Reflections on suffrage: The 19th Amendment at 100

Penn Today reached out to experts from centers and schools across the University to look at suffrage through the lens of history, this election, and the fight yet to come. 

Group of women holding a banner reading Welcome Suffrage Envoys shaking hands with other women arriving at the building.
Suffrage envoys from San Francisco greeted in New Jersey on their way to Washington to present a petition to Congress containing more than 500,000 signatures. (Image: Library of Congress)

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby proclaimed part of the U.S. Constitution on Aug. 26, 1920, now known as Women’s Equality Day. While the suffrage movement has a contentious history, one that intersects with both abolition as well as slavery and white privilege, the passage of the 19th Amendment enshrined into law the ability for citizens, regardless of sex, to elect representative officials that set decisions and policies that shape the lives of every American.

U.S. women now vote at higher rates than men. Modern voting history reflects the issues these women have advanced, including children’s rights and equal pay for equal work. Still, more than 44% of eligible voters choose not to cast their ballot, and the U.S. is still a long way from universal suffrage, with voting restrictions placed on felons and reports of voter suppression.

Penn Today reached out to experts from centers and schools across the University to reflect on suffrage—in their own words— through the lens of history, the historic upcoming election, and the fight yet to come.

As President Amy Gutmann shared in a video for the First Woman Voter campaign, “we must continue the good fight, and we must not cease until every citizen has equal access to vote, no matter their gender, race, or income.”

Dawn Teele, Janice and Julian Bers Assistant Professor in the Social Sciences in the School of Arts & Sciences, and author of “Forging the Franchise: The Political Origins of the Women’s Vote” (2018)

Opponents of social change and policy reform love to fall back on the excuse that now is not the right time to implement a new idea. They claim that other areas of politics are more pressing; that it is another group’s turn to be lifted up; that advocates for change have not asked in the right way; that the people are not ready. And, from the bloomers of the suffragists to the pantsuits of the boomers, even the outfits of reformers are marshaled to preserve the hierarchy.

Given the endlessly creative derision of the opposition, well-meaning idealists can easily be dissuaded from taking an aggressive approach to the pursuit of freedom. Perhaps by saying it more sweetly, by tempering their goals, or by learning to talk, dress, and dream like the mainstream, change will finally come.

But if one lesson can be learned from the struggle for the 19th Amendment, it is to raise, rather than lower, our sights. Whether from class privilege, racial privilege, or privilege of national origin, every suffrage organization, and every suffragist and leader, had faults. But one organization’s mantra deserves requoting here, for all the young social justice warriors: Instead of choosing your battles, do everything.

Patricia D’Antonio, the Carol E. Ware Professor of Mental Health Nursing and director of the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing in the School of Nursing

Jessica Clark, archivist at the Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing in the School of Nursing

Nurses and nursing developed alongside the early 20th century fight for women’s suffrage and the struggle to improve conditions for the poor and dispossessed. As nurses came to know the individuals and families in their care, they came to also understand that their lifesaving work was necessary but not sufficient. They became important activists in such movements as urban sanitation, fair employment standards, protective labor laws, and other public health initiatives.

Nurses marching in a suffrage parade in Washington D.D. in 1913
Nurses march in a suffrage parade in Washington D.C. in March, 1913. (Image: Barbara Bates Center for the Study of the History of Nursing)

Suffrage, however, remained controversial, especially early in the fight for the 19th Amendment. Some nurses wore the suffragette label proudly, marching in parades, participating in demonstrations, canvassing friends and colleagues. Others were concerned that overt political involvement would compromise their claims to impartial knowledge and expertise; their involvement in the new public health movement—itself controversial as the state claimed a more central place in the lives of individuals, families, and communities—demanded professional political neutrality.

Nursing was never monolithic. Nursing had been envisioned as a mission for white, middle-class women. Black women who wanted to nurse had to turn to their own Black hospitals for training. Men had to turn largely to psychiatric hospitals that valued them for their putative strengths.

Early nursing associations reflected this diversity. The National League for Nursing Education (founded in 1893), the American Nurses Association (1896), the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (1908), and the National Organization for Public Health Nursing (1912) initially represented the same broad spectrum of social and political attitudes as American society. Organizational leaders were among the first nurses to embrace the goals of the suffrage movement.

Of course, the grassroots work of convincing all nurses to support suffrage remained. But it did succeed, and here we see the enduring power of nursing. It allowed women (and some men) working within different social and racial constraints to construct meaningful and important lives. At the same time, it also encouraged them to move beyond the narrower conventions of their particular times and places and embrace broader political and social initiatives. How it did so remains an important historical question directly relevant to our own tumultuous era.

Serena Mayeri, professor of law and history at Penn Law School, and author of “Reasoning from Race: Feminism, Law, and the Civil Rights Revolution” (2011)

We should not confuse the 19th Amendment’s centennial with the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Many American women—and men—saw their voting rights and membership in the polity curtailed for decades after the Amendment’s passage and ratification, including many African and Native Americans, as well as immigrants of Asian descent who were considered ineligible for citizenship.

Nor is the fight for suffrage a fait accompli: Concerted campaigns of disenfranchisement are far from a relic of the past. The evisceration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the passage of voter suppression measures, the dilution of voting power through partisan and racial gerrymandering, the disenfranchisement of persons with criminal convictions, and efforts to discount noncitizens in the census are just a few of the forces that conspired to limit voter participation in and impact on elections even before a global pandemic threw a wrench into our electoral system.

We often forget that historically, suffrage movements have been about more than just voting. Anti-suffragists opposed the 19th Amendment because it threatened to disrupt power relations in homes and families as well as in the public sphere, and to abolish second-class citizenship based on status. Many suffragists aspired to transform American political and social life by making it possible for women to control their reproductive destinies and to be compensated fairly for labor in and outside of their homes. Here, too, the unfinished business of suffragism could not be more urgent today.

Kristen R. Ghodsee, professor of Russian and East European studies, author of  “Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism and Other Arguments for Economic Independence,” and host of a podcast about the life and work of Alexandra Kollontai. 

This August, as American women mark the 100th anniversary of suffrage, it’s worth stepping back and putting the status of women’s rights in a broader international context. Despite a century of voting rights, there remains much work to ensure that American women and girls enjoy the same opportunities as their male counterparts. For example, last year marked the 40th anniversary of The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979, CEDAW serves as an international women’s bill of rights.

world map showing countries in green that have ratified CEDAW, yellow (the US) signed but not ratified, and other countries in red that have not signed.
CEDAW participation throughout the world: Countries in green have signed and ratified CEDAW; countries in yellow have signed but not ratified; countries in red have not signed the treaty.

Although 189 nations have ratified and accepted CEDAW, the United States still stands apart with Palau, Tonga, Somalia, Sudan, Iran, and the Holy See as the only countries which have failed to do so. President Jimmy Carter signed it in 1980 and the Senate has held five CEDAW ratification hearings since then (1988, 1990, 1994, 2000, and 2010). For more than four decades, conservative politicians and religious leaders have spearheaded opposition to CEDAW.

Today, America stands alone in the Western world as having failed to fully accept the terms of this important treaty, profoundly undermining the United States’ commitment to the promotion of women’s rights on the international stage.

Kathy Peiss, the Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of American History in the School of Arts & Sciences, who teaches courses on modern American cultural history and the history of American sexuality, women, and gender

The 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment has sparked countless histories, essays, and editorials on the women’s suffrage movement. Gaining the vote was a momentous achievement, to be sure, but I have been surprised by how extensive the coverage of this anniversary has been. All forms of commemoration are as much about the present as they are about the past. What then, does this outpouring say about our own times? I’m struck by newer histories and critical perspectives that have found their way into public attention. Such well-known leaders as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul continue to be recognized, but we are also learning of the many Black, Latina, working-class, and queer women who advocated women’s rights, often in the context of other movements for social and economic justice.

Two images from Penn Archives, on the left are the first three women enrolled at Penn at a desk with chemistry experiment equipement; on the right, six members of a Black sorority in the 1940s
Women in the early days at Penn. At left, the first women to matriculate at the University of Pennsylvania, working in a chemistry lab in 1873. At right, members of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, circa 1921. (Images: Penn Archives)

The celebration of the 19th Amendment has also been tempered by a thorough reckoning with the suffrage movement’s weaknesses. As historians have documented, white suffragists’ racism led them not only to marginalize Black women activists who demanded women’s suffrage and enforcement of the 15th Amendment; it also spurred many to argue that white women’s votes would help uphold white supremacy. This fraught history, one that extends back to the pre-Civil War era and forward through 1960s Civil Rights legislation, has challenged feminist politics to the present day. Without intersectional coalitions, it has been difficult to build on women’s suffrage and unite behind policies that would advance all women, in employment rights and working conditions, in child care provision, and in bodily self-determination.

Although 1920 marks an important moment, it is only one date in what feminist Juliet Mitchell called “the longest revolution.” The commemorations are a call to action toward a more inclusive vision of women’s emancipation.

Gwendolyn Beetham, associate director of the Gender, Sexuality & Women’s Studies Program in the School of Arts & Sciences, and Maria Murphy, interim associate director of the Alice Paul Center for Research on Gender, Sexuality & Women

Alice Paul standing with a large banner on a picket line in 1917.
The day after the police announce that future picket attendees would be arrested and sentenced, Alice Paul led a picket line with a banner reading “The time has come to conquer or submit for there is but one choice—we have made it.” Paul was sentenced to six months in prison.

The women fighting for suffrage 100 years ago likely could not have fathomed the world that the women of 2020 find themselves in today. Did they anticipate that women would one day outnumber men in post-secondary education? Could they imagine the gains made for women’s employment by widely available birth control and safe, legal abortion? And did they worry about the areas where women would not make nearly as much progress, even 100 years on?

Handwritten transcripts for Alice Paul from the turn of the century
Alice Paul’s handwritten transcripts from her time at the Graduate School. (Image: Penn Archives)

Indeed, as we find reason to celebrate the achievement of our Center’s namesake, Alice Paul, and her co-conspirators, we also recognize how far we have to go. The persistent gender inequalities that have been recently laid bare have been long documented by those in the Gender & Sexuality Studies field. The current care work crisis exemplifies the disproportionate caregiving burdens on women, and we know that these inequalities further deepen based on race, sexuality, class, ability, and other factors.

As we contemplate historical and contemporary activism for full voting rights, we would like to emphasize the pressing institutional responsibility to imagine possibilities for care work support. Such material changes at Penn would be a powerful way to mark this Centennial in efforts to work towards a more just world.

Nancy Hirschmann, Stanley I. Sheerr Term Professor in the Social Sciences and professor of political science and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies in the School of Arts & Sciences

Winning the vote for women was momentous, but only a first step to political equality for women. The battle for suffrage was about more than the vote; it was about access to political power, the power to express our voices and the power to be heard. The absence of women from public office at all levels of government in the United States compares dramatically with the gender parity we find in the governments of other democratic nations throughout the world.

The battle for suffrage was of course a battle marred by racism; not only within the women’s suffrage movement, but after, as many Black (and Indigenous) women were subject to the same racial discrimination of “Jim Crow” laws to which Black men were subjected, leaving many women of color disenfranchised de facto. So it is particularly significant that one hundred years after the legal enfranchisement of all women, an African-Asian-American woman has been nominated to serve as the vice presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket. But again, it is only a step.

As we have already seen, racist and sexist attacks on [Kamala] Harris will proliferate and pollute democratic discourse, inflaming the incivility that has plagued the American polity for the past several decades. But perhaps we have reached a tipping point, as younger women who have been brought up with expectations of equal treatment are more outspoken and assertively intolerant of such bad behavior. They are seeking public office and more genuine representation. More women hold elected office in the U.S. now than ever before, and more are running this year than ever before. Every election is an opportunity for gender equality to be advanced, this one perhaps more than most.

Homepage image: Nurses marching to show support of the suffrage movement in Washington, D.C., in 1913. (Image: Library of Congress)