How the 19th Amendment Shaped Women’s Voting Rights

The 19th Amendment extended voting rights to women. Learn about the suffragists who fought for women's right to vote and the history behind the movement.
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  • The 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote in 1920.
  • The movement did not address racial inequities that prevented women of color from voting.
  • Women helped advance laws in support of reproductive rights and political autonomy.
  • Voter suppression efforts continue to impact people of color today.

The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted women the right to vote.

As we now know, this did not mean a straightforward path to voting for women of color, who were denied voting rights because of their race.

The amendment was signed into law in August 1920. However, enforcement of the amendment is where women of color were systematically excluded. Laws and discriminatory practices restricted women of color from voting for decades to come.

About the Women's Suffrage Movement

The women's suffrage movement — partly inspired by the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) confederacy's equal inclusion of women in leadership and governance — publicly acknowledged inequalities facing women across the nation.

To push for their goal, suffragists in the U.S. used various tactics — petitioning state legislatures, challenging gendered laws, and civil disobedience. The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 gathered together activists supporting women's political autonomy. Leaders organized, wrote, petitioned, and protested for women's suffrage for decades. This movement emphasized suffrage for white women.

First introduced in Congress in 1878, the amendment for women's suffrage took decades and tireless efforts to pass into law. By 1918, with the support of President Woodrow Wilson, an amendment for equal voting rights was in sight.

The 19th Amendment was ratified on Aug. 26, 1920. Women of color continue fighting for equal access to voting rights decades after this momentous day.

"There are current efforts underway to change who gets to vote, how people get to vote, and how those votes are counted," said Dr. Heather Hollimon, a professor and director of first-year experience at Brenau University. "People need to understand that the ability to cast a vote is crucial to securing other rights: political, economic, and social."

Suffragists to Know

  • Mary Church Terrell: Mary Church Terrell was a founding member and first president of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, a civil rights organization. She advocated for voting rights, equal pay, improved educational opportunities, job training, and access to childcare. Terrell collaborated with Black suffrage groups to elevate the status of Black women nationwide.
  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the first outspoken leaders of the women's suffrage movement, played an active role in the passage of the 19th Amendment. Stanton co-founded the National American Woman Suffrage Association and wrote extensively in support of women's rights.
  • Alice Paul: Alice Paul brought a more radical approach to the women's suffrage movement. She led hunger strikes, marches, and picketing protests. Paul co-founded the National Woman's Party, focusing on national voting rights.
  • Frederick Douglass: Frederick Douglass was an avid suffragist for women, in addition to his abolitionist work. Douglass attended the Seneca Falls Convention — the only Black person in attendance. He co-founded the American Equal Rights Association, alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, campaigning for universal suffrage.
  • Susan B. Anthony: Susan B. Anthony was a suffragist leader seeking equal rights for women nationwide. Anthony co-founded the American Equal Rights Association and the National Woman Suffrage Association. Through her writing, petitioning, and leadership, Anthony made significant advances toward women's suffrage.
  • Wilhelmina Kekelaokalaninui Widemann Dowsett: Wilhelmina Kekelaokalaninui Widemann Dowsett, a native Hawaiian, joined the women's suffrage movement on behalf of Hawaiian women. Dowsett founded the first Hawaiian suffrage organization, the National Women's Equal Suffrage Association of Hawai'i, leading the campaign for Hawaiian civil rights.

19th Amendment Didn't Guarantee All Women the Right to Vote

Passage of the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote. However, most women of color were excluded from voting practices due to their race.

Voter suppression tactics against Black people — most notably in the Jim Crow South — included poll taxes, literacy tests, violence, intimidation, and white-only primary elections. These discriminatory practices created significant barriers for Black people to express their right to vote.

Indigenous people were not granted U.S. citizenship status until 1924. This meant they had been excluded from all Constitutional rights, including voting. Chinese Americans were ineligible to vote until 1943, and non-Chinese people of Asian descent were not granted voting rights until 1952. Despite holding U.S. citizenship since 1917, Puerto Rican women were not granted universal voting rights until 1935.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 federally enforced the voting rights of Black citizens — outlawing arbitrary and discriminatory voting-related practices. The 1975 extension of the Voting Rights Act required that voting materials be translated into languages other than English, allowing many non-English speaking citizens to vote.

The Impact of the 19th Amendment

The 19th Amendment recognized women as citizens with equal rights. The new law allowed women to take part in political action. Many men in leadership roles catered to the needs of women, and they, in turn, pushed their political agendas.

Women held political office and helped elect progressive lawmakers who passed legislation benefiting women. Women pursued higher education at greater rates, delayed marriage, and entered professional careers more frequently.

"If women did not have the right to vote in the U.S., it's a safe assumption that many of the social programs we have today would never have been implemented," Hollimon said.

Women helped increase wages, education and employment opportunities, inheritance rights, divorce options, sex education, and widespread access to birth control. Health and reproductive rights expanded, improving knowledge and choice for most women. Unfortunately, many Black women could not access these newfound benefits.

After the 19th Amendment passed, the Ku Klux Klan welcomed more than 4 million new women voters into its organization. The Women of the Ku Klux Klan advanced racist and xenophobic principles using tactics developed during the suffrage movement, further disenfranchising Black people.

The Fight Continues 100 Years Later

The fight for equal and accessible voting rights continues today, over 100 years after the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Hollimon, who attended the 2017 Women's March in Washington, D.C., said the energy on that day was indescribable.

"The sea of pink hats and signs crowding the subway cars, the roar of women's voices as we rode the escalator up out of the tunnel to emerge into the sunlight, and the ocean of women, united toward one goal," she said. "THAT is how the suffrage movement continues in today's day and age."

Despite ongoing voter suppression practices, women of color dominate voting rates nationwide. Voter restriction practices regularly have an impact on voters of color across the country. Voter ID laws, the purging of voter rolls, limits to early and mail-in voting, and voter intimidation greatly impact minority voting groups — voters of color, immigrant voters, disabled voters, and LGBTQ+ voters.

Women — particularly women of color — remain underrepresented in the U.S. Congress, are increasingly denied reproductive autonomy, and average lower wages than men across all employment sectors. Millions of people nationwide are prohibited from voting based on disenfranchisement laws. These laws disproportionately affect people who are Black, Latinx, or both, limiting or negating their right to vote.

Despite ongoing discrimination and suppression efforts, political participation has increased among women — women continue to vote at higher rates than men. The 19th Amendment expanded voting rights for many and brought attention to the pervasive inequalities that still exist.

"It will never be finished because there will always be women brave enough, dedicated enough, angry enough about injustice to demand more," Hollimon said.

Learn about the disparities women in academics face and how to honor them during Women's History Month.

Frequently Asked Questions About the 19th Amendment

Why was the 19th Amendment created?

The 19th Amendment was created to grant voting rights to women in the United States. Black men were granted the right to vote with the passage of the 15th Amendment. Women of all races were denied voting rights until the 19th Amendment passed. The 19th Amendment also allowed women to run for political office and more directly create political change.

Women of color, in large part, were barred from expressing their voting rights for decades after the passage of the 19th Amendment. Racial discrimination practices kept most women of color from voting until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Why is it called women's suffrage?

The word suffrage means the right to vote in political elections for legislation and position. Women sought suffrage to gain decision-making power and play an equal role in the country's growth and development. The women's suffrage movement worked to showcase women as equal participants in U.S. governance.

What caused the women's rights movement?

The women's rights movement expanded after the abolition of slavery in the 1800s. Activists spoke out publicly and more regularly about creating equal conditions for all people. Women sought equal political representation and voting rights.

Many women of color were excluded from the women's rights movement, which instead emphasized suffrage for white women. Although definitively separate, the women's rights movement parallelled fights for racial equality across the nation.

With Advice From

Portrait of Dr. Heather Hollimon

Dr. Heather Hollimon

Dr. Heather Hollimon is a professor of political science and director of first-year experience at Brenau University, where she has been teaching a variety of courses on women's history and gender studies for 20 years. She received her master's and Ph.D. in political science, along with a graduate certificate in women's studies, at Pennsylvania State University. Her research areas include "Breasts and Ballots: Democratic Rhetoric and Women's Bodies," the politicization of motherhood in different cultures, and the gendered effects of military conflict. She is a fierce advocate of the transformative power of education.