What does it really mean to have the right to vote in America today? This is an example of one of the topics covered in The Hollander Lecture. The Hollander Lecture in Women’s Leadership is made possible by the work of Barbara Stone Hollander ’60. Barbara was a passionate feminist who believed in advancing women’s progress. This drive led to the establishment of The Barbara Stone Hollander Women’s Leadership Fund which creates opportunities for women such as funding internships and bringing in lecturers to inspire women. These lectures are a great resource for women in the Chatham community looking to get involved. Make sure to check out the events page and attend the next one!
On Tuesday September 15th, the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics (PCWP) and The Women’s Institute joined to Commemorate Constitution Day with the Hollander Lecture in Women’s Leadership featuring Dr. Lisa Tetrault. Dr. Tetrault is an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University. She specializes in gender, race, and the history of American Democracy. Dr. Tetrault’s lectures focus on the U.S. suffrage movement. As the 2020 Election comes closer, her lecture, “Women and the right to vote, a history unfinished,” provided insight to the history of voting in the United States, and served as a call to action to women and citizens everywhere to continue the fight of their forerunners. She mentions feverously that the right to vote has not yet been achieved, some of the barriers have just been removed such as the requirements of owning land, being male, and being white.
“The story I’m going to talk about today is not about achieving a right to vote, which still I will tell you does not exist in US law,” Dr. Lisa Tetrault begins, “What we’ve had across US history is the effort to strike down those barriers to voting, and then we call clearing those barriers the achievement of the right to vote. That right to vote is a negative right to vote. It’s the removal of an obstacle, not the conferral of a right which that person possesses. And we still in US history are not possessed with a right to vote and that matters a lot.” She asserts the Constitution does not mention a citizen’s right to vote, which instead is a matter left up to the States. The States also did not create the right to vote. Instead they compiled a list of criteria required for citizens to access the ballot box to vote.
This is important because the early Women’s Rights Movement came to fruition as an attempt to strike down voting criteria that barred women from voting, specifically language requiring voters be “white” and “male.” The 15th amendment addresses one of those criteria, “white,” stating there may be no discrimination of voting on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, allowing Black men to vote and creating a brief period of biracial participation in the South.
While this was a big victory for Black men, it was just one step toward the overarching goal of giving all citizens access to the vote. Furthermore, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were dissatisfied by this amendment, convinced that the Black male vote would negatively impact the livelihood of white women. As a result, they created the National Women’s Suffrage Association, the first suffrage movement of the United States. This decision, though monumental for the passage of the 19th amendment, highlighted racial tensions and pushed many Black women to organize elsewhere, often with Black men, as their needs were ignored by Stanton and Anthony’s new organization.
It is important to note that prior to 1920, many states had already removed the word “male” from their voting criteria and women were voting. This is part of the reason the 19th amendment was passed because the US was able to recognize allowing women to vote would not be detrimental to society.
While the women’s suffrage movement was gaining momentum, the white supremacist government in the South realized the federal government was not enforcing the Black vote, so they worked to overthrow biracial government by creating new criteria that was not on the basis of race, but worked in the same manner to suppress voting. During 1890s-1910s, poll taxes and literacy tests were erected, effectively blocking the Black male vote in the South, as well as in the North and West to also bar people of color and native Americans from voting. Dr. Tetrault emphasizes, “Disenfranchisement is a robust American practice, not just a Southern practice.”
When the 19th amendment passed in 1920, the amendment said no states could use the word ‘male’ as criteria for voting. However, millions were still unable to vote after 1920 because of the intentional barriers in the form of poll taxes and literacy tests. As a result, Black women pushed to continue fighting. However, white women suffragists felt done with their battle as their fight had been “won”.
This discrimination based on criteria continued until the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed, which allowed the federal government to strike down certain state restrictions that were discriminatory and decided that states must run criteria by the federal government before it could be implemented to ensure it was not discriminatory. In the wake of the Voting Rights Act, America was considered a democracy for the first time until the court case, Shelby County v. Holder struck down aspects of the Voting Rights Act once more, bringing to light once again that the States can always create new restrictions to voting. “We are in the midst of the most massive wave of repression right now in the United States since the Voting Rights Act and it is estimated that 20 million people who were voting have been thrown off the possibility of voting,” Dr. Tetrault stated, “The United States downgraded from a full democracy to a flawed democracy by nonpartisan entities across the globe that track the health of global democracies. We do not come into the top 20 functioning democracies because the right to vote has never been won and does not exist in the Constitution.”
Dr. Tetrault ends her lecture with a reminder that the passage of the 19th amendment was championed by ordinary citizens that fought, died, and struggled and that responsibility has now been handed down to us to continue that fight for our ability to vote unhindered by discriminatory restrictions. Unlike the women’s suffragists thought, the fight for the right to vote is not over.
Dr. Jessie Ramey, Director and Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender studies and Founding Director of the Women’s Institute at Chatham, highlights, “Dr. Lisa Tetrault’s lecture helps us understand that the work of fighting for suffrage is not done. The 19th amendment — while significant — is just the middle of a long story of people trying to access the vote. Dr. Tetrault emphasized that Americans have no “right to vote” guaranteed in the Constitution, and that states have always passed laws to disfranchise groups of people, which is particularly evident in our current moment. Dr. Tetrault’s work demonstrates that the history of voting cannot be separated from the history of white supremacy and structural racism in the United States. This lecture succeeded in enlightening attendees regarding the obstacles citizens faced and continue to face to access the vote.
As election day, November 3rd approaches, there is no better time for a reminder of the fight that has and is occurring regarding access to the vote for many, and the power voting holds to shape the history of the United States. It is everyone’s responsibility. As a reminder Pennsylvania requires all registration to be completed by October 19th, all absentee ballots to be requested by October 27th and returned by November 3rd, and early voting takes place until October 27th. Everyone can make a difference by voting.