By Gayle Converse and Pat Miller
As we celebrate this centennial year of the American woman’s right to vote, we find ourselves a few short weeks away from a United States presidential election – an election in which women voters are predicted to play a key role.
The 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution enfranchised 26 million American women in time for the 1920 U.S. presidential election, yet it took 60 years for the female electorate to match the percentage of male voters.
Although ratios fluctuated from state to state, onethird of women aged 21 years and older cast their ballots in 1920, in contrast to twothirds of voting-age men. Despite the women’s initial lackluster national voter turnout, the first decades following the passage of the 19th Amendment established additional empowerment, although limited, of American women with the enactment of a few labor and education reforms.
In Alexandria, voter turnout on Nov. 2, 1920 was a different story: The number of the city’s newly enfranchised women casting their ballots was higher than the national average. An account in the Nov. 3, 1920 Alexandria Gazette revealed local statistics: “The women voted in large numbers and fully three-fourths of the number qualified took part in the election. There are 4,250 qualified voters in the city of which number 1,399 are women.”
One hundred years later, The City of Alexandria Office of Voter Registration and Elections reports that as of Oct. 15, 2020, more than 30% of the city’s 100,000 active registered voters have cast their ballots in the 2020 General Election, in person or by mail. The Virginia Department of Elections reports that as of Aug. 31, 2020, there were 5,825,332 registered voters across the commonwealth. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a little more than half of the commonwealth’s current residents are women.
Historically, all American voters have not enjoyed free and fair elections. In 1870, the 15th Amendment was passed to guarantee people of color the right to vote, however the amendment proved stronger in theory than in practice: Poll taxes, literacy tests, harassment and physical violence prevented many Black Americans from accessing the ballot box. The 15th Amendment also did not include women. Many communities of color were blocked from voting. Indigenous people won full U.S. citizenship in 1924, but Native Americans were not guaranteed the right to vote until 1962.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 had been designed to eliminate legal obstacles that prevented people of color from exercising their voting rights, but racism at the polls continued in many states. Today, notwithstanding continued voter intimidation and suppression in some U.S. locations, women of color are voting in record numbers.
The 1971 ratification of the 26th Amendment that lowered the legal voting age in the U.S. from 21 to 18, created a new segment of the American electorate. In 2018, younger women voted at higher rates than younger men.
In 1980, the numbers of American women voters began to match their male counterparts and since then, have exceeded the percentage of men voters in many states. In the 2018 midterms, 53% of voters were women and 47% were men.
The 19th Amendment is being recognized as a long-awaited correction that began to change the political and socioeconomic landscapes for women: According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, “A century after the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote, about half of U.S. adults (49%) – including 52% of men and 46% of women – say granting women the right to vote has been the most important milestone in advancing the position of women in the country, relative to other notable events and achievements.”
the women’s vote when you cast your ballot, Alexandria Celebrates Women encourages you to do so in honor of the brave women who fought and the many who must continue to fight for this most cherished of privileges.
The writers are founders of Alexandria Celebrates Women, a nonprofit that is commemorating the centennial of women’s suffrage and highlighting influential women throughout the city’s history. Contact them at [email protected].