This Women’s Equality Day

By Manira Alva, Vice President for Political and Civic Engagement, Vital Voices

Women in the U.S. have the right to vote thanks to the 19th Amendment. While this was a great first step in including women at decision-making tables, there is still a long way to go around the world.

As 50% of the population, we know that women matter. But what is still under debate to this day is whether they are allowed to enjoy the perks of participating in the societies they’ve helped to build. Nearly one hundred years ago, America stood on the right side of history and granted women the right to vote by passing of the 19th Amendment.

The women’s suffrage movement was a highly fractured one, but eventually prevailed in securing women’s right to vote. According to the National Women’s History Museum, the women’s suffrage movement began in 1848 after a women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, which served as a catalyst for 70 years’ worth of advocacy. It took over sixty years after the 19th Amendment was signed into law for 23 states to actually ratify it. As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the passing (May 21, 1919) and 99th anniversary of the ratification (August 18, 1920) of the 19th Amendment, we’re reminded of how far we’ve come — and how far we have to go.

The movement was imperfect and fraught with racism: Black women were routinely shut out of the suffrage movement and other women of color were regarded as non-existent by white women suffragists. And to this day, women and people of color in the United States and around the world fight for the equal right and ability to vote.

Despite laws like the 24th Amendment, which prohibits both Congress and the states from enforcing poll taxes, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which prohibits racial discrimination in voting, poll access was burdened with barriers. People of Asian descent in America were barred from seeking citizenship, and thus the ability to vote, until 1952. Indigenous and Native American people weren’t even recognized as citizens of the United States, and thus ineligible to vote, until 1957. Ballots weren’t bilingual until 1975, disenfranchising Latinx voters.

Today, disenfranchisement continues, often determined by peoples’ neighborhood, skin color, physical or mental ability. Asian-American voters face language barriers as nearly 1 in 3 Asian Americans identify as “limited English proficient”. As a result, there is an over 10%-point turnout gap between white voters headed to the polls at 64%, and Asian-Americans voting at just 49%. In North Dakota, voters are require to have an ID with a current street address, but many of the 5,000+ Native and Indigenous people in the state live on rural reservations where they have P.O. boxes instead of street addresses. In Black and Latinx communities, polling locations are frequently shuttered, and often just days before elections. Nearly 1,000 polling locations have been closed since 2013.

Plus, 24 states have implemented new restrictions on voting, and states with some of the longest histories of voter discrimination don’t have to seek approval from the federal government before implementing new laws. Laws that require photo ID to vote present a challenge in communities where Department of Motor Vehicle offices are closed or relocated tens of miles away — effectively making voting in elections impossible.

In all cases of American voter suppression, women face compounded oppression, and being a woman of color can make voting even more difficult or even dangerous. Because women often change their names after marriage, strict “exact-match” ID laws present obstacles to women who have changed their names or whose last names are commonly misspelled. Further, women make up 69% of unpaid caregivers to the elderly, and often lack the resources to obtain ID or get to a polling place before closure.

However, voter suppression, particularly the suppression of women’s votes, is not a uniquely American problem.

In Saudi Arabia, women were granted the right to vote just eight years ago, but women are still blocked from hosting training sessions and have barriers to entering political races as candidates. More than one million Congolese were unable to vote in March 2019 after elections were postponed in three opposition-majority areas. Plus, many more dealt with other roadblocks such as malfunctioning voter machines, last-minute closures of polling locations, and more. In India, voter suppression tactics targeted people from minority communities, which included Muslims and Dalits and women from these communities being disproportionately erased from electoral rolls, much like states across America.

Though voter suppression and the exclusion of women’s voices from the political table remains a global issue, we’re excited by the progress we’ve made thus far.

Women hold 24.3% of all national parliamentary seats in the world — an increase from 11.3% in 1995. The United States welcomed a record 117 women to Congress after the most recent elections, and leaders like New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern are showing the world how women lead differently.

And it’s in the name of progress like this that we celebrate the passing and ratification of the 19th Amendment. Though we have a fractured past and a long road ahead, the amendment was a milestone, an exciting culmination of work from suffragist groups, and a beacon of hope for women in America and around the world.

So, this Women’s Equality Day, as we celebrate the 99th anniversary 19th Amendment as a key step in giving women everywhere a voice, we also face the journey ahead. One where we all use our power to empower women everywhere so that their voices are heard, for the next 99 years and beyond.

Manira Alva brings over 25-years of multi-genre media experience, gendered-policy formulation and political strategizing to the Vital Voices Leadership Team. As the VP of Political and Civic Engagement, she oversees the VV Engage year-long fellowship in collaboration with the Council of Women World Leaders and professors from the Harvard University Kennedy School. VV Engage will announce its second cohort in the coming weeks.

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Invest in Women. Improve the World. | Vital Voices invests in women leaders who are solving the world’s greatest challenges.

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Vital Voices

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Invest in Women. Improve the World. | Vital Voices invests in women leaders who are solving the world’s greatest challenges.

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