Justice  /  Comparison

The Unfinished Business of Women’s Suffrage

A century after the passage of the 19th Amendment, women with felony convictions remain disenfranchised.

More than 150 years ago, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper appealed to white women in the suffrage movement, as historian Martha S. Jones recounts her struggle in her forthcoming book, Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All. Harper sought to unify them beyond securing their own right to vote—which meant to fight for Black women. At the time, the predominantly white suffrage movement was wrapped up in debates over who should get the vote first: Black men, or (white) women? But some formed a coalition to demand universal suffrage, not limited by race or sex or class. As Harper would argue in support of such efforts, “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity.”

At the same time, “Harper doubted that white American women would join her in this movement,” writes Jones, and when these coalitions collapsed, Black women went on to form their own organizations to rally for the vote on more expansive terms. Suffrage alone would not be enough. Their movement would span multiple terrains, long past 1920. “The Nineteenth Amendment cracked open a door,” Jones writes. But on the other side was the intimidation and violence the men in their lives already faced at the ballot box, and with the passage of women’s suffrage, “now beset Black women’s lives.”

The Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments had nominally extended the franchise to Black men. In truth, the Reconstruction era amendments launched a struggle that would span another century as the white ruling class authored yet more laws and regulations that were—though race-neutral on their face—tailored to block Black men from the vote and from political power. States had the power to demand poll taxes and literacy tests before allowing Black men to register.

So did laws barring people convicted of felonies from the vote, laws which, in some form, remain in all but two states today. Under felony disenfranchisement, more than one in five Black people of voting age in Florida have been denied their right to vote.

That includes Black women. They may make up a smaller number of women under correctional control in Florida and thus are often overlooked. Yet the number of women in Florida’s jails and prisons has skyrocketed over the last 40 years, according to the Vera Institute, from around 1,700 in 1980 to more than 14,000. McCoy and Singleton are two of those women.