By Nicole Williamson*
August 2020 marks one hundred years since the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote in the United States. As stated quite simply in the Amendment’s text, “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” These foundational words ushered in a new era of women’s rights in the United States, as enfranchisement further empowered women to voice their concerns and seek office. Yet women’s suffrage was hardly accomplished by a unified female voice; indeed, the movement was fractured and exclusionary in effectuating its goals. Today, the question of voting rights remains a similarly controversial and divided issue fraught with racial and political tension. On the eve of this momentous centennial, it is imperative to our modern voting rights debate to understand how the Nineteenth Amendment came to be, who was left behind, and what barriers still frustrate full female enfranchisement.
Securing the Right to Vote
Most historical accounts of women’s suffrage begin with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, from which Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony launched a decades-long struggle to secure women’s right to vote. These women, along with figures such as Lucy Stone, and later, Carrie Chapman Catt and Alice Paul, helped raise national consciousness of women’s rights and unleashed a rallying cry that would drive the movement towards its ultimate success.
Though grade-school lessons depict a coherent, impassioned rise to victory, a more accurate historical narrative warps this idyllic image. When the proposed Fifteenth Amendment sought to enfranchise black males, white women suffragists rose up in protest, dividing the movement into two camps polarized on the issue of race: “those who felt that Black men needed the vote even more than women, and those who were unwilling to postpone woman suffrage for the sake of Black males.”  After this division — and even as the movement more generally excluded the voices of women of color — black women continued to seek membership in the “mainstream” white feminist movement. At the same time, black suffragists coalesced into parallel black civic groups advocating for women’s right to vote.  For black women, the barriers were two-fold: a simultaneous fight against racism and sexism. By 1918, when the movement stood at the precipice of winning its hard-fought battle, white women again confronted this racial divide: including black women in the folds of the Nineteenth Amendment risked turning away Southerners, putting the Amendment’s passage at risk.  Securing the right to vote thus involved more than the enfranchisement question itself — it required determining whoshould be included and how soon. These questions were not initially evaluated with an eye towards equality.
Ultimately, the Nineteenth Amendment did enfranchise black women, granting voting rights on equal footing with white women. On the day of ratification, the victory was one secured for all women.
Yet for black women, this victory was short-lived. Less than a decade after enfranchisement under the Nineteenth Amendment, southern black women found themselves stripped of political power and effective voting rights.  By 1940 only 3 percent of voting-age black men and women in the South were registered to vote, a result of the widespread racial violence and intimidation campaign launched by white southerners under Jim Crow. By 1964, 43 percent of black southerners were registered to vote, a hard-won improvement amid increasing violence. Despite the Nineteenth Amendment’s symbolic political victory, for black women the ability to vote came instead by way of the Civil Rights Movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which secured full voting rights over forty years after initial legal enfranchisement. Thus, though the Amendment was a clear victory for women, its ratification did not immediately benefit allwomen — many, like southern black women, struggled for years to exercise their rights.
Modern-Day Challenges: Who is Still Left Behind?
As the nation faces an increasingly diverse voting pool, with racial and minority groups projected to become a majority of the population in 2043, it is more crucial than ever before to protect voting rights for women, and in particular women of color. We must therefore assess: where do we currently stand on voting rights, and what barriers impede full rights and representation?
Fundamentally, women have made enormous leaps in terms of voter turnout in recent years. Women constitute the majority of registered voters, and since 1980 have voted at higher rates than men in presidential elections. Indeed, since President Obama’s election in 2008, black women have had the highest voting rates of the total female population age 18 or older, voting at 66.1 percent, compared to 64.5 percent of non-Hispanic white women.
Yet challenges remain turnout-wise. For example, Hispanic women and Asian women vote at much lower rates — 33.9 and 32 percent, respectively. White voters are still far more likely than any other group to be “consistent” voters, with lower “continued voter engagement” among minority communities. Generationally, young adults are also far less likely than their senior counterparts to vote — 28 percent versus 74 percent in the 2018 election.
What depresses minority turnout? One major driver of disenfranchisement has increasingly become voter identification laws. Studies on the impact of ID laws, which require certain standards of identification in order to vote, demonstrate that “women, especially low-income, older, minority, and married women,” are most vulnerable to these stringent new laws. Women generally have more trouble than men presenting proper identification, in part because marrying or divorcing often involve name changes that make it harder to present multiple, matching forms of identification. In terms of race, Black and Hispanic Americans are generally three times more likely to be told that they lack the identification needed to vote. Even more commonly, one in ten Americans has trouble taking off work in order to vote – a rate even higher amongst Black or Hispanic Americans (16%) than White Americans (8%). There are clear barriers that make it harder for women and people of color to vote, demonstrating that even today, women of color still face major impediments to exercising full voting rights first granted over one hundred years ago under the Nineteenth Amendment.
Despite the significant barriers to political rights posed by voter ID laws and similar devices, many don’t view voting issues in the same light. White Americans “are far less likely than black and Hispanic Americans to express concerns about eligible voters being denied the right to vote,” with only one quarter of white Americans finding denial of the right to vote to be a serious issue, compared to nearly two thirds of black and Hispanic Americans. Moreover, there is a marked divide along partisan lines, with conservatives viewing voter fraud as much more pressing than voter disenfranchisement, a paramount concern for liberals. Sharp political divides have framed how Americans see our political and electoral system, in the end calling attention away from the pressing issue of disenfranchisement — and ultimately, leaving vulnerable populations unable to exercise their rights.
Politics aside, the question of enfranchisement touches on our most fundamental rights under the Constitution. As Justice Ginsburg wrote in her Shelby v. Holder dissent, “[race discrimination and the right to vote are] the most constitutionally invidious form of discrimination, and the most fundamental right in our democratic system.” While partisan factions may vie for the chance to control the national narrative, what is most at stake is individual voices and their representation in our democracy. The Nineteenth Amendment granted the right to vote regardless of sex — and going forward, this right must be protected for all women, especially for minority women whose voting rights are most at stake today.
*Nicole Williamson is a 3L at Harvard Law School
 Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920, at 8.
 Black female leaders on voting rights included Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Ella Baker, Rosa Parks, and Angela Davis, amongst many other inspirational women.
 Terborg-Penn at 11.