibility now was up to a federal court. It’s confusing. It could deter people who are eligible. “That’s what they want,” Singleton said. And if it turns out that voter is not eligible ? The penalty she would face is a felony, on top of the felony used in the first place to strip her of this fundamental right.

By the time of Seneca Falls, Black women in the suffrage movement had ample evidence that women’s suffrage, pitched by the likes of Stanton and Anthony, was not only not meant for them but was fundamentally compromised. “I don’t immediately believe giving women the ballot will cure all the ills of life,” Frances Ellen Watkins Harper had said at a national women’s rights convention in 1866. “I do not believe white women are dew-drops exhaled from the sky.”

For Stanton, it was not merely a question of whether or not people she believed undeserving had the vote but what their vote might do to her. (Her concerns are very much alive today in the more transparently anti-democratic disenfranchisement efforts coming out of the Republican Party as well as the softer incumbent, centrist-shielding suppression tactics of Democrats.) Stanton “did not believe in allowing ignorant negroes and foreigners to make laws for her to obey,” as she said in a speech in 1869. She and Stanton wanted to limit the vote to only the “educated,” writes historian Lisa Tetrault. “This would ensure that disenfranchisement took place on what they viewed as ‘just’ grounds, as opposed to the unjust grounds of abstract categories such as ‘race’ or ‘sex.’”

At first, it would appear Stanton’s argument lost. The Fifteenth Amendment—“the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”—was ratified the following year. Yet one of the voter suppression tactics that followed was the literacy test: race-neutral on its face but overwhelmingly administered to Black men. The kind of limits Stanton and Anthony supported would proliferate in the Jim Crow era, drive the civil rights movement, lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and then emerge again in this century with the license of the Supreme Court.

Voter suppression tactics today are still designed to appear race-neutral or gender-neutral. Yet they remain racialized in how they impact women differently. Voter I.D. laws, for example, are now in effect in 34 states, with 18 states requiring a photo I.D. in order to vote. But women are more likely to face difficulty in obtaining an I.D. to satisfy these requirements. According to the Brennan Center, one third of voting-age women do not have access to the identity documents they need to do so, like birth certificates and passports with their current legal name. Of those women lacking I.D.s when a strict voter I.D. law went into effect in North Carolina in 2013, a disproportionate number were women of color—according to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, who has successfully challenged those laws.

The available research also suggests that many trans women could be disenfranchised by voter I.D. laws. An analysis by the Williams Institute showed that 378,450 trans people who are eligible to vote in 2020 do not have I.D.s that show their correct name and/or gender marker and that 81,000 trans people live in strict voter I.D. states. Though these figures are for trans people overall and not only for trans women, they point to significant barriers for trans women. Even when such I.D. is not required, precinct officials have demanded I.D., as one did in 2019, telling a trans woman who was trying to vote she had to show him her I.D. “because your face does not match your name.” (She has filed suit against that county.)

Tactics like these help drive voter attrition. “Voting in so many ways is a bit of a cost-benefit analysis,” Jeff Loperfido, senior counsel for voting rights at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, told me. When you hear somebody is being prosecuted for accidentally voting while on probation or somebody being challenged for not having the correct identification or citizenship paperwork, “it really starts to weigh—especially for those in these communities—is it worth my trouble? Is it worth the risk?” It’s often not just one thing that pushes people away from the polls but a web of factors: race, ethnicity, gender, immigration status, involvement with the criminal legal system, all come to bear.

The distance between the right to vote and the act of voting has always defined this struggle. Yet those who declared themselves the mothers of the Nineteenth did not see fit to close that distance; they exploited it to win. In 1920, women did not win the vote. Some women announced their victory and then declared it history—while others carried on the fight.