When Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on Aug. 18, 1920, that was enough: as the 36th state to approve the amendment, the Volunteer State made sure the U.S. Constitution would enshrine into law "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.”
And while this summer's centennial is remembered as a landmark moment in history for American women, 1920 only tells part of the story. The ratification did not mean that all American women gained the constitutional right to vote immediately in 1920; numerous barriers to voting remained for several communities, including Black women, Native American and Indigenous women, Asian American women and Latinx women. African American women and men's voting rights would not be incorporated into the country's law until Voting Rights Act of 1965.
And on a more symbolic level, some states did not ratify the amendment until as recently as the 1970s and 1980s. That delay did not affect women's right to vote, but it did send a message about just how controversial such an idea was.
Several states reacted actively rejected the Amendment in 1919 and 1920. Eleven states ratified it after it had already been certified in 1920—but not all at once. It would be fifty years before South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana would do so, with Mississippi becoming the last to join in 1984. From state to state, several factors were at play. In Virginia, which ratified in 1952, the Virginia Association Opposed to Woman's Suffrage distributed pamphlets that argued that the vote would actually have a negative impact on the every day lives of women, that it was the "vanguard of socialism" and that it would undermine the role of husbands in the family. Similarly in Alabama, which ratified in 1953, the Women’s Anti-Ratification League put forward the idea that Alabama women should be more concerned about raising families than participation in civic life, and in Florida, which ratified in 1969, opposition from newspapers and politicians to suffrage was fierce.
In some states, opposition during the suffrage campaigns of the 1910s was founded on the fear that if the 19th Amendment were ratified, it would also mean that the federal government would then enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments, requiring the states to allow Black men to vote. It was also seen as interference in the states' rights to decide on who could vote and who could not. In February 1920, Mississippi's legislature rejected the ratification of the 19th, and was one of two states in the country, alongside Georgia, which argued that women had missed the registration cut-off, that still did not allow women to vote in the November 1920 election.
"The biggest lesson for me from the suffrage movement is that you need to fight to win the war, not the battle," says Sally Roesch Wagner, historian, author and editor of The Women's Suffrage Movement anthology.
There is some irony in Southern resistance of suffrage. As Wagner points out, the white suffragists who were the fact of the movement in 1920 had devoted much of their energy to winning over the votes of Southern states, including those that initially refused to ratify. In doing so, they "sold out the movement," she says, by "using racism as organizational policy."
When states ratified the 19th amendment well after 1920 it was more of a ceremonial gesture, but one that still did carry great symbolism.
It was an all-male Senate that voted on Mississippi's ratification of the 19th amendment in 1984, in what was called a "housekeeping measure." Yet it was introduced by two female state representatives; Frances Savage of Brandon and Margaret Tate of Picayune. On its ratification, Savage suggested that the reason for the delay was that it was simply not a priority during the years of the Depression, World War II and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. But by then, it had once again risen to the top: As historian Marjorie Julian Spruill writes, when Mississippi was debating the proposed Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, "many Mississippians regarded the state's failure to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment as an embarrassment," especially as North Carolina became the penultimate state to ratify the Amendment in 1971.
On the day it was ratified in Mississippi, on March 22, 1984, Savage said that the action "reaffirms the right of women to participate in government in Mississippi." Others were more surprised that the state had taken this long overdue step, given that women in Mississippi had already been voting for a long time. Newspapers reported that Jan Lewis, the state director of the ACLU at the time "burst into laughter when told the news" and said "well, the state seems to find itself a day late and a dollar short."
Historian Martha S. Jones, author of the forthcoming book Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All., points to the later ratifications as reflective of states' changing electorates and demographics. And the 19th Amendment was not alone: notably, the 13th and 15th Amendments, which banned slavery and gave Black Americans the right to vote in the wake of the Civil War, were also formally ratified by several states in the 1960s and '70s, well after they had been added to the Constitution.
"It's deeply symbolic because even the late ratifications are manifestations of the ways in which the allocation of political power has shifted in an individual state," Jones says. "Black lawmakers, women lawmakers [and] Black women lawmakers are key to these shifts and it is a way of signaling their rise to political power."
But while these late ratifications may be surprising, they actually fit right in with one of Jones' primary arguments about the history of suffrage: that the ratification of the 19th Amendment was more of a touchstone in a series of decades-long struggles for marginalized communities, rather than the cornerstone event in achieving women's suffrage.
For many Americans, that longer struggle stretched well beyond 1920 in ways that were not just symbolic. African American women and men alike continued to face Jim Crow laws, voter intimidation and suppression, lynching, discriminatory literacy tests and other barriers to voting across the country, particularly in those Southern states. Similarly, Wagner's research on the Haudenoshaunee women of the Iroquois confederacy highlights how Indigenous women's longstanding political power and voice within their communities influenced the thinking of white suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Cunningham Fletcher, even as Native American women were unable to vote until Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924. For Asian American women too, 1920 did not bring immediate change. In 1912, the New York Times described Chinese-American suffrage activist Mabel Ping-Hua Lee as "the symbol of a new era, when all women will be free and unhampered." But it wouldn't be until 1943 that Chinese Americans were first permitted to become citizens, and until 1952 that the McCarran-Walter Act granted all people of Asian ancestry the right to become citizens, and therefore to vote.
And that story still continues. The current Congress is the body's most racially and ethnically diverse, with a record number of women representatives, and yet the fight for all Americans to be able to vote continues today—whether or not all states have ratified the 19th Amendment.