Today we celebrate the centennial anniversary of suffrage for many women in this country. The 19th Amendment represented a monumental change in the course of American history, finally allowing women to voice their political beliefs at the ballot box. Yet, as we celebrate this achievement, we must also take into consideration its limitations in the area of racial equality, as well as the controversies women’s suffrage evoked in conservative religious communities across the country.
The women’s suffrage movement began long before the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920. In the 1800s women such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton dedicated their lives to fighting for the right of White women to vote. Reformers and women’s rights activists came to the suffrage movement from all backgrounds. Some, like Lucretia Mott, were also abolitionists and argued for rights for all those who were denied. Some women became suffragettes due to their involvement in the temperance movement. Other activists and reformers supported women’s suffrage because of their religious beliefs, asserting the moral necessity of hearing women’s voices in deciding the political fate of the country.
Frances Willard, a famous leader of both women’s suffrage and the temperance movement, was an extremely influential evangelical reformer and educator. She sought to address the issue of rampant alcohol abuse among men by connecting temperance and religion to the need for women’s suffrage. Willard declared that it was the duty of good Christian women to voice their political beliefs to protect and uphold the morals of their households and families. (Willard also incensed journalist and civil rights crusader Ida B. Wells for perpetuating racist stereotypes to support her case for temperance.)
In many ways, therefore, religion was used to enhance the argument for women’s suffrage. At the same time, however, many used their religious beliefs to justify excluding women from voting. Some who opposed women’s suffrage argued that women would corrupt the morality of the country if they were to step outside their role in the home to vote. Even more, some suffrage opponents looked to the Bible and the story of Adam and Eve to confirm male dominance in all aspects of life.
While we can see how religion was used and manipulated to justify opposition or support for the 19th Amendment, race equality was another big factor that affected the political climate in which the amendment was passed. Although the 19th amendment was race-neutral in its wording, the fact remains that many Black people would not be able to vote for several more decades. Despite the 15th and 19th Amendments, Black men and women were disenfranchised as a result of Jim Crow Laws and other restrictive policies that were not addressed until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Likewise many Native American and Asian American women weren’t granted the franchise for decades.
As we celebrate the milestone of women’s suffrage, we recognize the limitations of the suffrage movement and acknowledge that voter suppression remains an issue to this day. Although women’s suffrage was an emblem of progress, it was also a symbol of the racial exclusion, discrimination and a misuse of religious freedom that existed in this country 100 years ago and that we are still fighting against today.
As we pause to mark this moment in history, let’s also address the limitations of the past and vow to face head-on the vital work that remains to be done to ensure that the voices of all Americans are heard at the ballot box.
Photo: Suffragettes prepare to march in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 1913. Library of Congress photo.