An op-ed from Girls Inc. addressing the Centennial of the 19th Amendment.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment and women’s constitutional right to vote. This historic moment provides an important opportunity to emphasize that full gender equity requires racial justice and equity as well. While the women’s suffrage movement benefited tremendously from the leadership of Black women, it did not advance or include their right to vote. In fact, it took more than half a century later for women of color to access the ballot with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The United States has a long history of denying its citizens the right to vote. Building a more equitable society means ensuring all people, regardless of race, gender, and socio-economic status, are able to participate in our political system. Many of our most heavily debated issues—the economy, healthcare, education, and public safety—carry tremendous consequences for those most vulnerable and with the least amount of political power.
That’s why it’s so important for girls, particularly girls of color, to be civically engaged as early as possible. Through our She Votes initiative, Girls Inc. helps girls realize the power of their voices, learn about the structure and role of the U.S. government, and even be inspired to run for elected office one day. Girls are innately powerful, and with the right opportunities and support can grow up to be leaders and change agents in the world.
Often overlooked in the pages of history, women of color have played an instrumental role in advancing civic engagement, voting rights, and social movements for centuries. From abolitionists like Sojourner Truth and Harriett Tubman to suffragettes and activists like Mary Church Terrell, Nannie Helen Burroughs, and Ida B. Wells, Black women bravely fought for the rights of women and men long before they themselves were seen as equal citizens under the law or had the right to vote. They endured racial prejudice, discrimination, and violence to advance justice and freedom for all. As educator and civil rights activist Nannie Helen Burroughs wrote: “To struggle and battle and overcome and absolutely defeat every force designed against us is the only way to achieve.”
When the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed—making racial discrimination in voting illegal, it marked more than a century of work by Black suffragists to secure voting rights for all people, which finally would include them. To this day however, obstacles to voting still persist for Black Americans and communities of color, including voter suppression, photo ID requirements, early voting cutbacks, under-resourced polls, and inadequate funding for elections.
Young people of color face additional barriers. Mail ballots, which many young people complete (as well as first-time voters and people of color), have been found to be rejected at a higher rate than in-person ballots, says the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Tougher voting rules, difficult absentee ballot procedures, and irregular school and work schedules serve as additional obstacles to young people exercising their right to vote.
Increasing voter participation is critical for democracy. With November 3 just a few short months away, we must do everything we can to ensure safe, fair, and accessible elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Many states have begun preparations to educate people about the health risks, make polling places as safe as possible, and also encourage voting by mail. We must also urge Congress to appropriate emergency funding to support such efforts, as the funds provided in the CARES Act fall tremendously short of what is necessary.
Millions of eligible voters, many women and people of color, are not active in our political decision making—and we need them to be. During this year’s Centennial, we remember the women who paved the way for future female voters and political leaders, and the work that remains to ensure all girls and young people grow up in an equitable and just society.