The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How racism almost killed women’s right to vote

Women’s suffrage required two constitutional amendments, not one.

WASHINGTON, DC - Mary Church Terrell was a teacher, author and civil rights activist in Washington, DC. At age 86 she led the successful fight to integrate eating places in the District of Columbia. She is shown in this photograph, c. 1880-1900, from the Library of Congress. (Library of Congress/ Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. )

Today, senators will assemble in the Capitol to mark the 100th anniversary of congressional passage of the 19th Amendment, which made it illegal to bar citizens from voting on the basis of sex. They will offer moving tributes to pioneering suffragists, speeches that will no doubt be markedly different in tone and content from those that senators delivered on June 3 and 4, 1919, as they were preparing to vote on the Susan B. Anthony Amendment for the third time in nine months. On those days the debate was not about gender. It was about race.

Why? Because, in many ways, the 19th Amendment was a debate about the 15th Amendment, which decreed that a citizen’s right to vote could not be “denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” On a swelteringly hot June day 100 years ago, senators invoked states’ rights, their hatred of the 15th Amendment and their desire to keep African Americans from the polls as reasons to oppose the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.

As we approach the second presidential election after the Shelby Co. v. Holder decision that dismantled a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act — the law that truly made the 15th and 19th Amendments reality across America — we should reflect on the intertwined histories of these two amendments. Their histories highlight the intersections between race and sex, as well as the promise and failures of our democracy.

By the time Congress voted on the Susan B. Anthony Amendment in 1919, women’s rights activists had weathered three generations’ of objections to the idea of women casting their ballots. Women voting will destroy the family, opponents cried. Women lack the intellectual and rational capacity to vote, critics claimed. Only “bad” women would vote, while “good” women who understood their proper place would stay home.

By 1915, though, hundreds of thousands of women voted in 11 states, and thousands had graduated from college, entered the professions and joined public life. Though birth rates dropped and divorce rates increased, the family had not been destroyed. And the nation had withstood, perhaps even prospered from, these challenges to traditional gender norms. In the final years of suffrage activism, then, the primary barrier to a national amendment ensuring the vote for women remained objections to black women and men voting in the South.

These debates came to a head in the Senate. Suffragists had defeated enough foes in the 1918 election to narrowly have the votes on their side, but this didn’t guarantee victory. The House overwhelmingly approved the Susan B. Anthony Amendment for the second time in May 1919, but the Senate vote remained tight. Maud Wood Park, chair of the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s (NAWSA) Congressional Committee, dreaded to look at the paper each morning for fear that one of their Senate allies might have died during the night. The loss of one vote could signal another crushing defeat.

On June 3, 1919, the Senate began two days of debate on the amendment. Senator Ellison “Cotton Ed” Smith of South Carolina expressed the sentiments of the opposition most succinctly when he thundered “the southern man who votes for the Susan B. Anthony Amendment votes to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment.” White leaders like Smith feared that not only would the Susan B. Anthony Amendment enfranchise black women, at least on paper, but that it would also compel the federal government to enforce the 15th Amendment, which it had not done since the end of Reconstruction. Senator Pat Harrison (D-Miss.) even offered an amendment to limit the franchise to white women. Other Senators, such as James Wadsworth (R-New York) and William Borah (R-Idaho), justified their “no” votes by claiming, in part, that the 19th Amendment would make a mockery of Constitution because everyone knew Southern states would void it, just like they had with 15th Amendment, by imposing poll taxes, literacy tests and even violent intimidation.

Black women, too, understood the 19th Amendment in terms of the 15th, as the historian Liette Gidlow has established. In order for black women to vote, especially in Southern states, they needed both amendments to be upheld. But as women’s suffrage gained momentum in the 1900s, some Southern congressmen introduced measures to repeal the 15th Amendment. And so black suffragists stressed the importance of both the 15th and 19th Amendments. As Mary Church Terrell, a founding member of the NAACP and the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, wrote in 1915: “the reasons for repealing the Fifteenth Amendment differ but little from arguments advanced by those who oppose the enfranchisement of women.”

White suffragists also realized the connections between the 15th and 19th Amendments. In fact, the 19th Amendment was a direct response to their unsuccessful attempts to get the 15th Amendment to outlaw sex, as well as racial, discrimination in voting. Resolving that women needed a 15th Amendment of their own, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony wrote a new amendment, modeled word for word on the 15th, and lobbied strenuously for it in the 1870s. It was first introduced in Congress in 1878.

But rather than join African American women and men in fighting for universal suffrage (the goal that the movement had embraced until Reconstruction), many white suffragists pressed for a federal amendment without regard for how it might pertain to women of color. By the 1910s, many white suffragists had come to believe that focusing on white women voting was the only way they could get the 19th Amendment through Congress.

In the 1917 book, “Woman Suffrage by Federal Constitutional Amendment,” NAWSA President Carrie Chapman Catt openly acknowledged that black women in the South would likely be disenfranchised in precisely the same the ways that black men had been because the federal amendment “will be subject to whatever restrictions may be imposed by state constitutions.” She further noted that, in Southern states on the whole, white women outnumbered black women, thus, “If the South really wants White Supremacy, it will urge the enfranchisement of women.”

In the end, enough senators, including a few from below the Mason-Dixon Line, voted “yes” on the Susan B. Anthony Amendment for it to pass on June 4, 1919. Senators approved the amendment not because they thought it would enfranchise women of color or compel the enforcement of the 15th Amendment, but because they knew it would not.

While we rightly celebrate the bold and selfless efforts of the generations of women of all races and backgrounds who fought valiantly for the vote, let us also remember, as suffragists themselves understood, that the 19th Amendment is inherently intertwined with the 15th Amendment and the ongoing struggle for voting rights. And let us also reclaim the ideal of universal suffrage that initially inspired the movement. What better way to honor the suffrage centennial than to address the ways in which citizens continue to be disenfranchised by voter suppression measures that function much like those from over a century ago?