USC experts reflect on 100 years of women’s suffrage

With the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment’s ratification approaching, USC professors share their thoughts on the state of voting rights in 2020.

August 14, 2020 Emily Gersema

Tuesday marks the centennial anniversary of ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. While women celebrated a victory 100 years ago, for Black women the moment was just one milestone on a much longer journey. Black men and women had to continue to fight for the right until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Discussions about the right to vote strike a personal chord for some professors at USC. Francille Rusan Wilson, an associate professor of American studies and ethnicity, history and gender and sexuality studies at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, recalled that voting determined her family’s fate when she was 6 years old. Their community was considering whether to pass a bond issue that could force them from their home.

“My parents had built a lovely red brick ranch house on the invisible but real dividing line between Blacks and whites in our small city in St. Louis County, Missouri,” Wilson said. “I was only two short blocks from my grandparents and Lincoln School classmates. I loved the huge tree in front that shielded me from the curses that came from my new neighbors who attended the white school that was just across the corner from my house.

“The city was determined to seize and destroy our home and build a park to keep the color line firmly in place. My parents mobilized the Black community and got the help of a few progressive whites — I vividly remember one older white lady actually visiting our home during the campaign, a rare event under segregation. The bond issue was defeated, a lasting lesson for me in the power of the Black vote. We were able to keep our home, and my parents’ actions spurred dozens of Black professionals to build modern homes in the neighborhood.”

“The ability of Black citizens to vote freely was crucial then,” she added, “and it is just as critical today.”

Explaining the deeper value of women’s suffrage

Wilson is on a panel of experts who will speak at noon PT on Tuesday about the significance of the anniversary of women’s suffrage. Others who will appear on the panel shared how much they cherish and want to protect the right to vote, including Allissa Richardson, an assistant professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

As she considers the history of women’s suffrage, Richardson thinks also of the future — and her young daughter. In 2012, after Richardson gave birth, she was handed paperwork to apply for a Social Security number, birth certificate and even a letter of congratulations from then-President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.

“I remember feeling really full that day. That bundle contained all the paperwork I would need to establish my daughter’s personhood here in the United States,” she recalled.

I now had a chance to give birth to a Black baby girl who would never know a world without voting.

Allissa Richardson

“As a Black woman, I know that this was not always a given,” she added. “Black women during the time of slavery were seen as ‘the mule of the world,’ as Zora Neale Hurston so eloquently put it. But thanks to legions of suffragettes, from all ethnicities and backgrounds, I now had a chance to give birth to a Black baby girl who would never know a world without voting, never know a world without a Black president and never know a White House that did not have, at one time, three generations of Black women living in it. My vote helped make that possible.

“As we look to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, it’s important to me to continue fighting for everyone’s right to vote — just as fiercely as I fight to protect my daughter’s right to be a happy, free Black girl.”

Data show that women often outvote men

Voter turnout data reveal significant patterns among women voters, notes Mindy Romero, director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the USC Price School of Public Policy. They vote, and in many instances, they outvote men.

“Women’s suffrage matters in U.S. elections, as we can see by their voting patterns over the years. Women voters typically turn out at higher rates than men in every election,” she said. “When you break down the data by ethnicity or race, or even by age, we see significant gender differences. Latinas outvote Latino men at higher rates than white women outvote white men.

“In the 2016 presidential election, the turnout of Latina voters was 5 percentage points higher than the turnout of Latino men in the 2016 general election, whereas the difference between white non-Latino women and men was smaller (3.1 percentage points),” she added. “Although smaller in the midterms, the gender difference in Latino voter turnout was present in every election over the past two decades. In addition, African American women have had much higher turnout than African American men in every election over the past two decades.”

In 2020, the right to vote is still being threatened

While the right to vote seems like a given, experts in politics and law note that the right remains under constant threat.

In 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated key aspects of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The decision allowed nine states to change their election laws without federal approval.

“A number of states — including North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin — have passed voter ID laws, they’ve cut back on early voting, they’ve closed polling places and they’ve purged voter rolls,” said Ariela Gross, a law professor and expert in race, slavery and civil rights law at the USC Gould School of Law. “All of those new state laws attacking voting rights have taken place in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision, which gutted the Voting Rights Act.”

The Voting Rights Act was written in the blood of black activists, and its weakening imperils people of all races, genders and creeds.

Francille Rusan Wilson

Other threats to voting continue to emerge, even in the months before the Nov. 3 election. The ongoing fight for voting rights has long been focused on a much bigger goal: human rights. The two are intertwined.

“Black women have always fought for the vote, but suffrage has never been a single goal,” Wilson said. “Black women have advocated for freedom, dignity, civil and human rights from their work as abolitionists before the 15th Amendment — like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Maria Stewart and Mary Ann Shadd Cary — to the 19th- and early 20th-century suffragists like Frances E.W. Harper, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell and Anna Julia Cooper.

“The Voting Rights Act was written in the blood of black activists, and its weakening imperils people of all races, genders and creeds.”