The Unfinished Work of the 19th Amendment

Screen capture: teepublic.com

By Sheila Katz

On August 26th, 1920 – exactly 100 years ago – the 19th Amendment was certified, at long last securing voting rights for women. 

The past 100 years have included important steps for women starting with suffrage and extending to today as we see more women running for elected office (and winning), leading national organizations and striving ever closer to equity. 

But as we celebrate this moment, we have to hold an opposing truth in our hands. It has been 100 years since white women gained suffrage – not ALL women. Access to the ballot was effectively denied to nearly everyone except white women. 

Black women who attempted to vote were hit with disenfranchisement methods such as poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation and, not infrequently, physical assault and/or fabricated criminal charges if they attempted to exercise their Constitutionally-granted right. It wasn’t until 1965, forty-five years after white women had secured the right to vote, that Black womens’ votes became protected. Native Americans, including Native American women, did not have the right to vote in every U.S. state until 1962. 

In 2020, we still have to work to expand voting rights and ensure safe access to voting, in particular for Black and Latinx communities, Indigenous communities, and for people with disabilities and people who don’t speak English. These communities are still discriminated against, whether by laws making it harder for them to cast a ballot or because polling places are inaccessible to their needs. 

And now, women of color are being disproportionately impacted by the ramifications of the Covid-19 pandemic, including their ability to vote safely in person or by mail as polling places are shut down or moved out of low income and communities of color and as many people prepare to vote by mail for the first time as the US Postal Service faces significant challenges. No one should have to choose between their health and their constitutional right to vote, but that’s what is happening all across our country.  

As we work to create a better future and continue to right the wrongs of our past, we must celebrate this important milestone while working to promote and protect the vote.

Here are a few things you can do: 

1)    Include Black, Indigenous and Other Women of Color in the Suffrage Narrative

We must ensure that we center the leadership of Black, Indigenous, and other women and nonbinary people of color in our organizations, civic life, policymaking, and history. You might already know the story of white suffrage leaders Susan B. Anthony, Hannah G. Solomon and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Now, take the time to learn more about Black suffrage leaders like Ida B. Wells, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Sojourner Truth and Mary Church Terrell; Hispanic and Latina suffrage leaders like Adelina “Nina” Otero-Warren, Maria De Lopez and Aurora Lucero; and Asian-Amerians like Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee. Learn about the ways in which Haudenosaunee culture influenced early suffragettes, and some of the early women activists for Native American citizenship and voting rights, like Zitkála-Šá and Inshata Theumba,

2)    Register to Vote and Make a Plan for Voting

Please do your part, register to vote, make a plan A, a plan B and a plan C for how you are going to cast your ballot this year. You can register to vote or check your voter registration status using the National Council of Jewish Women’s Turbovote tool here. You can learn your state’s guidelines for requesting an absentee ballot here.

3)    Advocate for Safe and Accessible Voting

Keep reaching out to your members of congress to make sure that everyone can cast a ballot safely this year. You can urge lawmakers to appropriate needed funding for states to ensure safe and accessible voting and urge the Senate to pass the House-passed HEROES Act, which includes $3.6 billion for safe election practices (including funding for the post office) here.

4)    Join NCJW’s Vote Forward Campaign

Encourage other people to vote by joining the National Council of Jewish Women’s Vote Forward campaign to write letters sharing the importance of voting to people who tend not to vote. Our system will give you a template, the addresses, and everything you need to individually write letters or gather your family or a group of friends and do it together. BYOS (Bring Your Own Stamps).

And if you are based in California, Florida, New York, or Texas, use the hyperlinks to join NJCW’s local Vote Forward campaigns.

5) Volunteer as a Poll Worker 

More than 57% of all poll workers in 2018 were over the age of 60. With extra vulnerability to Covid-19, this dedicated group is not encouraged to volunteer in the same way this election, leaving a gap of 250,000 poll workers needed around the country to help reduce voting lines and ensure a fair election. If you are healthy and low risk to Covid-19, consider signing up to be a poll worker here.

6)    Learn from Voting Rights Leader Stacey Abrams

Join the National Council of Jewish Women’s conversation with voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, at a special event on promoting and protecting the vote taking place from 4:30-5:30 p.m. ET on September 15. Register here for this in-depth conversation on how far we have come and what more we need to do to ensure access to the ballot in November.

7)    Get involved with a local National Council of Jewish Women section

NCJW sections across the country are turning out the vote through non-partisan letter writing campaigns, phone banking, ballot initiative advocacy, and programs inspiring people to be active voters. Get connected to your local section here.

Your vote is your voice and it is incumbent on all of us to do everything in our power to ensure every voice is heard in our democracy. Together, we must continue the unfinished work of the 19th amendment and honor this moment by working to make sure that every eligible voter has access to the ballot box.

Sheila Katz is the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, a progressive Jewish women’s organization with 180,000 grassroots advocates.