'It's a Struggle They Will Wage Alone.' How Black Women Won the Right to Vote (2022)

The 19th Amendment, ratified a century ago on Aug. 18, 1920, is often hailed for granting American women the right to vote. And yet most Black women would wait nearly five decades more to actually exercise that right.

As the centennial of that Constitutional landmark arrives amid weeks of Black Lives Matter protests that have called for greater recognition of Black women’s contributions to society, historian Martha S. Jones aims to make sure that the Black American women who fought for voting rights will not be forgotten in her forthcoming book Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All.

TIME talked to Jones about the deep roots of this activism, which often predated the work of the famous white suffragists—and which still informs present-day debates over what history is worth remembering and how to chart a path to racial equality in the future.

TIME: In your book, you describe the 19th Amendment as marking a turn for Black women, but not in the way people might think. How so?

JONES: It’s a landmark moment when the U.S. Constitution includes an amendment that prohibits government from using sex as a criteria for voting rights. Like with any constitutional amendment, there’s a great deal more required in order to give it teeth.

In the case of the 19th Amendment, even as it’s ratified in August of 1920, all Americans are aware that many African-American women will remain disenfranchised. The 19th Amendment did not eliminate the state laws that operated to keep Black Americans from the polls via poll taxes and literacy tests—nor did the 19th Amendment address violence or lynching. Some African-American women will vote with the 19th Amendment. Some are already voting in California, New York and Illinois where state governments have authorized women’s votes. But many Black women faced the beginning of a new movement for voting rights in the summer of 1920, and it’s a struggle they will wage alone because now the organizations that had led the movement for women’s suffrage are disbanding.

What’s going on in the world in 1920 that leads to this moment?

One way to tell this story is that white suffragists launch, by 1913, a two-pronged campaign for a federal amendment. Alice Paul—head of the more radical, more confrontational wing of the movement that will hold public parades and processions—will picket the White House to pressure both the President and Congress to put forward a women’s suffrage amendment. At the same time, figures like Carrie Chapman Catt are working through more conventional political channels to win the ear and ultimately the mind of men like Woodrow Wilson. This two-pronged approach gains a momentum, particularly during years of the First World War. There are ultimately enough lawmakers in Washington who are willing to endorse or send to the states a constitutional amendment. And that then opens another chapter, because there still is a matter of persuading state-level lawmakers to ratify the amendment and that campaign will culminate in August of 1920 in the state of Tennessee, which is the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment.

'It's a Struggle They Will Wage Alone.' How Black Women Won the Right to Vote (1)

Members of the National American Woman Suffrage Association marching from Pennsylvania Terminal to their headquarters on Aug. 28, 1920, after welcoming home Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the Association, on her arrival from Tennessee.

Bettmann Archive


And Black women are left out of this campaigning?

Yes, Black women are set at a distance quite intentionally because, in order to hold onto the support of many white southern women, it’s necessary to keep the organization distant from African-American women. And it’s also the case, that, implicitly, the promise is that the amendment will not interfere with the disenfranchisement of African-American women—so it’s not a campaign premised in women’s universal voting rights, but it’s a campaign premised in the process of selective voting rights for white American women.

You cite a really interesting example of the disconnect between the two groups—the attempt to build a monument to “mammies.” How did that attempt factor into the campaign for voting rights?

The United Daughters of the Confederacy, the organization responsible for many Confederate monuments that litter the American landscape, proposes a monument in Washington, D.C., and that would have been a monument to the so-called “colored mammies” of the South, to some mythical version of enslaved women who were loyal to the southern slave-holding families, who were apolitical in their disposition, who were contented as enslaved people.

Black women know that if a monument to this mythical figure becomes part of the national landscape, it’s one more instrument in their political disenfranchisement. The “mammy” figure isn’t an endorsement of Black women’s political aspirations or their political capacities. I write about the women of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), who organized to oppose the monument. That monument is defeated even as many other Confederate monuments, as we know today, were successfully installed both in Washington and across the country.

Hallie Quinn Brown, the president of the NACW, said if southern white women want to erect a monument to formerly enslaved women, they can do it by encouraging their lawmaker husbands to pass civil rights legislation that would guarantee to Black Americans decent housing, education, healthcare and more.

Read more: Confederate Monuments Have Come Down in Cities Across America. What Should Take Their Place?

Your book argues that Black women voting-rights activists predated the famous white suffragists. What are the roots of that story?

(Video) When voting rights didn't protect all women

Oftentimes historians place the start of the suffrage movement in 1848 at a meeting in Seneca Falls, N.Y. Seneca Falls was not the important meeting we might have thought. It was a small local meeting. African-American women were not present. So my question in writing Vanguard was, “Where were Black women if they didn’t come to the Seneca Falls meeting?” That prior spring, in Philadelphia, they were organizing to attend a conference of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, one of the large Black religious denominations of the period. In that church, there is a fight brewing over women’s rights, specifically church women who want licenses to preach. So even before Seneca Falls, Black women are organizing together about their rights.

Part of the lesson out of Vanguard is that if we only look for African-American women suffragists in organizations put together by white American women, we’re going to be disappointed in the sense that their numbers will be small—or, in the example of Seneca Falls, nonexistent. At the same time, if we follow African-American women to where they are and listen to what they have to say and watch what they do, turns out they are as interested in political power and the problem of sexism as any community of American women—but they’re doing that work on their own terms. This is the story all the way through.

Who was the earliest Black women’s voting rights activist you found in your research?

One of the questions I had was, “Where did Black women’s political philosophy come from?” One of the signatures of Black women’s suffrage has become this dual critique of racism and sexism. To understand the roots of that, go back to the beginning of the 19th century. A Black woman Methodist preacher, Jarena Lee, needs a preaching license to make a living and writes a memoir in 1836 on ways she confronts sexism in her denomination. I write about Maria Stewart, a widowed teacher in Boston in the 1820s, who is deeply concerned about the future of African American communities that have made the transition from slavery to freedom. She first writes a pamphlet and then is invited to step to the podium. These are the foremothers of what becomes the core idea that animates Black women’s quest for political power and political rights.

'It's a Struggle They Will Wage Alone.' How Black Women Won the Right to Vote (2)

A circa 1849 image of preacher Jarena Lee pictured in the title page of her memoir.

Fotosearch—Getty Images

You discuss a myth about Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman” speech. What does that myth say about how we frame, and how we mischaracterize, Sojourner Truth?

One of the aspirations of this book is to take Black women out of myths, out of snapshots and snippets, and into the fullness of their own lives and their ideas as well as their activism. We learn a great deal from historian Nell Painter, whose biography of Sojourner Truth in the 1990s aims right at the myth, to show us the woman, to show us the life. One of the things she does is have us look side by side at two versions of the so-called mislabeled “Ain’t I A Woman” speech, to appreciate that there was a contemporaneous, written recording of the speech she gave in Akron, Ohio, in 1851, that does not include the phrase “Ain’t I A Woman” at all. It’s many years later that another writer takes a kind of license with the speech and invents this refrain.

(Video) By One Vote: Woman Suffrage in the South | The Citizenship Project | NPT

Truth, over the course of her lifetime and subsequent to her lifetime, has been the object of myth-making. [This is] true for other women in Vanguard as well; they are held out at moments when they are convenient or they seem to serve another argument or purpose. But too often we don’t get the full sense of their lives and how they are connected to their own histories and the histories of other Black women. Truth was a formidable speaker, but she wasn’t a woman of the South, not a woman of the country. Professor Painter points out she likely spoke with a Dutch accent rather than a Southern accent. So “Ain’t I A Woman” recasts Sojourner Truth as a woman of the South, a woman of country origins, and while there are elements of that recreation that are in the spirit of Sojourner Truth, we know the writer takes those liberties—despite having been present for the original speech.

You also explore the Black women who fought for their right to vote in the years between 1920 and the Voting Rights Act—including Rosa Parks. You frame her political awakening as partly to do with an experience with sexual harassment in the middle of the Great Depression. How does that incident connect to the fight for voting rights?

Rosa Parks is someone who is deeply engaged, in her politics, with the problem of sexual violence, something that grows out of her own experience. Vanguard is an effort to fill her out rather than leave her as a mythical figure. We miss her voting rights work because we focus on her role in the bus boycott, but her very first foray into politics is going to be with local voting rights activists and E.D. Nixon, and she’s going to be part of some of the very risky early voting rights organizing in Alabama that predates even Selma.

'It's a Struggle They Will Wage Alone.' How Black Women Won the Right to Vote (4)

Rosa Parks speaking on Mar. 25, 1965, at conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights.

Stephen F. Somerstein—Getty Images

(Video) Martha Jones: Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, & Insisted on Equality for All

One of the threads that distinguishes Black women’s quest for the vote from other voting rights campaigns is the idea that voting rights might very well be a tool for resisting and opposing sexual harassment and sexual assault. I place the origins of that in the stories told by enslaved women who aren’t speaking expressly about politics but put their own experiences of sexual violence into the public sphere. Then we come to the modern era and the stories of Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer, women in the modern civil rights era whose politics are affected by influenced by sexual violence. We can tie it all the way to the #MeToo movement in Tarana Burke, who continues to center those concerns for us. The story of racism is often told from the perspective of men; Black women experience racism in a ways that are distinct and defining for them, and sexual violence is a good example of that.

What lessons do you want readers to take away from the book?

I hope the book helps us to more insightfully, more rootedly understand the Black women who are running for Congress this year in record numbers, who will turn out in the polls in the high-90 percents in November, and are on Joe Biden’s shortlist, like Val Demings, who credits her political career to one of the women in my book, Mary McLeod Bethune. I hope Vanguard is a book that helps us understand the women political leaders of our own time and inspire the next generation of girls and young women to take politics as part of their possibilities in the future.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com.

(Video) Valuing Black Women's Work: A Panel Discussion on Black Women's Equal Pay Day


How did Black people earn the right to vote? ›

The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution (1868) granted African Americans the rights of citizenship. However, this did not always translate into the ability to vote. Black voters were systematically turned away from state polling places. To combat this problem, Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870.

Who was the Black women's right to vote? ›

Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954)

With the creation of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896, suffragists Mary Church Terrell and co-founder Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin became instrumental in consolidating Black suffrage groups across the country.

How did the woman get the right to vote? ›

Passed by Congress June 4, 1919, and ratified on August 18, 1920, the 19th amendment granted women the right to vote. The 19th amendment legally guarantees American women the right to vote. Achieving this milestone required a lengthy and difficult struggle—victory took decades of agitation and protest.

How did Black women get to vote? ›

In 1913, Ida B. Wells founded the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago, the nation's first Black women's club focused specifically on suffrage. After the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, Black women voted in elections and held political offices.

When did black people get the right to vote first? ›

Black men were given voting rights in 1870, while black women were effectively banned until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. When the United States Constitution was ratified (1789), a small number of free blacks were among the voting citizens (male property owners) in some states.

When did black people gain the right to vote? ›

The Fifteenth Amendment (ratified in 1870) extended voting rights to men of all races.

Who was the first woman to stand up for women's rights? ›

Led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a young mother from upstate New York, and the Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Mott, about 300 people—most of whom were women—attended the Seneca Falls Convention to outline a direction for the women's rights movement.

Who pushed for women's right to vote? ›

Women in America first collectively organized in 1848 at the First Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY to fight for suffrage (or voting rights). Organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, the convention sparked the women's suffrage movement.

Who was the first woman who fought for women's rights? ›

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and women like Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Sojourner Truth traveled the country lecturing and organizing for the next forty years. Eventually, winning the right to vote emerged as the central issue, since the vote would provide the means to achieve the other reforms.

Is women's rights still an issue today? ›

Today, gender bias continues to create huge barriers for many women. Ongoing struggles include ensuring equal economic opportunities, educational equity, and an end to gender-based violence.

How do you fight women's rights? ›

8 ways to change the course for women's rights
  1. Raise your voice. ...
  2. Volunteer. ...
  3. Start a fundraiser. ...
  4. Attend marches and protests. ...
  5. Donate to women's movements and organisations. ...
  6. Shop smartly. ...
  7. Challenge events. ...
  8. Become a corporate sponsor.
16 Apr 2019

When did Black women get rights? ›

Many Black women did manage to vote in 1920, though. Some had been exercising that right for several years in states like California, Illinois, and New York where women's suffrage became law before the 19th amendment was ratified. Even more registered and cast ballots after its passage.

Why did it take so long for women to get the right to vote? ›

The women's suffrage movement was a decades-long fight to win the right to vote for women in the United States. It took activists and reformers nearly 100 years to win that right, and the campaign was not easy: Disagreements over strategy threatened to cripple the movement more than once.

What were the challenges faced by the women's suffrage movement? ›

They battled racism, economic oppression and sexual violence—along with the law that made married women little more than property of their husbands.

Why did the Voting Rights Act of 1965 happen? ›

The murder of voting-rights activists in Mississippi and the attack by white state troopers on peaceful marchers in Selma, Alabama, gained national attention and persuaded President Johnson and Congress to initiate meaningful and effective national voting rights legislation.

What was the name of the act that protected black voters? ›

Contents. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, aimed to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote as guaranteed under the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Who voted against the Voting Rights Act? ›

This amendment overwhelmingly failed, with 42 Democrats and 22 Republicans voting against it.

When did Asians get the right to vote? ›

Asian American communities were still restricted from suffrage through literacy tests, property restrictions, and voter intimidation. It was not until 1943 and the passage of the Magnuson Act that Chinese immigrants could begin naturalizing as U.S. citizens.

When did slavery become abolished? ›

Passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified on December 6, 1865, the 13th amendment abolished slavery in the United States and provides that "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or ...

What did the 24th amendment do? ›

The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or ...

Who is the most famous female in history? ›

Virgin Mary, 1st-century BC–1st-century AD. The mother of Jesus, Mary is venerated by both Christians and Muslims, and is probably the most famous woman in history.

Who created feminism? ›

Mary Wollstonecraft is seen by many as a founder of feminism due to her 1792 book titled A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in which she argues for women's education. Charles Fourier, a utopian socialist and French philosopher, is credited with having coined the word "féminisme" in 1837.

Who is fighting for gender equality? ›

1. UN Women. The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) is the UN agency dedicated to gender equality. The agency was established to accelerate progress on meeting women's needs across the world.

What were 3 major events in the women's rights movement? ›

Here are just some of the many important events that happened as women gained the right to vote.
  • 1848. First Women's Rights Convention. ...
  • 1849. The First National Women's Rights Convention. ...
  • 1851. “Ain't I a woman?” ...
  • 1861-1865. The Civil War. ...
  • 1866. Formation of the American Equal Rights Association. ...
  • 1867. ...
  • 1868. ...
  • 1870.
10 Nov 2020

How did women's suffrage affect women's roles in society? ›

The 19th Amendment helped millions of women move closer to equality in all aspects of American life. Women advocated for job opportunities, fairer wages, education, sex education, and birth control.

Who did not support the 19th Amendment? ›

Southern states were adamantly opposed to the amendment, however, and seven of them—Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia—had already rejected it before Tennessee's vote on August 18, 1920.

When was the end of women's suffrage? ›

A timeline of the woman's rights movement from 1849 until 1920 including the women's suffrage movement.

Who fought for women's rights to education? ›

Women such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Frances Wright and Margaret Fuller were radical pioneers that advocated for women's rights to the same educational opportunities as men.

How many genders are there in world? ›

There are many different gender identities, including male, female, transgender, gender neutral, non-binary, agender, pangender, genderqueer, two-spirit, third gender, and all, none or a combination of these.

What is the main role of a woman in our society? ›

Women are the primary caretakers of children and elders in every country of the world. International studies demonstrate that when the economy and political organization of a society change, women take the lead in helping the family adjust to new realities and challenges.

How can we solve gender inequality? ›

Here are five ways to improve gender equality in the workplace:
  1. Make a longer shortlist when recruiting. ...
  2. Remove the gender pay gap. ...
  3. Use skills-based assessments. ...
  4. Have women mentor men. ...
  5. Make work-life balance a priority.
8 Mar 2021

What are current women's issues? ›

Global Women's Issues
  • Women, peace, and security.
  • Women's economic empowerment.
  • Gender-based violence.
  • Adolescent girls.

Why do we still need feminism? ›

So long as inequality and male supremacy persist, women and girls need feminism. Men and boys need it too because equality is better for everyone. Even though we're well into the 21st century, women are still under-represented in leadership positions and men are under-represented in caring roles.

When did women get equal rights? ›

On March 22, 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment is passed by the U.S. Senate and sent to the states for ratification. First proposed by the National Woman's political party in 1923, the Equal Rights Amendment was to provide for the legal equality of the sexes and prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex.

What rights did women not have? ›

In accordance with social tradition and English common law, women were were denied most legal rights. In general they could not vote, own property, keep their own wages, or even have custody of their children.

How did women's rights change in the 1960s and 1970s? ›

Today the gains of the feminist movement — women's equal access to education, their increased participation in politics and the workplace, their access to abortion and birth control, the existence of resources to aid domestic violence and rape victims, and the legal protection of women's rights — are often taken for ...

Why did the fight for the women's voting rights take so long quizlet? ›

How did passage of the 19th Amendment come about? Why did the battle take so long? Only a few states reviewed the law then as more women began to fight for it, more states became aware that's why it took so long, and it took men longer to accept women being able to vote.

Why did the women's rights movement start? ›

From the founding of the United States, women were almost universally excluded from voting. Only when women began to chafe at this restriction, however, was their exclusion made explicit. The movement for woman suffrage started in the early 19th century during the agitation against slavery.

What happened after women gained the right to vote? ›

After the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment on August 18, 1920, female activists continued to use politics to reform society. NAWSA became the League of Women Voters. In 1923, the NWP proposed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to ban discrimination based on sex.

Why did people oppose women's suffrage? ›

Anti-suffragists argued that most women did not want the vote. Because they took care of the home and children, they said women did not have time to vote or stay updated on politics. Some argued women lacked the expertise or mental capacity to offer a useful opinion about political issues.

Why is the women's rights movement important? ›

The woman's suffrage movement is important because it resulted in passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which finally allowed women the right to vote.

How was the women's rights movement successful? ›

The women's movement was most successful in pushing for gender equality in workplaces and universities. The passage of Title IX in 1972 forbade sex discrimination in any educational program that received federal financial assistance. The amendment had a dramatic affect on leveling the playing field in girl's athletics.

Who fought for African American voting rights? ›

Throughout the 19th century, black women like Harriet Forten Purvis, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper worked on black civil rights, like the right to vote.

What did the Voting Rights Act of 1965 do? ›

This act was signed into law on August 6, 1965, by President Lyndon Johnson. It outlawed the discriminatory voting practices adopted in many southern states after the Civil War, including literacy tests as a prerequisite to voting.

What did the Civil Rights Act of 1957 allow? ›

The result was the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. The new act established the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department and empowered federal prosecutors to obtain court injunctions against interference with the right to vote.

What Amendment gave African American citizenship? ›

The 14th Amendment to the Constitution is one of the nation's most important laws relating to citizenship and civil rights. Ratified in 1868, three years after the abolishment of slavery, the 14th Amendment served a revolutionary purpose — to define African Americans as equal citizens under the law.

Who voted against the Voting Rights Act of 1965? ›

This amendment overwhelmingly failed, with 42 Democrats and 22 Republicans voting against it.

Who fought for women's right to vote? ›

In 1869, a new group called the National Woman Suffrage Association was founded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. They began to fight for a universal-suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Who voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964? ›

The Senate version: Democratic Party: 46–21 (69–31%) Republican Party: 27–6 (82–18%)

What happened to the Voting Rights Act in 2013? ›

On June 25, 2013, the United States Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional to use the coverage formula in Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act to determine which jurisdictions are subject to the preclearance requirement of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. 529 (2013).

What impact did the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Voting Rights Act of 1965 have on America? ›

It contained extensive measures to dismantle Jim Crow segregation and combat racial discrimination. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 removed barriers to black enfranchisement in the South, banning poll taxes, literacy tests, and other measures that effectively prevented African Americans from voting.

What did the Civil Rights Act of 1964 do? ›

In 1964, Congress passed Public Law 88-352 (78 Stat. 241). The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Provisions of this civil rights act forbade discrimination on the basis of sex, as well as, race in hiring, promoting, and firing.

What was the biggest problem with the Civil Rights Act of 1957? ›

The biggest obstacle to civil rights legislation in 1957 was the bloc of Southern Democrats led by Senator Richard Russell of Georgia. Southern senators had blocked every piece of civil rights legislation proposed since 1875.

What did the Civil Rights Act of 1957 not? ›

The Act did not create new rights but established: Protection of voting rights set out in the Fifteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The Civil Rights Division in the Department of Justice empowering federal prosecutors to obtain court injunctions against interference with the right to vote.

What is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964? ›

L. 88-352) (Title VII), as amended, as it appears in volume 42 of the United States Code, beginning at section 2000e. Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

What is the 13th Amendment in simple terms? ›

Passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified on December 6, 1865, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States.

What 3 things did the 14th Amendment do? ›

This so-called Reconstruction Amendment prohibited the states from depriving any person of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law” and from denying anyone within a state's jurisdiction equal protection under the law.

What does the Constitution say about African Americans? ›

The ratification of the 14th Amendment in July 1868 transformed national belonging, and made African Americans, and indeed all those born on U.S. soil, citizens.


1. 100 Years of Women's Voting Rights | Citizen: Full-Length Documentary
(Twin Cities PBS)
2. Black women's equal pay day: Tackling the wage group
(Yahoo Finance)
3. #StudentDebtCrisis Is Impacting Black Women
(The Education Trust)
4. Black Women, Suffrage and Citizenship | Dr. Erin D. Chapman
(President Woodrow Wilson House)
5. President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders Meeting
(The White House)
6. Fighting for the Franchise: A Century of Struggle for Voting Rights
(Schomburg Center)

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