Did women earn the right to vote on August 18, 1920?
The answer is yes . . . and no.
The 19th Amendment states that the right to vote "shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." In theory, this language guaranteed that all women in the United States could not be prevented from voting because of their gender. In reality, a continual disregard for the 15th Amendment--which had been ratified 50 years earlier and banned voter discrimination based on race--created a loophole to prevent black women and other women of color from voting on account of their race.
Supporters of the women's rights movement in the 19th century hoped that a constitutional amendment would guarantee a right to vote for women. Some argued that the 15th Amendment was inadequate. Even though it opened a pathway for Black men to vote, the amendment still excluded women from the polls. For example, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued that "educated" women should have earned the right to vote before Black men. "If you will not give the whole loaf of suffrage to the entire people, give it to the most intelligent first," Anthony argued in 1869. Meanwhile, civil rights leader Frederick Douglass strongly supported the 15th Amendment but welcomed the opportunity to support a "16th Amendment" for women's voting rights. In the end, the 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870 without granting women's suffrage, and an additional suffrage amendment for women was never ratified in the 19th century.
President Ulysses S. Grant proclaimed the 15th Amendment as "the greatest civil change [that] constitutes the most important event that has occurred since the nation came into life." Unfortunately, his hopes for a genuine bi-racial democracy were eventually overturned during the Jim Crow era. Southern states used voting restrictions such as literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses. Voter intimidation and outright violence such as lynchings and murders were also used to keep black men from the polls. By the turn of the 20th century, the vast majority of the Southern Black population was effectively disenfranchised.
Women had limited victories for voting rights prior to the 19th Amendment. The territorial legislature in Wyoming granted voting rights to women in that area on December 10, 1869. In the early 20th century, additional states passed legislation allowing women to vote. Millions of white women already possessed voting rights when the 19th Amendment was ratified, and millions more gained that right on August 18, 1920. However, the spirit of Jim Crow legislation and a women's rights movement that often discriminated against non-white women prevented all women from gaining voting rights that day. Black women had to fight for another forty-five years to gain their own right to vote through the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The story of women's voting rights in the United States cannot be fully explained in one moment or one day on a calendar. Genuine progress on this issue was limited, piecemeal, and slow-moving. 1920 is but one date on a larger timeline of struggle and activism for women's rights in U.S. history.
Jane Rhodes, Mary Ann Shadd Cary: The Black Press and Protest in the Nineteenth Century. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
Lisa Tetrault, The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women's Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
National Park Service, "Between Two Worlds: Black Women and the Fight for Voting Rights."