Struggles for Suffrage: Past, Present, and Future


Isabella Randle

How should we remember the passage of the 19th Amendment? Should we celebrate it as a victory for women, or instead remember those who were (and continue to be) excluded: primarily black Americans and those with felony convictions? On October 7, the first of a series of discussions commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the 19th Amendment took place in the E. Bronson Ingram Great Room. Three expert panelists, Tiffany Lewis, assistant professor of communication at the Baruch College Marxe School; Pippa Holloway, professor of history at Middle Tennessee State University; and Charlane Oliver, Vanderbilt alumna and founder and president of The Equity Alliance, presented their work and reminded us that suffrage has been, and continues to be, a struggle.

Tiffany Lewis argued that 20th century suffragettes used maps as encouraging and powerful tools to expand women’s voting rights. Maps were especially persuasive because they were perceived as facts, and legitimized the spread of women’s suffrage. The maps exaggerated the success of the suffrage movement: maps depicted states as larger than reality, and often represented areas with extremely small populations. Additionally, the maps reversed the themes of Manifest Destiny. The west was traditionally depicted as dark and uncivilized, as in John Gast’s famous American Progress painting. However, suffragettes depicted the western states (where women could vote) in white, and the states without female suffrage in black. This is how suffrage states came to be associated as “white states,” a term that evoked white supremacy. In this way, suffragettes advanced the agendas of white females at the expense of black Americans.

American Progress, John Gast, 1872
Two More Bright Spots on the Map, Henry Osborne, 1914

Pippa Holloway explained that currently, 6.1 million convicted Americans have been disfranchised in prison; this number is rising steadily as a result of increased mass incarceration. There is a distinct racial pattern, due to the systematic over-incarceration of African Americans. In fact, 7.7% of African American adults are disfranchised due to incarceration, compared to only 1.8% of the non-black population. Holloway emphasized that this phenomenon is not the result of African Americans committing more crimes, but rather the result of a racially biased justice system. Furthermore, Holloway argued that the American history of slavery, in which individuals had no legal status and were deprived of all rights, helped normalize the concept of revoking voting rights to prisoners nationally. After the Civil War, African Americans could be disfranchised for committing any kind of theft, however small, and were often convicted right before elections.

March on Washington, 1963. Securing voting rights has been and continues to be a struggle.

Charlane Oliver founded The Equity Alliance with five other black women immediately following the 2016 Presidential election. The Equity Alliance works throughout Tennessee to help black Americans use their voting power to fully participate in democracy. The organization has a variety of programs, including Souls to the Polls (helping black church congregations register to vote), #VotingIsLit block parties (having events near polling areas has increased voter turnout 6% in communities of color), and creating and distributing the Nashville Voter Guide. Though the Jim Crow era may officially be over, Oliver argues that black Americans still aren’t free: obstacles such as gerrymandering, modern-day poll taxes (fines and fees for felons or driver’s license revocations), long lines at limited poll places, voter purging, Crosscheck requirements, and criminalizing voter registration still suppress black citizens. In 2018, The Equity Alliance submitted over 91,000 voter registration forms, which prompted the passage of HB 1079, a “crackdown” which allowed the Tennessee legislature to fine third party groups up to $10,000 if they submitted incomplete voter registration forms. In response, The Equity Alliance filed a lawsuit, and in September, a federal judge blocked the law. 

At the conclusion of the presentations, the panelists answered questions and offered general reflections. Oliver noted that it is “simultaneously disheartening and encouraging that this is where we are in America,” while Lewis noted the importance of keeping activists motivated. Holloway summed up the discussion: suffrage in America is a struggle, it has always been a struggle, and it will continue to be a struggle. As we celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the 19th Amendment, we should remember how far our country has come, without losing sight of how far we still have to go.