The 19th Amendment: A jumping-off point

By Nia Law, WFCO Intern, Senior at Columbus Academy, Student Activist

On August 18th, 2020, the ratification of the 19th Amendment will reach its centennial. In the context of the cultural reckoning many Americans have faced in the past few months, I spoke with five community members of differing identities, ages, and backgrounds to gain a broader understanding of the amendment’s cultural implications. These conversations highlighted one imperative point: the amendment was a jumping-off point for the women’s rights movement, not the climax. 

Throughout my education and introduction to women’s issues, the ratification of the 19th Amendment was heralded as a landmark victory for women as a whole. It was generally described as the culmination of a women’s movement guaranteeing all women the right to vote. Sadly, I’ve learned that the reality isn’t that simple. 

As every person I spoke to emphasized, contextualization is paramount. While a centennial celebration seems to mark a significant passage of time, as Kelley Griesmer, CEO of The Women’s Fund of Central Ohio, noted, “In the grand scheme of the world, 100 years is not a long time.” While it is still valuable to commemorate and learn about the hard-fought passage of the amendment, Ernestine Jackson, an active community member and activist, reminded us that “part of celebrating should be an acknowledgment that it did not open doors for women of color.” 

Madison Eagle, an Intercultural Specialist and Women’s Student Initiatives advocate affiliated with the Shawnee and Cherokee Tribes, echoed that sentiment, “The 19th Amendment invokes multiple emotions for me: pride in the activism of women before me, and a painful reminder of the exclusion and discrimination against people of color in trying to protect and establish their fundamental rights.”

This caveat is a necessary revelation for the amendment’s traditional interpretation. Native American women did not receive the right to vote until 1924, and most Black women only had access to voting following the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Today, rampant voter suppression and ever-changing voter registration laws disenfranchise many women from underrepresented communities. Yet, in the mainstream conversation surrounding the 19th Amendment, these facts are often overlooked.

Thus, as much as August 18th marks a moment of celebration, it serves as a reminder of, and hopefully an impetus for, the intersectional progress that still must be made. 

Ms. Griesmer observed that if “feminism is truly about gender equality… then we have to test boundaries and ask what’s missing, who’s missing, who doesn’t feel like they are reaching their full potential, and then consider the intersections of these things.” This was the place where the 19th Amendment failed, and where it is unacceptable for us to fail in the future.

Every person I spoke to mentioned this necessity for continued change. At the root, the suffragists were fighting for the reallocation of power, the most fundamental manifestation of which was a voice in their democracy. 100 years later, we are fighting for the same issues. 

Olivia Pierre-Louis, a student activist, stated, “I think we are still fighting for some basic rights… but there are so many more of us.” She speaks to the power of collective action, but also to the multifaceted issues women still face.

From access to reproductive healthcare to pay equity, sexual violence to discrimination, suffrage was only the beginning.  The centennial should be a reminder of how far we have come but also how far we have left to go. From Ms. Griesmer’s point of view, “We are probably going to leave the world still trying [to solve these issues], but we are the sowing seeds.”

Ms. Jackson continued, “Progress moves slowly, we think it moves fast, but it really does not.” Ms. Eagle agreed saying, “It so often feels like we take one step forward and then two steps back with social justice. It is a fight that you have to have a lifelong devotion for.” They all make the same point: we still have work to do, but we have the power to be successful. 

The five-year-old I talked to voiced the basic principles. She asked a simple question, “Why do people think girls can’t do the same things as boys?” Without waiting for a response, she continued, “That’s just wrong.” She then went back to playing with her Legos, satisfied with her logic. 

She’s right. The centennial is a moment to reflect on one of the first steps toward gender equality, but it is by no means the pinnacle. The right to vote was hard-fought and is still valuable regardless of the time that has passed. Ms. Pierre-Louis said, “I’m still excited that I can [vote]… there is so much power in voting.” 

So, in the words of Ms. Jackson we should celebrate this moment, but “we should celebrate with clarity, with truth, and with full reveal.”