The rise of women in U.S. politics—from the 19th Amendment to Kamala Harris

Prof. Linda Zerilli discusses women’s suffrage, VP selection and the importance of voting

This August, the nation celebrated the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. But the struggle for suffrage did not end there: Black women, indigenous women and other women of color were denied access to the polls for decades after the amendment was passed—and many Americans still face barriers to the voting booth today.

And the women’s movement has always been broader than suffrage: Representation and policy are also essential. A few weeks ago, Kamala Harris made history as the first woman of color on a major-party presidential ticket. In November, she could be elected the first Black and South Asian vice president of the United States.

In the following Q&A, University of Chicago political scientist Linda Zerilli discusses the present-day context of the women’s movement and the roles that Black women’s organizations played in first-wave feminism. A leading scholar of feminist thought, Zerilli is the Charles E. Merriam Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science and a former faculty director of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality.

This month marks 100 years since some women—though not most women of color—gained the right to vote. Still, the presidency and vice presidency remain glass ceilings. What has your reaction been to Kamala Harris’ nomination, especially on the centennial of the 19th Amendment?

In many ways it’s been a wonderful moment, because it shows that political struggles—even though they may take 100 years—can really pay off. Obviously, there’s a lot more that needs to be done before we achieve anything close to parity in terms of political representation in our system. But nevertheless, it’s particularly exciting that Kamala Harris was chosen as the VP pick. At the end of the day, I think that her nomination as a woman of color and a mixed-race woman is very significant—especially when we look back at the history of feminism in this country, which has had a complicated relationship to intersectional issues.

In what ways has that history been complicated?

As a concept, intersectionality recognizes that systems of power create compounding experiences of oppression. The difficulty for feminism has been that, as a political and social movement in the name of women, it has tended to isolate gender and sexuality as the core forms of oppression that all women face. This tendency has created persistent forms of exclusion within feminism that played out in the struggle for suffrage. Despite their roots in abolitionism, many first-wave white feminists were skeptical of—and some were openly hostile to—including Black women in their cause. Especially after 1870, many feminists became entangled in the forces of nativism, nationalism and racism that continue to haunt feminism today.

Do you think recent social movements—Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, the Women’s March—have coalesced to influence Joe Biden’s choice to select Harris? Do you see any interesting parallels between those movements and the suffrage movement?

There’s no doubt that those movements did coalesce to influence Joe Biden’s choice. But the wrong way to think about Biden’s choice is to say he didn’t have a choice—that it was made for him somehow, or that he had to do the “politically correct” thing. That’s not true. Rather, Biden rightfully saw where the energy is and where the political capital is, and that’s the result of social movements that have brought us to this moment. A few years ago, choosing Harris might not have been the logical choice that it was today, and that means things have changed for the better.

On the subject of parallels to the suffrage movement: I think the Black Lives Matter movement and Kamala Harris’ nomination have given us an opening to go back and revisit the past—and the suffrage movement in particular—in a way that shows its fullness and its intersectionality. For me, it’s a new way back to the past—through the future—and I find it incredibly enlightening for feminist scholarship.

What do you mean by ‘a new way back to the past’?

Historians have tended to write an almost seamless narrative about the suffrage movement, as if the first wave was primarily white women who were primarily focused on getting the vote. None of that is true. There were lots of different associations of women of color who were struggling for the vote too, as well as for other things. First-wave feminism was much more diverse than most people think, and much more focused on altering the relations between the sexes—not just on gaining the vote. The right to vote itself was always deeply inflected by personal experience, and that shaped the way suffragists thought about the struggle. For example, poll taxes, literacy tests and other Jim Crow-era disenfranchisement mechanisms barred women of color from the voting booth for decades.

In some cases, Black women’s political organizations were formed simply because of segregation and racism within the women’s movement, but another reason was because they didn’t feel that their issues were really being heard. New scholarship is helping us paint a more accurate picture of the movement that goes beyond the mythology that we’ve created around the Seneca Falls Convention and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (who, by the way, wasn’t even present at Seneca Falls).

Some of this scholarship has focused on the role played by Black women like Anna Julia Cooper and Ida B. Wells-Barnett in the struggle for suffrage. Cooper’s A Voice From the South is a classic text in Black feminism, and she co-founded several organizations to promote civil rights, including the Colored Women’s League in 1892. Already famous for her anti-lynching campaign, Wells organized the Alpha Suffrage Club among Black women in Chicago who then participated in the 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. A forthcoming book from Martha S. Jones, Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All, makes the case that we need to look outside the normal channels of the suffrage movement if we want to identify the important and unique contributions of Black women to the struggle for political freedom.

Some activists have noted that having a woman of color on the ticket doesn’t necessarily translate into policies that benefit women and people of color. What are some of the things that you think a Biden-Harris administration could do to demonstrate its commitment to real change?

Women—and particularly women of color—are suffering disproportionately during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m not just talking about limited access to health care, or drug therapies that are designed for the male body rather than the female body, although addressing those problems is incredibly important too.

What I’m talking about is the fact that the gendered division of labor has been exacerbated during the pandemic, and I have real concerns that women could lose ground on progress they’ve made in recent decades as a result. When I look at my colleagues with kids in the background of their Zoom calls, for me it raises questions: What is our commitment as a society going to be to maternal health care, paid leave, childcare and education? Because ultimately, these things speak to our commitment to women. So addressing how women specifically have been impacted by the pandemic is one priority.

What else have you been thinking about as Women’s Suffrage Month ends and we head into the peak of election season?

I’ve been thinking about John Lewis’ final, posthumous essay, in which he wrote “Democracy is not a state. It is an act.” That’s so true, and it’s also true for feminism. It’s not a state you reach but continued daily action. It has a radically quotidian character.

But I also try to emphasize to my students the radical nature of those early struggles. Women went on hunger strikes, they strapped themselves to gates. They really had their “eyes on the prize,” and some of them devoted lifetimes of energy to seeing the day when women could get the vote. Now, because of some of the movements you mentioned, the public is revisiting how important voting is as a tool for social change.

In recent years, we’ve realized that democracy can fall apart right before our eyes. So now, there’s a sense of urgency that it’s something we have to keep alive. That’s a good thing—people know what’s at stake, and they know that their votes matter. I’m actually incredibly heartened that people have a renewed sense, after years of despondency, that voting is important. Those who suffered for the vote thought it mattered, and we’re finally realizing as a society that they were right. That, truly, is the meaning of uplift to me.