A Quick History of Women, Voting, and Equality

By Ellevest Team

A hundred (and two) years ago, women’s access to money and power was … let’s go with “negligible.” Job opportunities were limited to “women’s work,” and conditions were often appalling. Women mostly stopped working (and could actually lose their citizenship) after they got married.

But then came the 19th Amendment, which supposedly gave all women the vote in 1920 — but actually, was pretty complicated. Here’s what you should know, in a nutshell.

The history of women and voting in the US

From the beginning, the fight for women’s right to vote was racially fraught. Leaders like Ida B. Wells-Barnett criticized white suffragists for slandering Black people as whiskey-crazed “mobs” who “menaced” white families to advance the cause of Prohibition, telling Black suffragists to march at the rear of a parade, and constantly putting the women’s vote before the Black vote.

And even though the equality of women in the Iroquois Confederacy inspired white suffragists, Native Americans — women and men — didn’t get the right to vote until 1924. Asian Americans weren’t guaranteed the vote until 1952. In practice, Black women in parts of the US weren’t reliably able to vote until the federal Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned the literacy tests used in the Jim Crow South to keep Black Americans from exercising their right. A lot of women were unable to vote until 1975, when the Civil Rights Act was amended to require voting materials in languages other than English. And people with disabilities weren’t guaranteed access to polls until 1984 (which was also the year Mississippi finally ratified the 19th Amendment — geez, Mississippi).

But the 19th Amendment did help

Even with its messy history, the 19th Amendment opened the door for change. The fight to amend the Constitution brought suffragist Jeannette Rankin to Congress as the first woman representative in 1917. Once the amendment was passed, women hit the ground running with the Sheppard–Towner Act of 1921, the first bill by the newly formed Women’s Joint Congressional Committee (and the very first piece of social security legislation ever passed by Congress, nbd). It specifically addressed maternal and infant mortality rates, and was widely seen as a demonstration of women’s voting power. (It was also pretty contentious, had been declared unconstitutional at one point, and Congress let it lapse in 1929. Sometimes the backlash can give you whiplash.)

Fast forward to today: 146 women currently serve in Congress. And 63 of them are women of color.

It was (is) pretty historic.

Voting still matters. (A lot.)

While voting is far from the only thing we can (and should) be doing to drive real change, it’s a lever at our disposal — and we can’t afford not to pull on all the levers we have. Whatever your politics, there’s also a strong case to vote for women: They get stuff done.

Women legislators pass more laws. They bring 9% more federal money back to their districts. And no matter their ideology, women are more likely to introduce pro-woman legislation — things like family leave.

So maybe you’re not registered to vote where you live. Or maybe you live in a “bubble” city or single-color state and you feel like your voice doesn’t matter. Or maybe you’re burned out on unkept campaign promises (ugh, we feel you on that one).

Do it anyway: Register to vote. Tell your friends to register to vote. Keep your ear to the ground about smaller, local elections coming up. And we’ll see you at the polls when it’s time.


© 2019 Ellevest, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

All opinions and views expressed by Ellevest are current as of the date of this writing, for informational purposes only, and do not constitute or imply an endorsement of any third-party’s products or services.

Information was obtained from third party sources, which we believe to be reliable but not guaranteed for accuracy or completeness.

A newsletter you’ll love

Get all the news, advice, and must-know info on women, money, and career.

Ellevest Team

Ellevest helps women build and manage their wealth through goal-based investing, financial planning, and wealth management. Our mission is to get more money in the hands of women.