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Anniversary of the 19th Amendment: Unpacking the Legacy | August 2020 Cover
To mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, The Uncounted is a series that elevates the stories of women of color who have been disenfranchised and often written out of history.
Cowds of people were gathered outside the glass doors of the Kentucky Exposition Center in the summer heat, banging on the locked glass doors, chanting, “Let us in!” As the 6 p.m. deadline approached for the state’s 2020 primary election, voters at the only polling site in Louisville demanded that they be heard.
That is what the history of voting access has looked like in the United States. It is a story of people marching, testifying, shouting, waging court battles, and suffering physical violence to secure the full civic participation they deserve.
August 18 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment — the largest expansion of the franchise in the country’s history. It is a celebrated milestone in the United States’s story of suffrage and equal rights for women. But in practice, that historic document largely granted voting rights only to those who were white and well.... Sexism, immigration bans, and a patchwork of other discriminatory state laws barred Native, Black, Asian, and Latinx women from voting well into the 20th century.
Even now, many Americans of all gender identities remain unrepresented. Those with disabilities are often ignored by lawmakers and face physical barriers in casting ballots. Millions of immigrants living in the U.S. with green cards or without papers are deprived of a voice. Many Americans with felony records are disenfranchised. Native voters living on reservations or in rural villages are blocked from the ballot by nonstandard addresses, ID problems, and mail delays. Puerto Ricans who live on the island can’t participate in federal elections. Daunting lines at college campus polling sites force frustrated students away, and 16-year-olds on the front lines of social movements are deemed too young to cast ballots. So many others — due to a lack of information or time, language barriers, or suffocating voter suppression laws and tactics — are prevented from exercising this most fundamental of rights, and they are all part of a decades-long struggle to carve out a place in our imperfect democracy.
And yet. Despite these daunting circumstances, would-be voters have spent decades banging on those glass doors. Teen Vogue spoke to some inspiring women who are currently advocating for other people to have the right to vote, even though they wouldn’t have been granted that right 100 years ago.
Writer and activist Raquel Willis, actor Jessica Marie Garcia, Puerto Rican feminist blogger Aliana Margarita Bigio Alcoba, actor Leah Lewis, Florida Rights Restoration Coalition’s Tiniesha Johnson, Representative Ayanna Pressley, Native Alaskan student activist Charitie Ropati, actor and activist Yara Shahidi, New York City Council candidate Shahana Hanif, and Black Lives Matter activist Thandiwe Abdullah weighed in on what voter suppression has looked like in their communities, why voting must be accompanied by vigorous on-the-ground organizing, and the complex meanings of this anniversary.
These are some of the stories of the uncounted.
Editor’s note: These conversations have been edited for clarity and significantly condensed.
It's hard to have a completely positive conversation about voting. I think the people who think there's a celebration on the horizon are often privileged white women who are well-to-do and not concerned with the fact that so many other folks are still struggling to have their voices heard.
I was referring [specifically] to the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment being passed. But I do think there’s often a mini-celebration that happens at each election, and it's often visualized in all the “I voted” stickers that are put on the headstones of suffragettes who we laud in feminist history. But to me, I can't look at Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B. Anthony as heroes; they were white supremacists, and the worst kind of white supremacists who were aware of and in conversation with Black folks and abolitionists, like Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass, and still turned their backs on the fight for more access for Black Americans. So this idea of limited liberation is not the kind of feminism I celebrate. And I think, just as we are having conversations about dismantling the structures erected to honor the Confederacy, we need to be having a real conversation about who we celebrate in feminist history.
I am going to vote because I believe that harm reduction does still matter, but I do understand why there are people who put more energy into other ways of organizing and transforming our country. Electoral power is just one type of power that we have and can aspire to in this country. I'm more interested in a holistic conversation that focuses on a variety of ways people can organize and impact change. I have to call into account a lot of our politicians; I think about former president Barack Obama. I think we have a lot of folks who have a lot of power and a lot of platform who put all this energy into telling people to vote, but mum’s the word for all the other action that is happening. How many of them are continuously encouraging the folks who are doing direct action on the ground and protesting? How many of them are routinely highlighting the work of community organizers?
The 15th and 19th Amendments were really just saying what states can’t do — they can’t discriminate based on race and gender — but states found other ways to discriminate against Latinos and, really, all people of color. It’s 100 years later and we still see a laundry list of ways that Black and brown voters are being suppressed.
We see that in voter ID laws, which hit Latinos particularly hard.… There [are] voter purges. There [are] voter registration restrictions, which can be cutting back use of mobile early voting, curbed voter registration drives. There’s felony disenfranchisement, which makes it harder to restore voting rights to people with past criminal convictions. There’s harassment at the polls.
I think it’s really easy as minorities and as women in this country to believe that our voice doesn’t count. We get reminded of this time and time again, by the way we’re depicted in the media to wages to health care. But it’s important to remember that women are the sh*t, and we vote at higher rates than men, across all racial and ethnic groups in the United States.
I think we should always feel good about how far we have come, but never forget how far we still have to go. Right now, there are countless people across America and the world who are fighting for their freedom. It’s mirroring exactly what was happening 100 years ago today. So it’s hard to celebrate when the only thing that’s really changed is the year.
Puerto Rico is one of the oldest colonies in the world. I think that what affects us the most is that a lot of people don’t really know that, and if they do, they don’t know how little control we have over it.
Every time Democrats bring us up it's for election purposes; it's not to talk about how the fiscal control board is literally ruining every possibility our island has to move on and prosper economically and socially. It's never about the complicated and embarrassing things.… We’re kind of like a shame, like something you hide in the closet and don't want to talk about.
So I think when we talk about voting rights, it’s very difficult for me to get on the same bandwagon of “Vote! Register to vote so everything will change!” because it has never been like that for us.
We’ve been at this for forever. We were Spain’s colony, and then we were just passed to the U.S., so we’ve never known freedom. We were always taught the discourse of freedom, to repeat it like we actually live it, but we don't. Going back to the beginnings of the 19th Amendment in the U.S., when it passed, they didn't even think about the women here in Puerto Rico who were not able to vote. We had to have our own suffrage movement, and it wasn't until 1935 that all women could vote here. So that’s a 15-year delay. It had to be women who were from here — Ana Roque de Duprey, Luisa Capetillo, Juana Colón — who had to figure it out and talk about, “Hey, we’re literally owned by the U.S., we’re a colony of the U.S., they already did this for their women, why can’t we have the same?”
Given the fact that I grew up in a mixed household where I was an Asian adoptee and my parents were Caucasian, they never really talked about the history of discrimination that Chinese and other Asian Americans have been through. That’s something that kind of gets brushed over in school too. When I actually discovered some of this information, it was so shocking.… This country used Chinese Americans to build the railroads, and then the Chinese weren’t even allowed to show up to the ceremony when the railroads opened. That alone gives me chills.
The moment Asian Americans arrived here, they were met with “we appreciate your participation and work, but we’re not going to credit you for your participation.” Even though that happened over 100 years ago, that pain still exists in Asian communities. Asian American voices have been muted in our society for so long.
Unfortunately, I kind of feel like the past ends up integrating previous prejudice into present-day life. When people are silenced for so long in someone’s country that they call home, it can be very, very easy to dissociate from political opinion. It doesn't feel like you're part of the outcome.
To me, voting means having a voice, which is kind of what we’re all fighting for right now. I would tell Asian American teens, specifically, that the generation they live in is one of the strongest, loudest, and most passionate ones. They can be a part of that, and are a part of that.
I was 28 when I lost my right to vote. I had committed a crime, and in the state of Pennsylvania, once you go to jail or prison, you lose your right to vote while you're doing your time. But as soon as you come home, those rights are reinstated. So I went to vote and, lo and behold, my name was definitely on the voter registration rolls. I took my kids with me because I want my kids to see, “Hey, my mom, she votes, she participates in the political arena.” I’m trying to build a culture in my family that voting matters.
I moved down to Florida in June 2017, and my aunt tried to get me involved [with the Florida Rights and Restoration Coalition]. I guess you could say I really didn't care at that time. I was in a shelter and my number-one priority was trying to find a house for my kids, for us to get out of the shelter. But I realized this issue is really important to me as a returning citizen, and because my brother is currently incarcerated.… So I was like, “I have to do this work, and I have to do it with a passion because it affects me, it affects my brother," and I’m fighting to make sure that my kids don't have to go through anything like what I went through.
What I hear when I ask people if they’re registered is, “Oh, I don't believe in voting. I don't want to vote for the president anyway.” So I have to break it down and say it’s not just about the presidential race; it’s about local races too. If you have children, you vote for the school board.… I think some people are starting to be woke about it, but there are still a lot of people who are not educated about voting rights and civil rights. Period.
I always say, “If you don't use your vote, you're still using your vote.” Not voting is voting. If you don't get out there and vote for your community, you're actually saying a lot. You’re saying you don't care about your community and the dollars that could come into it to help people.
If you are able to register to vote, use your voice; don't let anyone tell you you cannot vote. It is a right that was given to us, and don't let anyone take that from you.
There still tends to be this false narrative that people are apathetic, that Black voters are apathetic, when, in fact, they've been the preservers of democracy for as long as we’ve had the right to cast a ballot — which we had to fight, organize, and mobilize for; we were not just given it. And today, Black women are the most reliable voting constituency for the Democratic Party. So we have been the table shakers, we have been the architects of movements, we have been the foot soldiers, we have been the truth tellers, we have been the preservers of democracy.
I don't think that they would work so hard to disenfranchise us if we were not powerful. I don’t think they’d work so hard to obstruct our ability to cast a ballot if we were not powerful. Indeed, we are powerful and resilient and determined, even in the midst of all our trauma.
This is one of the reasons I introduced the amendment to HR1 to lower the voting age to 16 in federal elections.... We need to be cultivating and perpetuating that relationship as early as possible. There were so many stories about parents who brought their children to vote who were casting their vote for the first time. Imagine that being your first experience: Waiting on line for six hours in inclement weather, people locking the door, when all you're trying to do is make your voice heard. And yet, and still, we rise.
If you want to be a coalition and a movement builder, if you want to be an activist, look at the early days of the civil rights movement — which we’re still in. People always talk about it as some sort of bookend, especially when they're telling the evolution of the experience for Black Americans. They’ll have you thinking that Rosa sat, and Medgar died, and Martin gave a speech, and John Lewis crossed a bridge, and suddenly we had freedom. That does not acknowledge the many defeats along the way. Also, in elevating those most iconic luminaries, there were millions more who sent up a prayer, who packed a lunch, who wrote a strategic plan, who marched, who are nameless and faceless to us. But their role in history is undeniable. If you look at the early days of the movement, the Freedom Rides were seven months, the Greensboro sit-ins were six months, the Montgomery Bus Boycott was 382 days. So if you have only recently begun to raise your fist, to lift your sign, to march for the Black Lives Matter movement, know that you are just honoring a long tradition of activism borne out of that earlier movement. So it isn't a matter of should I vote, or should I march, or should I lobby; it isn’t a matter of or — it’s and.
This is that reckoning moment we’re at as a country, so in that sense it’s very apropos that we’re holding space for the best of who we are while acknowledging the worst of who we’ve been. We are finally telling the truth about the face of that amendment and the women of color who contributed to it — who were abandoned by it. I feel encouraged because we’re not whitewashing that history.
I personally get offended when people tell me, “Charitie, voting is the answer. If you just vote, all these issues will be solved.” But voting can’t address 400 years of genocide. Voting can’t address 400 years of colonialism. And voting isn't harm reduction, point-blank. You cannot ask Indigenous communities, Black communities, [and] victims of sexual assault to choose between two white men who have not only harmed their communities but have also been accused of sexual assault to choose between the lesser of two evils — this idea of who is more evil than the other… Voting can’t address the 400 years of historical trauma that our people have been through. That’s what people have to understand.
In terms of the reservation system, a lot of Native American people can’t register to vote because you have to have an address, but [many] reservations don't have formal addresses. When it comes to the census, you have a lot of the issues we face with underreporting.
And when it comes to these colonial holidays and anniversaries that serve white women and white men, I’m reminded of how this country is obsessed with Native American culture but doesn't care for those who came before. You can see it in how we’re affected by COVID-19, in how we see all these deaths on Apache and Navajo reservations and how people don't care, how we literally have to reach out to foreign countries to get help. So it’s a reminder that we’re still here, and that’s powerful. We’re still smiling, we’re still laughing, we have some of the strongest languages. I’m able to go back home to my village to fish and be with my grandmother and my cousins. [But this anniversary is] a reminder that this country still continues to serve white audiences.
I remember vividly when I was in speech and debate, as the nerd that I am, we were debating voter ID laws. The one thing somebody had said to me was, "Well, we can't give felons, for example, the right to vote because they'll vote for things in their favor, like better prison food." [This] was not only a baffling and mind-blowingly ignorant example, but it also spoke to the ways and the lack of empathy in which we have the conversation on blatant voter disenfranchisement. For some reason, when we talk about ensuring that people have the right to vote, there's this automatic assumption made that somebody has done something to lose the right. It’s indicative of a time past when [financial and literacy] tests stood between Black people and the polls, and a faulty outlook at best.
If we are to be a democratic republic, then people should have the right.
As evident in the months of protests, in the months of civil unrest and action, there are many ways to hold our systems accountable. I do think, though, it is of the utmost importance that we use voting as yet another avenue. It works in conjunction with the civic action happening around the world. I am proud to come from a generation that cares deeply about so much and so many people; it feels like a mark of Gen Z that our community is ever-expansive.… We understand that policy is personal and that we must pay attention to the topics that seemingly “don’t relate” to us. If you have the right to vote, the opportunity that is granted to you is to carry with you to the polls all the people who you care about; to carry with you all the people who are indeed underrepresented.
Instead of being a one-platform voter, everything that we care about, from climate change to police reform, etcetera, are often on our ballot. Not to say that the solutions that we are being offered are perfect by any means, but I think it is a step forward. [It] is extremely important to know that the more engaged and informed voters are, the more we can ease the work of the people who are underrepresented. I turn to this last primary, for example, and I know one of the personal reasons I was voting was the fact that Reform L.A. Jails had a measure [on the ballot].
It is [also] of the utmost importance to take our particular perspective to the polls. I know many people have said it prior to me, but I think, to quote Patrisse Cullors, "When you invest in Black freedom, we all are free." And I think the same exists for really young Black women, young, nonbinary people, the entire spectrum of gender and sexuality and ethnicity, race, etcetera, is that when the most theoretically vulnerable populations are helping to guide policy, the rest of the world is a freer place because of it. So I do think that our voices should be leading the charge in terms of making this world a more equitable place.
A big part of my run is not just to shine a light on what’s missing within the electoral politics of New York City, but a great effort to expand who votes and who participates. In my case, Bangladeshis within my community are seeing for the first time what it means for me to run, and how the issues that we’re grappling with as a community are all political.
Historically, when elections happen, candidates — and even candidates who won and have gone on to represent us — don’t reach out to us. They’re not coming out to learn about or hear from low-propensity voters, especially in a community where many people are undocumented. I think candidates focus on “Who will vote for me?” rather than “Who is the community on the ground, and what can I do to uplift their issues as a legislator?”
I registered on campus at Brooklyn College, and it was sort of a passerby moment, where some young people were doing voter registration and I happened to pass by. But it shouldn’t be that way. I think the conversation about our political parties, and addressing why voting matters, and why the votes of women of color and working-class people matter — normal, routine voter registration efforts don’t address that. But of course they don’t, because the history of voting is rooted in leaving us out. It’s no secret that the history of voting tells a long tale of racism and misogyny. Who had the right to vote first? Men, and they were white men. For the rest of us to vote, it took organizing, it took power mapping, it took an uprising to demand it, and then to make it real.
Making it so difficult for voters with disabilities to get to the polling site is still an issue we’re fighting [against]. COVID-19 made [mail-in ballots] a mainstream topic, while many disabled folks have long been getting their vote out by mailing them in. But we know what we saw in this moment when absentee ballots didn't get to folks on time. There isn't a clean, streamlined process to reach voters with disabilities. We continue to disenfranchise voters — especially voters of color, voters with disabilities — every election cycle. Despite advocating for and organizing for early voting and automatic voter registration — reforms that would make this process easier — it is a long-haul fight. That fight is connected to all the other parts of electoral politics that have for decades kept us out.
In my household, I was taught that women’s suffrage was inspired by the slavery abolitionist movement. I think that history is not just forgotten, but purposely erased. We act as if marginalized groups work independently — as if there is no overlap — when in reality, these movements and identities are very complex and nuanced. Black women exist, and continuing to ignore the contributions they made to the suffragist movement is not only erasure, it also upholds white supremacist beliefs that only certain voices (white voices) deserve to be heard and revered.
I think this [anniversary] gives us the opportunity to critically think about who certain laws serve, who they exclude, and ways to truly make the voting process equitable.
Anyone who has paid attention to history knows that change has never come easy. People took to the streets. They marched, rioted, and petitioned to have the right to vote. I think the answer will be in the revolution. Change requires anger, will, and drive.
Voting was never about hearing voices like ours — I tell [that to] every Black girl who is interested in voting. Voting has never historically been our answer. We didn't vote our way out of slavery or segregation; however, our ancestors went to extreme lengths and dedicated their life’s work to giving us the freedoms we have now, and we need to honor them by using our power at the polls. I also say that as young people, we have a duty to get others to vote. I’m a 16-year-old girl; unfortunately, that means I am unable to influence my community at the polls. Does it seem fair? No, but I know that means I have to work 10 times harder to get everyone I know who can vote to the polls.