The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The 19th Amendment didn’t grant Puerto Rican women suffrage

At the centennial of the 19th Amendment, we should make visible the hidden history of the U.S. empire.

A voter registration booth is open during an event in Elizabeth, N.J., to help Puerto Rico hurricane victims in April 2018. (Julio Cortez/AP)

This month marks the centenary of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibited the federal and state governments from denying voting rights on the basis of sex. The amendment mostly benefited White women. Most women of color continued to lack access to the ballot for decades because of race-based denial of citizenship or the terror tactics of White rule. That’s the story for the 50 United States. But if we widen our view to include the U.S. empire, we can see that the racially diverse women of Puerto Rico, despite being U.S. citizens, were completely left out of the 19th Amendment.

It took until 1935 for all Puerto Rican women to gain access to the ballot, through local laws rather than due to constitutional reform at the federal level. Women’s struggle for the vote reveals the undemocratic nature of American imperialism, which still harms Puerto Ricans today.

The United States took over Puerto Rico in 1898, first militarily and then by treaty with Spain. Military occupation ended in 1900 with the U.S. Congress establishing a civilian government in the colony. Congress rolled back the universal male suffrage that Spain had granted in 1897 and weakened the Puerto Rican legislature by making its decisions subject to veto by Congress, the president and the U.S.-appointed governor. Bills that legalized divorce in 1902 — popular with women — and restored male suffrage in 1904 were allowed to become law as they played to specific U.S. interests in those moments.

Congress finally made all Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens in 1917. But citizenship for Puerto Ricans was not enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, came with no promise of statehood or federal voting rights and did not improve Puerto Ricans’ lives in any tangible way. As intended, U.S. citizenship bound Puerto Rico closer to the United States as a colony.

With U.S. corporate agriculture accelerating landlessness and men earning low seasonal wages in coffee, tobacco and especially sugar, women’s earnings became crucial to reducing malnutrition and child mortality. Working-class women increasingly took jobs in tobacco processing and needlework for U.S. and Puerto Rican companies. Like workers throughout the United States, these women joined unions and strikes and experienced brutal repression by employers and imperial and local authorities. Many working-class women joined the Socialist Party, which strategically advocated for women’s suffrage from its founding in 1915.

And yet, to most Puerto Rican legislators, women’s suffrage was unthinkable. They believed it would tarnish the domestic virtue of “their” women and erode men’s right to represent the family. They also believed it would also harm legislators’ class interests by boosting Socialist votes. Puerto Rican suffragists — with wealthy wives and middle-class teachers organized separately from Socialist workers — mobilized in the 1910s to change legislators’ minds. But a 1919 bill for women’s suffrage failed.

In 1920, Puerto Rican suffragists hoped U.S. imperial rule would bring a progressive expansion of women’s rights by including Puerto Rico in the 19th Amendment. But the amendment — probably as an oversight — did not bar governments of U.S. colonies from denying women the vote. On Sept. 1, 1920, suffragist and labor activist Genara Pagán walked into a Puerto Rican voter registration office to test the proposition that the amendment had granted her access to the vote as an American citizen. Denied registration, she filed a complaint that prompted the governor to consult with the powerful Bureau of Insular Affairs in Washington, D.C. The complaint prompted a question the governor needed to answer: Did the 19th Amendment apply in the colony he governed? The bureau, steeped in racist views of Puerto Rican women as causing overpopulation and poverty, firmly responded that it did not.

Congress did not overrule this bureaucratic fiat or Puerto Rican leaders’ chauvinism, despite having the authority to do so. Prominent U.S. suffrage organizations ignored the exclusion of Puerto Rican women from the 19th Amendment — just as many of them ignored the struggles of women of color to gain citizenship or exercise voting rights within the states.

Puerto Rican suffragists battled on. Some helped turn out male voters for Socialist candidates. Many pressured the Puerto Rican legislature to give women access to the ballot — bills failed in 1921 and 1923. In 1924, two women filed suit to force the courts to rule on whether the 19th Amendment applied in Puerto Rico. Both lost in the Puerto Rico Supreme Court, whose justices were appointed by the U.S. president.

Dynamics shifted after 1925. Locally, Puerto Rican Socialists gained traction by forming an electoral coalition with an establishment party. Pressure from that coalition pushed the Puerto Rican Senate to pass a compromise bill for literate women’s suffrage, but Socialists ultimately blocked the measure in the House because it didn’t go far enough. In Washington, however, well-connected Puerto Rican suffragists won the support of the National Woman’s Party and through it the leaders of key congressional committees. Thus, the U.S. House passed a bill for universal women’s suffrage in Puerto Rico in late 1928, and the Senate moved toward doing the same in early 1929.

Having Congress intervene in local affairs to enfranchise women would have humiliated Puerto Rican political leaders, who valued local autonomy over women’s suffrage. Upper-class suffragists, who disdained non-White working women, signaled enfranchising literate women would be enough. Thus in April 1929, the Puerto Rican legislature acted before the U.S. Senate could do so, overcoming Socialist objections and extending voting rights to the minority of Puerto Rican women who could read and write. The governor signed the bill into law, and Congress retreated, permanently.

Not until another electoral coalition including Socialists won control of the Puerto Rican legislature in 1933 did it become possible to extend suffrage to all women. In March 1935 — after three years of strikes and protests by women workers suffering Depression conditions — universal women’s suffrage became local law.

Today U.S. imperialism continues to afford Puerto Ricans fewer federal rights and benefits than citizens in the 50 states. Puerto Ricans cannot vote in presidential elections or for members of Congress, although they do elect a nonvoting “resident commissioner” to the House of Representatives. Congress has also set lower Medicare and Medicaid caps for Puerto Rico. In recent years, the federally appointed debt-restructuring board that favors Puerto Rico’s creditors has slashed health and education spending.

Yet Puerto Ricans persist, as did their predecessors who struggled for the vote a century ago. In 2019, popular protests forced Gov. Ricardo Rosselló to resign after journalists exposed misogynist, homophobic, violent messages among his coterie. Those mass protests reflected deep anger over political leaders’ mismanagement of already inadequate federal hurricane relief funds after Hurricanes Irma and María in 2017.

Women in the United States enfranchised in 1920 by the 19th Amendment were overwhelmingly White. Women of color gained substantial if vulnerable access to the ballot during the 1950s and 1960s. However, we must realize that because of U.S. imperialism, the 19th Amendment still does not apply to Puerto Rican women. As we celebrate a century of the amendment, we should remember it secured a narrow victory that has only widened over time due to persistent activism. Expanding the amendment to finally include women in Puerto Rico would necessitate a reckoning with U.S. imperialism and the consent of the Puerto Rican people.