The Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University, the National Parks Service, and WILL Empower co-sponsored the webinar “Gender, Race, Class, and the Vote: From the 19th Amendment to COVID-19” to discuss how race and class have shaped womens’ ability to vote over the past century. This June 23 panel was moderated by Lane Windham, Associate Director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative and co-director of WILL Empower.
Dr. Turkiya Lowe, Chief Historian of the National Park Service, started the conversation by examining a letter written by Abigail Adams to John Adams about women fighting for their rights, 144 years before the 19th Amendment passed. Dr. Lowe pointed out that the 19th Amendment left many women out. African American women were still disenfranchised due to local and state barriers, and it did not apply to Native American women as they were not full citizens of the U.S. until 1924. Asian American women couldn’t access the vote either. Dr. Lowe concluded by saying ”voting is only a tool; it’s about how the casting of the ballot will bring about equity.”
Dr. Robyn Muncy, Professor of History at the University of Maryland College Park, explained that the 19th Amendment did not enfranchise American women: “Millions of American women had the vote before 1920; they were enfranchised by their states, and after 1920, millions were still barred from the polls on other basis than sex.” The Women’s Suffrage movement was a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, cross-class movement and the decade from 1910 to 1920 brought the greatest victories. On June 29, 1915, suffragists canvased men to win votes on an upcoming referendum on women’s suffrage. In Baltimore in 1915, African American women, middle and working-class organized a progressive women’s suffrage club to agitate for women’s enfranchisement in Maryland. The mass movement for the vote was most successful when it was diverse.
Dr. Marcia Chatelain, Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor of History and African American Studies at Georgetown University, centered her discussion on Black women and their fight for the right to vote. “What seems like an organic kind of inspiration or call to protest… that narrative sometimes ignores the various ways people have been practicing for this moment through their work in organizations, through their movement building on the local level,” she said to bring light to the work that came before the suffrage victory. For example, African-American women’s clubs were established in response to segregation, and Black women had a lot of practice navigating tense relationships with white women on issues of common concern. Dr. Chatelain cautions that despite women’s leadership in the Civil Rights Movement, ideas about the Movement became about the ability to restore patriarchy. With that kind of public narrative in mind, she urges listeners to be discerning about the various messages in the celebration of the 19th Amendment. She also asks us to consider non-voters who are limited because of age or documentation status.
With a special focus in education, Princess Moss, Secretary-Treasurer of the National Education Association, says “race, class, gender, and education affect every election, and the protection of voting rights is more important than ever.” There are current inequities facing students, particularly students of color, Native American students, immigrants, and their families, low-income students, and the LGBTQ+ community. This pandemic revealed a lack of internet access that pushes disadvantaged students further behind and a widened homework gap. The nation saw children whose families are facing food insecurity and LGBTQ+ students with family members that mistreat them. Educators did not miss a beat and stood in the gap by providing their students with materials, food, and check-in visits. Protected voting rights means protected students as it gives citizens the chance to vote for pro-education officials.
Collective raised consciousness is a point of excitement for April Sims, Secretary-Treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council. Sims pointed out that the racism that rots our institutions is coming to light, and there is a call to dismantle them. Sims shared that her grandparents were farmworkers and her grandfather had to escape for fear of punishment after organizing people to speak up against their oppressors. Her grandparents migrated from Louisiana with their children to Washington, as they knew their children would not be respected in the South. Sims recounted how voting was an event for her family. The impact of the voting rights act was significant. Between 1964 and 1969, Black voter registration in southern states skyrocketed, but overt voter suppression continues. Sims encourages us to exercise our right to vote: “The reason elites fight to deny access to voting is because working people, the majority, hold tremendous power.”
Claudia Canales is a Junior at Georgetown University, majoring in Women’s and Gender Studies.