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One hundred years ago today, a constitutional amendment assured women the right to vote. NPR's Melissa Block reports on women who were not included.
MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: The fight over the 19th Amendment was, yes, about sex, but it was also deeply entwined with race. Southern politicians especially seethed over the prospect of enfranchising millions of African American women just as the 15th Amendment had enfranchised Black men, by law, if not by practice.
MARTHA JONES: The debates are explicit.
BLOCK: This is Martha Jones, professor at Johns Hopkins University, whose forthcoming book, "Vanguard," traces the history of African American women's fight for political power.
JONES: Racism runs through the debates over women's suffrage, oftentimes through and through.
BLOCK: Case in point - in 1919, just before Congress voted on the 19th Amendment, South Carolina Senator Ellison Smith fulminated against what he called the alien and unfit Negro race. He proclaimed it a crime against white civilization to have earlier granted Black men the vote. Extending the vote to the other half of the Negro race, he thundered, would unleash new evils.
In the face of racist opposition, white suffragists betrayed the Black women who had also long-fought for the right to vote, says Elaine Weiss, author of the book "The Woman's Hour" about the crusade for women's suffrage.
ELAINE WEISS: We have to acknowledge that they used as one of their politically expedient arguments, you know, there were more white women who will be voting than Black women. So don't worry; white supremacy is not going to be endangered.
BLOCK: Listen to this letter from the leading suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt trying to convince a North Carolina congressman to vote yes on the 19th Amendment.
UNIDENTIFIED READER #1: (Reading) The present condition in the South makes sovereigns of some Negro men while all white women are their subjects. These are sad but solemn truths. If you want white supremacy, why not have it constitutionally, honorably? The federal amendment offers the way.
BLOCK: Of course, as historian Martha Jones points out, whites in the Jim Crow South knew all too well how to keep African Americans from voting with poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, violence and lynching.
JONES: It is a bargain in 1919 and 1920 - support for women's suffrage in exchange for giving individual states license to continue to keep Black Americans from the polls. They've long kept Black men from the polls, and now they're going to keep Black women from the polls as well.
BLOCK: Indeed, just two months after the 19th Amendment was ratified, the prominent African American suffragist Mary Church Terrell wrote a letter filled with foreboding.
UNIDENTIFIED READER #2: (Reading) The colored women of the South will be shamefully treated and will not be allowed to vote, I am sure. We are so helpless without the right of citizenship in that section of the country where we need it most.
BLOCK: Along with African Americans, other groups excluded from the vote included Asian American immigrants, who were long ineligible for naturalized citizenship on account of race and only won the vote starting in 1943. Also excluded - Native Americans, many of whom were not made U.S. citizens until 1924. Even after that, Native Americans in some states were considered wards of the state and weren't guaranteed the right to vote until 1965 with passage of the Voting Rights Act.
MARCIA CHATELAIN: A victory for some was not a victory for all. And fights continue today.
BLOCK: Marcia Chatelain is a professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown.
CHATELAIN: I think what this year provides us an opportunity to do, as people celebrate 100 years of suffrage, is to ask the critical question, suffrage for whom and at what cost?
BLOCK: In answer to that question, Chatelain points to the current struggles over voting rights.
CHATELAIN: No one should celebrate anything as long as we live in a country that has such strategically created voter suppression.
JONES: One of the lessons that we learn when we compare 1920 and 2020 is that voting rights is never a given. It's never a guarantee. It's not a done deal in the United States.
BLOCK: Professor Martha Jones, who can look up at a reminder of that long history on the wall of her office. It's a portrait of her great-great-grandmother Susan Davis, who was born enslaved in Kentucky. Jones likes to imagine her 80-year-old ancestor on Election Day 1920, hitching up her horse and buggy and riding into town with her daughter Lillian.
JONES: And getting into that line - a segregated line, but a line nonetheless - that would permit her and her daughter Lillian both to cast their first ballots. I can't say for sure that Susan and Lillian voted on that day. I sure hope they did.
BLOCK: Melissa Block, NPR News.
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