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The right to vote

Historian and Prof. Emerita Anne Boylan discusses pivotal voting milestones and why protecting our right to vote requires constant vigilance.

This year, the country celebrates pivotal voting milestones (55 years of the Voting Rights Act; 100 years of the women’s right to vote and 150 years for African American men). To mark the occasion, historian and Prof. Emerita Anne Boylan curated Votes for Delaware Women: A Centennial Exhibition for the UD Library, Museums and Press, an online exhibition that examines Delaware’s role in the long struggle to secure voting rights for all women. Here, she reminds us why protecting citizens’ right to vote requires constant vigilance.


It’s been 100 years since women got the right to vote, and we’ve still never had a female president? Why do you think that is?

As difficult as it is for men to become president of the United States, it is doubly difficult for women as a whole and triply difficult for women of color. Winning elective office is the traditional stepping-stone for reaching the highest office in the land.  Yet at all electoral levels, both female and male voters hold women candidates to a different standard than they do men. That standard reflects the implicit assumptions that voters harbor about women as holders of public office. Studies show, for instance, that many Americans, when asked to envision a “leader” think first and only of men. If voters can’t picture women in leadership positions, how can women run for office and win, let alone raise the enormous sums required?  Then there is plain old-fashioned misogyny, whereby a small percentage of voters simply refuse to vote for a qualified female candidate. In a 2015 poll, 8% took that position. Even if the percentage is lower now, it means that women candidates have to over-perform, that is, overcome the initial disadvantage established by some voters’ refusal to consider any woman.

It is worth noting that countries with elected women leaders often have parliamentary systems; under a parliamentary government, one does not have to win a nation-wide popular vote in order to become prime minister.


How safe (or threatened) is our right to vote? Is it ever a guarantee?

There is no guaranteed right to vote in the U.S. Constitution. Instead, constitutional amendments related to voting (15th, 19th, 24th, 26th) frame the issue in the negative: a citizen’s right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged” on particular grounds, such as race or sex.  We have 50+ voting systems in our states, territories, and the District of Columbia.  Depending on where one lives, voting can be simple or difficult, threatened or safe. In recent years, we have seen how voters’ access to their rights can be eased or restricted through voter registration procedures, location and number of polling places, voter roll maintenance, absentee ballot and vote-by-mail rules, voting machine styles, disenfranchising laws, and election security measures. The fate of the 1965 Voting Rights Act is a reminder that protecting citizens’ right to vote requires constant vigilance.


How have the 15th Amendment, which granted African American men the right to vote, and the 19th Amendment, which granted voting rights to women, benefited society?

Along with the 14th Amendment [which granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in America, including former slaves], these two amendments transformed the U.S. Constitution and the American political system, moving both in a more democratic direction. The 14th Amendment defined national citizenship for the first time; the 15th and 19th eliminated race and sex, respectively, as conditions of exclusion from voting. The 19th completed the work of the 15th by making all adult women (in theory at least) full citizens with men. Together, the 15th and 19th Amendments created the scaffolding for a broad freedom struggle in which African American women were central actors. All Americans benefit when everyone’s voting rights are fully safeguarded.


What surprised you most about the suffrage movement? 

I have been surprised to uncover the depth and breadth of the movement during the 1890-1920 era. It truly became a grassroots political movement, perhaps the largest such movement in U.S. history. (I’ll probably get some pushback on that from political historians.) Suffragists learned how the political system ticked and then used the mechanisms of pressure-group politics to achieve their goal. The effectiveness of anti-suffrage efforts was another surprise. In 1920, they almost won! In Tennessee, the final ratifying state, the amendment’s passage came down to one vote.

Yet the suffrage movement fell apart almost as soon as the amendment entered the U.S. Constitution. It was African American suffragists who carried its promise forward after 1920, working to end disfranchisement in the South, and to frame voting rights as part of a larger freedom struggle that might fulfill the Constitution’s democratic promise.

Students are often surprised to learn about male suffragists and female anti-suffragists. But there were women and men on both sides of the issue, and in Delaware at least, the leading anti-suffragists were all women.


What should we tell our children about this anniversary? 

We should tell daughters and sons the same thing: let’s commemorate the anniversary, not celebrate it unquestioningly. It was no doubt key event in American political history, but the suffrage movement’s failings, particularly white suffragists’ unwillingness to confront Jim Crow disfranchisement head on, need to be acknowledged. The struggle for voting rights continues, as does the effort to ensure women’s full inclusion in the halls of power at all levels of government.


What do people get wrong about the 19th Amendment?

No one “gave” or “granted” voting rights to women; the suffrage movement won voting rights through a long, slow, difficult, daunting, depressing, sometimes dangerous struggle. 42 years passed between the introduction of a proposed women’s suffrage constitutional amendment into Congress (in 1878) and the amendment’s final ratification.

At the same time, the Amendment is best seen as a transitional moment rather than an end point.  It’s not that one day, no woman could vote and the next day all women could.  By 1920, women had won full voting rights in 15 states and Alaska Territory, and the right to vote for president in 12 additional states. Yet after 1920, many women still could not vote, usually for reasons related to their racial or class status. In the states of the former Confederacy, for instance, most African American women were disfranchised by various tactics, just as African American men were. In poll tax states, poor white women often couldn’t vote because the family would pay only one poll tax—for the male head of household.  Some poll tax states made the tax cumulative, which meant that the tax doubled if unpaid one year, tripled the next year, and so on. Chinese- and Japanese-born individuals were legally excluded from becoming naturalized citizens until the middle of the century; with no access to citizenship, such women (and men) could not vote. Native American women living on reservations did not become U.S. citizens until 1924. Inequities such as these were not altered until much later in American history, particularly by the 24th Amendment (1964) and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

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