The 19th Amendment, Elizabeth Peratrovich, and the Ongoing Fight for Equal Rights

portrait style photo of a woman dressed in a floral print dress
Elizabeth Peratrovich fought for and won civil rights for Alaska Natives

Alaska State Library Portrait File. Photographs. ASL-Peratrovich-Elizabeth-1 ASL-P01-3294

By Erik Johnson, Denali Park Historian

The 19th Amendment, which granted American women the right to vote, was passed by Congress in 1919, ratified by the states on August 18, 1920, and adopted as a part of the U.S. Constitution on August 26, 1920.[1] Over the course of the last year, the National Park Service and other organizations have been commemorating the centennial of this important political achievement that changed the U.S. Constitution.

Like many Amendments to the Constitution, the 19th Amendment was a part of the ongoing struggle for equal rights. It provided suffrage for American women, but these rights did not extend to indigenous women (or men), who were not considered citizens until 1924 and then routinely disenfranchised through various schemes such as the 1925 Alaska Literacy Law. The 19th Amendment also did not necessarily provide the ballot to other women (or men) of color, who also encountered continual voter disenfranchisement. Access to the ballot and equal rights was and has been an ongoing struggle led by diverse women throughout the country.
a woman and four men standing around a man at a desk
Governor Ernest Gruening signs the Anti-discrimination Act of 1945. Elizabeth Peratrovich is standing behind him

Alaska Territorial Governors Collection, Photographs, Alaska State Library; ASL-P274-1-2

In Alaska, women's suffrage passed in 1913—seven years prior to the 19th Amendment—and antidiscrimination legislation passed nearly 20 years prior to the major national civil rights bills of the 1960s.[2] In the 1940s, Elizabeth Peratrovich—a Tlingit woman who was Grand President of the Alaska Native Sisterhood—led the charge to end discrimination against Alaska Natives.[3] She was fed up with indigenous people paying taxes and fighting wars for America but not receiving the same rights and access to businesses as white citizens.

The Alaska Equal Rights Act legislation originally was brought to the Alaska legislature in 1943 but failed. When the bill was taken up by the Alaska legislature again, in 1945, Peratrovich left a lasting mark when she challenged the discriminatory and racist comments expressed by Senator Allen Shattuck. Shattuck bemoaned the notion of equality among whites and Alaska Natives:
a gold coin with a raven emblem, etching of a woman's face and words elizabeth peratrovich anti-discrimination law of 1945
Elizabeth Peratrovich is featured on the 2020 dollar coin

Photo courtesy of the United States Mint

"The races should be kept further apart. Who are these people, barely out of savagery, who want to associate with us whites with 5,000 years of recorded civilization behind us?"

When the floor opened to comment from the public, Peratrovich reportedly set down her knitting needles and countered Shattuck:

"I would not have expected that I, who am barely out of savagery, would have to remind gentlemen with five thousand years of recorded civilization behind them of our Bill of Rights."

Her speech went on to mention the injustices faced by her family, including the inability to acquire decent housing. Enough senators were moved by Peratrovich's speech that the Alaska Equal Rights Act of 1945 was passed and then signed by Governor Ernest Gruening. Gruening was on record saying that the bill never would have passed without Peratrovich's efforts.[4]

Alaska recognizes February 16th (the date the Alaska Equal Rights Act was signed) as "Elizabeth Peratrovich Day , and the U.S. Mint is commemorating her on the one-dollar coin during 2020, which is the 75th anniversary of the landmark antidiscrimination legislation in Alaska. For Peratrovich and the Alaska Native Sisterhood, the Alaska Equal Rights Act was not the end of the fight for equal rights and the improvement of Alaska Natives' lives—it was only one component of a longer struggle.[5]

This week, it is important to commemorate the passage of the 19th Amendment, which required generations of lobbying and sacrifice, and to recognize the numerous contributions of female leaders as the quest for gender equality continues with work left to do.

The Equal Rights Amendment, which was originally drafted in 1923, finally met the ratification threshold in January 2020. The language in the amendment states: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article." Because efforts to secure the approval of the 75% of states needed to ratify the amendment have seen the passing of so many decades, some states have rescinded prior approval, and now there are obstacles to ratification that must be settled by Congress and the courts.

To commemorate the centennial of the 19th Amendment, the NPS's Alaska Regional Office recently launched a website dedicated to important women in Alaska's history.
[1] Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment. Amendments to the Constitution require three-fourths of the states to approve (there were only 48 states in 1920). Numerous attempts to pass a women's suffrage amendment had failed to pass Congress for over 40 years.

[2] Much national civil rights progress occurred in the 1960s, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which accomplished extensive measures to end racial discrimination, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was a major step toward ending voter disenfranchisement.

[3] The Alaska Native Sisterhood formed in 1914 and fought for citizenship and voting rights alongside the Alaska Native Brotherhood.

[4] Holly Miowak Guise, "Elizabeth Peratrovich, the Alaska Native Sisterhood, and Indigenous Women's Activism, 1943-1947," in Suffrage at 100: Women in American Politics Since 1920, ed. Stacie Taranto and Leandra Zarnow (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2020 ), 148-152.

[5] Guise, "Peratrovich" in Suffrage at 100, 153.

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Last updated: October 30, 2021