This is a guest post by Elizabeth A. Novara, a historian in the Manuscript Division.
One hundred years ago today — August 26, 1920 — Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified that the 19th Amendment had become a part of the U.S. Constitution. As we commemorate that anniversary, it is important to acknowledge the multifaceted meanings that the amendment had for women in 1920. While the typical narrative ends in celebrations that “all” women’s voting rights were now assured, there is much more to this complex history.
The 19th Amendment actually falls somewhere in the middle of a long struggle for voting rights in the United States. Propertied women meeting certain age and other requirements voted in local and state elections in New Jersey until 1807, and women in the Wyoming territory had the vote as early as 1869.
By 1919, millions of American women could vote in some manner. Some women had full voting rights, while others could only vote in school board elections, and still millions of others had no voting rights at all. Even after the 19th Amendment’s ratification in 1920, women of color — Asian American, Black, Latina, Native American – faced obstacles to voting through the 1960s because of citizenship issues, discriminatory practices and outright intimidation, some of which continue even today. During the past year, we have written about some of these struggles in our magazine, in the Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote exhibition and in numerous blog posts.
The Manuscript Division holds the records of the two major women’s suffrage organizations, the National American Woman Suffrage Association and the National Woman’s Party. The NAWSA records are currently featured on the Library’s By The People crowdsourced transcription site. While acknowledging the problematic legacies of racism and imperialism inherent within these collections, there is evidence of the contributions of women of color to suffrage movements within these materials.
Perhaps most overlooked are women’s voices in the territories newly acquired by the U.S. in the decades before 1920 because the 19th Amendment did not apply to the majority of these women. They continued the struggle for the franchise into the 1930s, fighting against not only gender discrimination but also racism and imperialism.
In Puerto Rico, one suffrage leader was Milagros Benet de Mewton (also spelled Newton), a member of the intellectual class who upheld voting rights for literate women as a path to suffrage for all women. In 1920, she was president of La Liga Femínea Puertorriqueña. She lobbied the U.S. Congress for women’s suffrage and formed connections with suffrage leaders such as Carrie Chapman Catt, president of NAWSA. Other suffragists in Puerto Rico, especially those with ties to the labor movement, such as Luisa Capetillo, advocated for universal suffrage. Puerto Rican women’s groups in New York City also joined in supporting women’s suffrage on the island. Suffrage for literate women was secured from the territorial legislature in 1929. Universal suffrage followed in 1935.
Edith Williams, the “mother of education” in the U.S. Virgin Islands, fought for suffrage along with Anna Vessup and Eulalie Stevens. All three women held memberships in the St. Thomas Teachers Association in the Virgin Islands, advocating not only for women’s issues, but for educational reform and more funding for local schools. They followed a route similar to African American suffragists who strived not only for women’s suffrage but also for the uplift of their communities. Williams served as a school principal and Vessup and Stevens were teachers. They attempted to register to vote in the 1930s, as women in the continental U.S. had done in the 1870s, and fought through the court system for women’s suffrage, with support from Elsie Hill, an American suffragist and NWP leader. They finally succeeded in 1935.
Women in the Philippines — a U.S. territory acquired from Spain in 1898 — continued to organize for women’s suffrage beyond 1920 as well. Pilar H. Lim, president of National Federation of Women’s Clubs of the Philippines, wrote Catt in 1936: “The knowledge that the women of America are with us in our struggle for the realization of our full citizenship is most inspiring….Our triumph will be a signal victory for the feminist movement throughout the world.” Filipinas, including Lim and Sofia Reyes de Veyra, the wife of the Resident Commissioner for the Philippines, organized their own groups, created networks with U.S. suffrage leaders and advocated for Philippine independence. They won the right to vote in 1937 and helped achieve their country’s independence in 1946.
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