Rep. Ayanna Pressley: For Black women, the struggle for the ballot didn’t end in 1920

Voting is part of the "struggle to rectify the legacy of systemic racism."

August 18, 2020, 4:15 AM

August 2020 marks the centennial of women's suffrage, though the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 only included white women, leaving out women of color. Nearly 50 years later, Black women were finally protected under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed many of the racist poll taxes, literacy tests and other policies that denied people of color the right to vote.

Now, amid a moment of racial reckoning in America, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., explores how the anniversary of women's suffrage is still a work in progress and calls on Americans to continue to stand up for voting rights for all.

"As we take a moment to celebrate the progress made during the past century, we must focus on our unfinished work," the Black congresswoman writes in an essay for "Good Morning America." "So long as systemic barriers create inequitable access to the ballot box, however, full and fair representation will remain out of reach."

PHOTO: Rep. Ayanna Pressley attends a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing in Washington, March 11, 2020.
Rep. Ayanna Pressley attends a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing in Washington, March 11, 2020.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images, FILE.

Read on for her essay in her own words. The views and opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the views of ABC News.

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This year, we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which proclaimed "the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."

The amendment was the result of determined activism by women from across the country, but the equality promised by the 19th Amendment was profoundly incomplete, applying only to white women.

For Black women, the struggle for the ballot didn’t end in 1920. While this year marks the hundred anniversary of the 19th Amendment, it has been only 55 years since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed many of the racist poll taxes, literacy tests and other policies that denied people of color the right to vote.

And now, half a century later, key tenets of the Voting Rights Act have been stripped away, and we are engaged in a daily struggle to prevent systematic voter suppression, intimidation, disinformation, and the disenfranchisement of millions of Black and brown Americans.

PHOTO:President Lyndon Baines Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965,  Aug. 6, 1965.
President Lyndon Baines Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Aug. 6, 1965.
AP

We look back to look ahead, grounded in the intersectional leadership of trailblazing Black women who fought for full enfranchisement.

PHOTO: Abolitionist Sojourner Truth is seated at table holding yarn and a book, ca. 1864.
Abolitionist Sojourner Truth is seated at table holding yarn and a book, ca. 1864.
Library of Congress.

Women like Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Charlotte Forten Grimke, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth embodied the phrase "lifting as we climb" -- the motto of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), one of the first national organizations dedicated to addressing the intersectional inequities Black women face.

These women built the foundation for those who came after; without them, there would be no Shirley Chisholm, there would be no Ayanna Pressley.

PHOTO: Rep. Shirley Chisholm announces her entry for Democratic nomination for the presidency at the Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York, Jan. 25, 1972.
Rep. Shirley Chisholm announces her entry for Democratic nomination for the presidency at the Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York, Jan. 25, 1972.
Don Hogan Charles/New York Times Co./Getty Images, FILE

It is their legacy of persistence and determination that we carry forward when we organize, mobilize and legislate to fight for access to the ballot.

The struggle for full and truly equal voting rights is part of the struggle to rectify the legacy of systemic racism and institutional oppression that has created deeply entrenched disparities and inequities in our nation.

The right to vote remains a racial justice issue, and it is inextricably tied to the fight for economic, health care, education, housing, transit and environmental justice. The struggle for full and truly equal voting rights is part of the struggle to rectify the legacy of systemic racism and institutional oppression that has created deeply entrenched disparities and inequities in our nation.

We find ourselves in a moment of national reckoning; our communities face converging crises of public health, economic inequality and systemic racism. In this moment, the occupant of the White House and Republicans across the country see an opportunity to seize the crisis to prevent millions of Americans from exercising their right to vote, and to continue their campaign of cruelty and racism.

To counter these discriminatory, bigoted efforts, it’s more important than ever that we turn out to vote in massive numbers and elect leaders who reflect the lived experiences of the people they serve, who will legislate our values and who will fight for bold, progressive change. So long as systemic barriers create inequitable access to the ballot box, however, full and fair representation will remain out of reach.

So long as systemic barriers create inequitable access to the ballot box, however, full and fair representation will remain out of reach.

So as we take a moment to celebrate the progress made during the past century, we must focus on our unfinished work.

We must honor the legacy of the suffragettes who stood up and reached for the ballot by continuing to defend and expand the rights they fought for. Congress must pass H.R.1, to expand access to the ballot box, and H.R.4, to restore the full strength of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And we must stand up against racist and discriminatory policies that aim to disenfranchise entire communities.

Together, we must continue to build a diverse, intersectional, multigenerational movement -- and we won’t stop until the right to vote is truly a reality for everyone in America.

Ayanna PressleyU.S. Representative, MA-07

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