Getting the Vote
What is Suffrage?
by Gwen Perkins
"Suffrage" means the right to vote. When citizens have the right to vote for or against laws and leaders, that government is called a "democracy." In a democracy like that of the United States of America, it is one of the most important principles of government. Many Americans think voting is an automatic right, something that all citizens over the age of 18 are guaranteed. But this has not always been the case. When the United States was founded, only white male property owners could vote. It has taken centuries to achieve the rights that citizens enjoy today.
Who has been able to vote in United States history? How have voting rights changed over time? Read on to discover some key events.
1789: An End to Religious Persecution
One of the things that American democracy is best known for is the right that it gives its citizens to practice all religions. This wasn’t the case when the nation was first founded. Several colonies excluded Jews, Quakers, and/or Catholics from voting or running for public office. Article VI of the Constitution was written and adopted in 1789 granting religious freedom.
1870: Men of All Races Allowed to Vote
At the end of the Civil War, the United States created another amendment that gave former slaves the right to vote. The 15th Amendment granted all men in the United States the right to vote regardless of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude."
This sounded good, but there was a catch. In order to vote in many states, citizens were required to own land. This kept many former slaves as well as the poor from being able to cast a ballot. Some states also had what was known as a "poll tax," meaning money that had to be paid in order to vote. Other things that were done to keep African Americans from voting included literacy tests, threats of physical violence, and the hiding of poll locations. Many states passed what became known as "Black Codes" to make some of these actions legal.
1920: Women Get the Vote
Women played a huge role in working for suffrage, beginning with the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. At that Convention, a group of three hundred men and women united to discuss the question of equal rights for women and men. Many of the conference attendees were also abolitionists who believed in equal rights for all citizens of the United States, regardless of race or gender.
When it came time to campaign for women’s right to vote, not all women agreed on including African American women in the parades and marches. While there were many black suffragists, conservative supporters feared that fighting for the vote for all women, rather than simply white women, would keep legislators from passing the amendment. When the 19th Amendment passed in 1920, all white and black women got the right to vote, although many black women lost it within a decade. Several harsh laws were passed in the South, preventing most African American women from exercising that right. Other groups of women, such as Native Americans and immigrants, were not covered by the 19th Amendment because they were not considered citizens.
1924: Native Americans Become Citizens
It wasn’t until 1924 that citizenship was granted to all Native Americans who had been born in the United States. But even after the Indian Citizenship Act, many Indians could not vote because of state laws that restricted them from doing so. It was not until 1948 that all Native Americans were allowed to vote in local and federal elections.
1964: The Poor Allowed to Cast a Ballot
The poll tax that kept so many Americans from voting was removed by the 24th Amendment. After the passage of this amendment, Americans were no longer required to pay for their vote.
1965: The Voting Rights Act
African American voters received protection from the harsh Black Codes when the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. This Act guaranteed voting rights as stated in the 15th Amendment but also forbade states from discriminating against minority voters. It removed the right of states to put restrictions on who could vote in elections. This helped many minorities, not only African Americans but Latino Americans, Asian Americans, and others.
Suffrage - Only a Beginning?
Suffrage itself doesn’t guarantee equality for all. What having the right to vote does is provide citizens with a voice. It also allows citizens to make laws and elect people to represent them in government. For groups that have fought for suffrage, getting the vote has not been the end of struggle. Instead, it was just the first stage in obtaining political and social equality, a struggle that continues today.
Copyright © 2007-2009 Washington State Historical Society
This handbill provides 8 reasons why women should be allowed the vote. Washington State Historical Society Collections.
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In 1970, Peggy Maxie ran for Washington State Representative, only five years after the Voting Rights Act.
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The pin shown above was part of the Equal Rights Amendment which sought to provide equality for those discriminated against for sexual orientation as well as gender.
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