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  • August 18, 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted women the right to vote. Christina Wolbrecht, Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, provides a historical perspective on how women voted across the first 100 years of women’s suffrage in the United States, how perceptions of women voters have changed over time, and how assumptions about women as voters have influenced politicians, the press, and scholars. She is the co-author of the new history, A Century of Votes for Women (2020).


MODERATOR:  Good afternoon.  My name is Jen McAndrew.  I am a media relations officer with the Washington Foreign Press Center and the moderator for today’s on-the-record briefing on the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.  Today’s briefer is Dr. Christina Wolbrecht, professor of political science and director of the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy at the University of Notre Dame.  She is also co-author of the new book “A Century of Votes for Women: American Elections Since Suffrage.” 

August 18th, 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted women the right to vote.  Professor Wolbrecht will provide a historical perspective on how women voted across the first 100 years of women’s suffrage in the United States, how perceptions of women voters have changed over time, and how assumptions about women as voters have influenced politicians, the press, and scholars.  On behalf of the Foreign Press Center, we extend our sincere thanks to Professor Wolbrecht for sharing her expertise in today’s briefing. 

And now for the ground rules:  This briefing is on the record and the views of today’s briefer do not represent the views of the U.S. Government.  We will post the transcript and video of this briefing later today on our website, which is  If you publish a story as a result of this briefing, please share your story with us by sending an email to  Professor Wolbrecht will give opening remarks and then we will open it up for questions.  If you have a question, please go to the chat box and virtually raise your hand.  At that time we will unmute you and turn on your video so that you can ask your question.  And with that, I will pass it over to Professor Wolbrecht. 

MS WOLBRECHT:  Thank you.  It’s a real pleasure to be here with all of you today and to talk a little bit about women’s suffrage, the centennial, and particularly about how women have voted since suffrage.  So I’m going to go ahead and share my screen here and we’re going to hope that this works.  I think you’re seeing what you should be seeing, at least I hope so. 

MODERATOR:  We are. 

MS WOLBRECHT:  Excellent.  So what I’m going to do today, or at least in my brief opening remarks, is talk really briefly about the fight for suffrage and the ratification of the 19th Amendment, and then I’m going to focus my comments on just looking at trends and some really broad conclusions about how women have actually voted in the 100 years now since suffrage.  I’m happy to answer more questions about the suffrage movement, to talk about other aspects of women in politics, to talk – to answer further questions about women voters, but I’ll start with this sort of overview. 

Let’s see if I can move the slide forward.  That would be good.  So as Jen noted, 2020 is the centennial of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which I’ve sort of put out in all of its glory here on this slide.  So what the 19th Amendment does is it says that you cannot deny voting rights on the basis of sex.  This is actually a distinction that I’d be happy to talk about more.  It doesn’t guarantee that women will be able to vote.  We don’t actually have that sort of an affirmative right to vote in the United States, and in reality, of course, there were many women after 1920 who were not able to vote even though the 19th Amendment had passed.  In particular, black women, like black men, in the American South during the early and mid decades of the 20th century were kept from voting by Jim Crow laws, violence, et cetera.  And so what the 19th Amendment says is you cannot discriminate, you can’t say someone cannot vote just on the basis of their sex. 

Achieving that outcome of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution – we don’t amend our constitution very often – required more than 70 years of activism, and as I said, I’d be happy to talk about some of that in more detail.  There were a lot of state campaigns, and you’ll see sort of a famous illustration at the bottom of this slide where eventually the plan became to sort of use those states – and as you’ll see, almost entirely in the western United States – to try to pressure for a national amendment rather than sort of fighting state by state.  Again, that took several generations of activism, lots of sort of struggles, and I’d be happy to talk about why this process took so long and what was sort of important for understanding why it was finally achieved. 

So my own research tends to start in 1920, when women actually – when the 19th Amendment has been ratified and now women across the country are entering polling places.  It’s important to say that women in the United States in some states did vote prior to 1920, so you saw in the previous picture the – some of those western states – Wyoming granted women the right to vote as early as 1869 when it came in as a state, and a number of other states had changed their laws in advance of the 19th Amendment.  The 19th Amendment then covers all the states, and I think another important point I’d want to emphasize is that the Constitution actually doesn’t say a great deal about voting rights in the United States.  Voting in the U.S. is really administered both legally and practically at the state level, and so putting the 19th Amendment actually into play required a lot of work on the behalf of state governments with this doubling of the electorate.  And I’d be happy to talk about that as well. 

What we’ve seen since the ratification of the 19th Amendment is a lot of interest in how women vote, right – so if you have a group that was believed to not have the capacity, the skills, the fortitude to engage in the casting of ballots, you probably think of that group as pretty different politically.  And again, that’s something I’d also be happy to talk about.  And so across the hundred years, there’s been lots of press coverage, politicians, parties, even political scientists – everyone wants to sort of figure out what are women going to do with this ballot having fought so hard to get it.  And again, I’ve given some examples over time on this slide, but I’d be happy to talk more about coverage of women voters over time as well. 

What I’m going to mostly focus on today is actually looking at how women voted, and that is on the basis of two books that I co-authored with my collaborator Kevin Corder at Western Michigan University, and I want to be clear that all the data I’m going to show, all the analysis – this is really a joint project that’s resulted in the two books you’re seeing before you. 

The first book was about the ’20s and the ’30s, the first five presidential elections after the 19th Amendment.  There are no good surveys or polls from that time, so what we do in that book is use some advanced statistical techniques to estimate how it is men and women voted during those elections.  And I’ll show you some of that data in a second. 

The second book, “Century of Votes for Women,” came out this year, and in that book we look at the full hundred-year period.  So we take some of our data and work from the earlier book and then use available data sources, public opinion surveys, those sorts of things – the U.S. Census – going forward. 

So let’s talk about how women voted after suffrage.  The first thing to say is that in those first five elections, the first five presidential elections after suffrage, women were in fact less likely to vote than men were.  So you’re going to see women here in purple, the percent turning out to vote according to our estimates, and men here in the sort of mustard color.  Women were held back in a lot of ways.  Most women, of course, would have come of political age understanding voting and politics to be something that women didn’t do.  It would also, of course, even after the ratification of the 19th Amendment be a new process.  We know that the United States – that voting is a habit and those people who aren’t able to develop that habit when they’re young – just simply learn where do I go, what do I do, how do I register, what questions are going to be asked of me – if you don’t have those experiences, you’re less likely to vote going forward.  And so something like about a third of women, we estimate, turned out to vote in 1920 compared to almost 70 percent of men. 

What you’re also going to see in this graph, but which is going to continue across the 20th century, is that women’s turnout increases over time.  Now, in this time period men’s is increasing as well, but women’s at an even sharper rate.  Most of that change is going to come through generational replacement.  Women who were older at the time that the 19th Amendment was ratified would be less likely to vote for the rest of their lives.  Many of them did vote, but many of them did not.  Each successive generation of women socialized into a different understanding of the appropriate role for women, along with of course important changes in voting rights that I’ll talk about in just a few minutes, become more likely to vote. 

So I’m going to skip that for right now; we can come back and talk about it later.  So much so that by 1980 women become more likely to turn out to vote than men.  We’re again looking at turnout as a percentage of the age-eligible population; by 1980 that means 18 and above – women in purple, men in the mustard.  And what you’re seeing is that while turnout varies over time and men and women basically follow the same sort of patterns, women are more likely to cast their ballots. 

A couple of things to say about that.  There are actually more women in the eligible electorate than there are men.  This is mostly a function of the fact that women live longer than men.  So there are just more women age 18 and older than there are men in that same age group.  So even though women remain slightly less likely to vote for men in 1964, that was actually the first year in which there were more women in the electorate than there were men, right.  So there are so many more women that even a slightly smaller percentage of them results in more women voters over time. 

The other thing to say is that – and I’ll sort of note this again – when we talk about women voters, our emphasis naturally is trying to understand how women are different than men.  And I always want to remind us of two things when we’re thinking about that.  One is we need to be careful to not see male – men, men voters, as the norm, or even more so sort of the idealized or the normative example for everyone else.  So we have a tendency when we talk about if women vote differently, if they turn out differently, to see the behavior as men – of men as normal and anything women does is the thing that has to be explained.  And I’m going to talk a little bit about why that’s sort of problematic as we go forward.  I think I’ll leave it for that – for now on that slide.   

I want to emphasize that turnout, of course – well, let me start with another broad point.  It’s extremely important when we talk about women voters to be very precise about who we’re talking about and to not imagine that there is some typical woman voter out there.  You will be shocked to hear that women are just as diverse as men and that they’re shaped by their political, social, and economic contexts; they’re shaped by their religious traditions; they’re shaped by social class, educational attainment – all of these different aspects of people.  And I should say, given this slide, particularly race are also going to shape how men and how women turn out to vote.  And I think being attentive to that variation, for recognizing that the way in which women without a college education vote is different than how women with a college education vote, et cetera, is really important when we talk – any time that we talk about women voters. 

One place we can see that right away is in this graph, which is showing turnout over the last five presidential elections – so 2000 – hoping that adds up to five – through 2016, what turnout has looked like among women – again in purple, men in mustard – for Americans who identify as white, African American, other non-Hispanic, and then Hispanic or Latinx Americans.  What I want you to see is that across every single group, women are slightly more likely to turn out than are men.  I also want you to notice how very high black women’s turnout is.  So black women today turn out at a rate that exceeds not only black men, but white men as well, and sort of comes very close to, sometimes just a little bit behind, the turnout of white women.  This, as we’re going to see, is going to be important given the diversification of the American electorate over time.  It’s also a great example about how we understand turnout in the United States in general.   

So we often think of those folks with access to more resources – and I don’t just mean money here, but more educational attainment, more social networks, professional standing – those characteristics tend to be associated with turning out to vote.  That makes African American women in some ways a puzzle.  Now, it is true that African American women are achieving extremely high levels of educational attainment in the United States, et cetera, now, but they still fall behind in many ways in access to resources in the United States.  The fact that their turnout is still so high requires us to think about the different factors that mobilize people into the electorate.  There’s good research done in political science that suggests that for black women in particular, a commitment to community and a sense of an obligation to lift up the group seems to motivate particularly high turnout among black women. 

As I said, this is incredibly important in part because the electorate is becoming increasingly diverse over time.  So what this graph is showing you, the gray solid line is the percentage of the United States population as measured by the census that is considered racial or an ethnic minority.  So this is going to be African American, Latinx, it’s going to be Middle Eastern, African – it’s going to fall into those sort of racial and ethnic minority groups.  And then what you’re seeing is that the percentage of all women who vote in purple and the percentage of all men who vote in mustard that fall into these categories as well, that are considered racial or ethnic minorities in the United States. 

And what you’re going to see at the beginning of the graph, in the – in ‘48, ‘56 through ‘64 – is that both black men and black women are turning out at rates much lower than their representation in the electorate.  And that’s all prior to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, when a number of both legal barriers – things like poll taxes and literacy tests were keeping blacks from polling places in the American South, as well as of course extralegal barriers, state-sanctioned violence, et cetera.  The 1965 – excuse me – Voting Rights Act is going to do a lot to change that, and what we’re seeing then is especially women of color, but also men of color as well, of course, becoming much closer and sometimes exceeding their representation in the electorate since then. 

You can also, of course, see just from the census line the increasing diversity of the American population over the same period.  So in 1948, there weren’t very many black voters in – excuse me, I should say racial and ethnic minorities voting in the United States.  That is changing and continues to change today. 

So let’s talk a little bit about who women voted for.  I’m just going to show this one really briefly.  This is the 10 states we were able to study in our first book – again, women in purple, men in mustard.  And this is the percent of voters in each of those states voting for the Republican Party.  So the first thing I want to point out is that in most states, women are more likely to vote Republican in 1920, that first election after the 19th Amendment, than are men.  Although in most cases, you’re seeing sort of a measure of confidence there.  The differences are so small that the best we can say is men and women generally voted for the same candidates.  The one exception, or we start to see exceptions to that are in southern and border states – Virginia and Kentucky are there in the far left; Virginia in particular would be example of a solid Democratic state in 1920, and there actually women are more Democratic than were men, more likely to favor the locally dominant party.   

The thing to say about this is at least two things.  One is context matters a great deal, and I’ll be talking about that more as we go forward.  The other is to say – is that in general, our conclusion – and frankly, to a certain extent, to this day – is that in general, women and men tend to vote the same way, and we probably shouldn’t be very surprised about that.  Men and women share social class, they share interests in particular issues, they share religious traditions, they work inside and outside of the home, they live in different states with different socioeconomic cultures, whatever it might be.   

It turns out that despite this long, long, long opposition to women getting the right to vote, that they’re just as capable of choosing candidates to vote for as men are.  Or to put it another way, men make – excuse me, women make decisions, voting decisions, that are more – that are no more difficult for us to understand than men do. 

Now, since 1980, we have had what has come to be known as the gender gap in American politics.  That gender gap means that women, on average, are more likely to vote for Democrats than are men.  So what this graph is showing you is basically, as it says, the percentage of women who vote Democratic minus the percent of men who vote Democratic.  What that means is that for values under that zero-line there, that means women were actually slightly more Republican, and what you’re seeing, again, is a sort of slight preference for – among women – for Republican candidates prior to the 1960s, and I should say through the 1960 election. 

This is actually a characteristic not just of the United States, but something we see cross-nationally.  It’s been called the traditional voting gap.  And so in the first half of the 20th century, in most advanced industrial democracies, women did slightly prefer center-left – excuse me, center-right parties.  And so whatever explanation we have for that probably should not just be specific to the United States, but should consider Europe, Canada, and other places as well. 

That advantage, that Republican advantage among women sort of starts to fall apart in the ’60s and ’70s.  Most of those are not statistically significant differences, but it really emerges most strongly here in 1980.   

Sorry, I think I went ahead a slide and I don’t want to do that.  

I have a lot to say about the gender gap.  It emerged and became known as a political phenomenon in 1980.  That happened to be the same election in which the Republican Party, after 40 years of support, said they would no longer support the Equal Rights Amendment.  It’s also the year that Republicans took a very clear pro-life position for the first time, while Democrats pretty much did the opposite on both of those issues.   

Despite that fact, there’s very little evidence that the gender gap, that women slightly prefer Democrat – are more likely to vote for Democrats than are men – is not driven by sort of those traditional women’s issues, by things like abortion, equal pay, et cetera.  And I’d be happy to talk more about what it is driven by if it’s not those sorts of issues. 

Now, going into 2016, you’ll see this graph is only through 2016 – 2012.  There was a lot of expectation that the gender gap would be enormous, right?  We had the first woman ever nominee and we had a Republican candidate who did not support many of the issues traditionally associated with women.   

The reality is – I’m now going to show you that gender gap – in 2016, it’s not very big, and I’d be happy to talk a little bit about why that is.  There’s a great deal of stability, actually, in the American electorate, and our presumption that women would react particularly strongly to 2016 is tied up in expectations:  Of course women would vote for a woman candidate; of course they would vote against a different kind of candidate that really focused on gender as the sort of driving force in women’s vote choices.  And I hope to sort of disabuse you of that assumption. 

So again, one of the things we come to understand when we look more closely is differences across different kinds of women, and so what this graph is showing you is since 1948, actually, the percentage of black women who are voting for the Republican candidate and the percentage of white women, in the mustard yellow, who are voting for the Republican candidate.  And what you should see here is that there’s only been two times in the last 50-some years that a majority of white women have voted for the Democratic candidate, so falling below that 50 percent means that you’re voting Democratic. 

If you have careful eyes, you’re saying, but what’s happening here in 1992; this is the year that Perot got something like 17, 18, 19 percent of the vote.  This is just the share of major party vote.  When we include Perot, women didn’t give a majority of their votes to any of the candidates.  All of them got something in the – well, the two major party candidates, something in the 40 percentages.  So we’re looking at those two years. 

So two of these things can be true at the same time, and I’m hoping my – I’m going to come back down in a second – I’m hoping my next graph is going to sort of show that.  So the differences between – in the voting behavior of different racial groups are enormous, and they are far bigger than any gender gap differences we see.  And so this is showing – again, I should say this is for – fairly certain this was for 2000 through 2016 combined in all presidential elections.  What you’re going to see is that most – a majority of white voters, male and female, vote for the Republican candidate for president.  The vast majority of black voters, male and female, vote for the Democratic candidate.  Those differences are really large. 

At the same time, I want to point out that there is a gender gap across all of these different groups among – within whites, blacks, Latinx, and other minority groups in the United States.  And so there are – there’s sort of gender happening here that seems to be shaping vote choice in important ways.  But it’s important to say that there’s also, of course, race happening in important ways as well. 

I am going to go back and add to this graph I just showed another important – and a group that’s growing in its importance in American politics – which is Latino voters, and that should actually say Latina women at the bottom.  I apologize for that. 

What you’re seeing is that Latina women tend to vote for Democratic candidates, but there’s been a lot of variation over time, and one of the reasons we’ve had a lot of discussion about Latina voters in recent years is that they are seen as a community that may be winnable by both political parties.  In the last couple of elections, we’re seeing less of that, as it looks like Latina voters in particular – and the trend’s going very similar for Latino men – are increasingly voting consistently Democratic.  But again, I’m happy to talk about those things as well. 

For now, I’m going to stop with sort of this really high-level overview, and I look forward to any and all questions that you have.   

MODERATOR:  Okay, thank you.  We will now start the Q&A, so if you have a question, please raise your hand virtually in the chat box.  You can also submit your question via writing in the chat box.  So we will await your raised hands.  I’m surprised we don’t have an immediate question.  

MS WOLBRECHT:  I questioned every – I answered every —  

MODERATOR:  Ah, here’s a hand, okay.  I see Pearl Matibe.  Do you have a question? 

QUESTION:  Hello, Dr. Wolbrecht.  How are you doing?  

MS WOLBRECHT:  Very well, thanks.  Hope you’re same.  

QUESTION:  Thank you for all the data and all the information.  I have a question in this very last slide.  Why do you think that is that the Latina vote started to decline a whole lot more over the last few years in comparison to all prior years?  Is there something that stood out to you?  I know that period is probably right around Barack Obama’s second term.  Is there any – is there anything you can point to that?   

I have a few more questions, but I’ll wait for others to ask.  

MS WOLBRECHT:  Sure, and to be clear, that was a graph showing the percentage of Latinos voting for a Republican candidate.  So it’s not that their turnout has been declining.  It’s that they’re increasingly moving in a consistent Democratic direction, which is to say getting lower on the way that that graph is put together.  And I know I’m throwing lots of graphs at you, and unlike me you haven’t seen them 5,000 times, so you don’t immediately see what’s going on there.   

I think there’s a couple of things that are happening.  The Latino community – and I’m really privileged here at Notre Dame to work with some of the leading scholars on Latino political behavior, and I’d be happy to pass things and contact information on for them as well.  What I’ve learned from my colleagues is – is first of all, of course, the Latino electorate in the United States is really diverse, right.  And we say Latinos, but we’re talking about people that have lived in what is now the United States for hundreds of years, who became Americans in the 19th and early 20th century as our borders expanded – that’s the way to say it, I guess.  That includes Cuban Americans who tend to live in – around Florida, who are more conservative often in a lot of their political preferences.  That includes refugee – migrants from Mexico, but also from, of course, Central and Southern – the Southern Americas, all of whom come with their own traditions, preferences, et cetera.  The Catholic – excuse me, the immigrant – the – let me try one more time – the Latino population in the United States is heavily Catholic, although that’s changing, and so in their Catholic identification, the Republican Party’s position on issues such as abortion is going to be attractive.   

Previous – certainly previous to Obama, and even during the Obama administration, it’s fair to say that the two political parties were also split in many ways on issues that are particularly salient to the Latino community in the United States, and I’m thinking here particularly about immigration.  There has always been a contingent of the Republican Party that favored more open borders, in part motivated by concern about trade, about labor, all sorts of economic sort of concerns.  There’s been parts of the Democratic Party that have wanted to limit immigration and trade in certain ways.  What we’ve seen, certainly since the Trump candidacy in 2016, is that the parties have increasingly diverged on these issues, and so the Republican Party has taken a more anti-immigrant stance, looking to close borders and monitor them more carefully, and Democrats have moved in the opposite direction.  And so that’s probably part of the story there as well.  

MODERATOR:  Okay, I’d like to call on Farrah Tomazin from The Sydney Morning Herald.  We will unmute you.  

QUESTION:  Hi there.  Can you hear me?  


MODERATOR:  Yes, we can. 

QUESTION:  Excellent.  Thanks very much for this.  I was interested to hear your thoughts, I guess, in Joe Biden’s VP pick.  If he was to pick a woman of color, indeed an African American as – woman as is widely expected, to what extent do you think this will shape his or Donald Trump’s electoral fortunes?   

And specifically, in terms of voting patterns among women and women of color, I had another question as well, if I may, just in terms of voter suppression.  It’s obviously a real issue here, which is of huge interest to us in Australia where voting is compulsory.  I guess I’d be interested to hear:  What do you think can be done to tackle this and lift participation rates among women?   

MS WOLBRECHT:  These are great questions.  So let me start with the VP choice.  So the first thing I’m going to say is that we start classes on Monday, so I’ve been scrambling to learn how to teach a hybrid online/in-person class, which gives me the excuse to not have actually been watching all of the vetting and debates about who Biden’s going to pick as his VP.  I will mention that it’s – despite what you’ve heard, it’s not actually a late choice.  These decisions are usually made either at or right before conventions, and the Democratic Convention is – well, whatever it’s going to be has not quite happened yet.   

It’s the job of a political scientist to always be a bummer in these sorts of things.  There is virtually no evidence that vice presidential choices affect vote – the vote choice of American voters.  And there’s lots of history about trying to do lots of things with your VP choice – attract a different region of the country or balance out – one person’s strong in this way and so the – needs a VP who’s strong in a different way.  And there’s no doubt that that goes into the decision making that campaigns and candidates make when they choose a vice presidential candidate.  There’s just not a lot of reason to believe that voters care about that.  I – they may talk about it, they may pay attention to it, but that’s more politics as spectating than anything else.  So it’s not clear to me, for example, that there’s someone that Joe Biden is going to choose that’s going to make someone who would otherwise vote for Donald Trump say, “I’m going to vote for Joe Biden now,” or, frankly, vice-versa.   

Now, let me back up from that.  On the other hand, I certainly don’t want to be – I guess I would think about the choice of a VP as part of a more general message that campaigns send to voters:  What is this campaign about, what does it prioritize, what kind of a presidency are we going to get, et cetera?   

And while that may not change a whole lot of votes, it certainly can change enthusiasm, activism, and sort of general engagement with the electorate.  We know that in 2016, the election was extraordinarily close in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.  If you get more people on the left or the right excited, engaged, just simply more likely to turn out, or they’re more likely to go out and knock on doors and get other people to the turnout, or talk to their neighbors or whatever that might yet be, elections in the United States have been close enough in recent years that that actually could make a difference.  

And so one thing about women voters specifically, there’s not a lot of evidence that women vote just for women.  There is right now evidence that in the Democratic Party in primaries at every level that Democratic voters, male and female, would like to see more women candidates.  And so women might be getting a boost in that level within the party.   

Once you’re at a general election level, there’s not a lot of evidence that women who would have otherwise voted for the other party switched to either a Democratic woman or a Republican woman.  This makes women as a group in the United States different than a lot of racial minorities.  So we saw, for example, a big bump in vote choice for black candidates.  Traditionally, Obama would be one example.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  I’d like to go back to Pearl.  Did you have a follow-up question?  

MS WOLBRECHT:  And so did Farrah, and I forgot what it was, but we can come back for that one.   

MODERATOR:  Okay.  Sure.   

QUESTION:  That’s okay.  Yes, Dr. Wolbrecht.  Going back to the very beginning of the women’s suffrage movement, obviously this – their achievements did not come easy, okay.  There was a lot of protest action involved in them achieving rights, their right to vote.  Can you share a little bit about maybe some tactics in terms of resistance or protest action that they did that worked well, particularly because they were women, or anything that sticks to mind?  Thanks very much.  

MS WOLBRECHT:  I love this question, and it’s something – I’m actually teaching a whole class on suffrage, women’s suffrage, this fall, and it’s one of the things we’ll be talking a lot about, thinking about movement activism in general, what it means to be a woman active in social movements, and what it means to have – how gender affects protesting.  So there’s been – my hometown is Portland, Oregon.  There’s been a lot of talk recently about this Wall of Moms for example.  And so thinking about how women bring gender to protest – I think it’s a really fascinating and important question.  

And there’s a couple of things about the suffrage movement and suffrage activism in particular.  So there were a lot of divisions within that movement.  Like any movement, it’s large.  People are going to disagree about tactics; they’re going to disagree about what to emphasize over something else.   

It’s well known, for example, that the suffrage movement had conflict about sort of racial issues.  There was many black women who were prominent and important suffragists who were often not welcome, for example, in white women’s suffrage organizations.  And for good reason of course, controversy over those such questions, some of which were tactical, right – the belief that we’ll never be able to get Southern states in the 19th century to ratify an amendment or to give women the right to vote if they think it’s going to help more black folks vote, which is – and of course, their vote is being very clearly and effectively suppressed in the South during this period.   

In the 19th century, American politics was really party politics.  And so the way that men did politics is they organized voters, right.  They had really strong party machines throughout the country during this period.  And so you’re main way of affecting an outcome was to work within a party and then use the structure of the party to get voters to ballot boxes on voting day and make a difference in that way.  Elect people that are going to do what you want them to do.  

Women could not do that.  They weren’t voters most places in the late 19th century in the United States.  And so it’s absolutely fair and accurate to say that women were innovators in suffrage – in protest in the United States.  They had to shape the opinion of men.  There’s a broader question here always about suffrage expansion anywhere around the world: Why would those people in power ever choose to expand and give that power to people who don’t have it right now, right?  And so their job is literally to convince men to give them the vote, either in a referendum vote or in a state legislature. 

And so speaking towards, whether you’re trying to affect public opinion – lobbying directly, right.  We can’t elect our own people, so we’re just going to have to go to state legislatures and directly sort of try to convince these male legislators to act the way that we want.  Having these sorts of massive rallies – so most famously, there’s a D.C. march in 1913 that is enormous, and it ends in a riot with men who are watching that march attacking the women protestors.  Women were also the very first people – suffragists were the very first people to protest in front of the White House.  And so there are these famous pictures of women with signs in the late part of the 1910s who are standing outside the White House, even during World War I, when their sort of patriotism was being challenged, et cetera. And so absolutely we see women as innovators in that way.   

We also see women using their gender, and that comes in lots of different ways.  So some of that showed itself in really sort of racist and ethnocentric ways, in which women would – white women suffragists would say well, we let these poor, uneducated immigrant men vote; why not let these nice white women?  And I can – I’m sitting on the campus of Notre Dame right now so I can say what they meant is, “You’re letting those Irish and Italian men vote, so let’s let these native-born white women, who would have been Northern European at that point, participate in elections.”  And so we definitely see these ideas about women’s particular skills or presumed capabilities coming into suffrage activism.   

QUESTION:  Can I ask a follow-up question?  

MODERATOR:  Sure.  And then we’ll go back to Farrah Tomazin next.  

MS WOLBRECHT:  And she asked about voter suppression.  Now I remember the other question.  Thank you.   

QUESTION:  Yeah.  Thank you very much for sharing that.  And so if you had to pick maybe your top three things, because the suffragette movement was – is a good way to understand America or to understand American democracy and the processes to a – to the process, what three lessons do you think the world at large, the international world, outside the borders of America, could learn from this movement now in 2020, particularly women in Africa who don’t have the same space to peaceably assemble, to have freedom of speech, which the women in that 1920s had?  What three lessons do you think we could learn today looking back, if you were, say, in Africa?  Thanks.  

MS WOLBRECHT:  So I would not presume to tell African women how to effectively struggle for their greater independence, if that’s a goal.  But I do think there are some general lessons to be learned that speak to these questions around the world.   

And one is that rights have to be continually fought for and defended.  In the United States, as you well know, we have certain guarantees of rights, as you said speech and assembly in our Constitution.  It’s supposed to be a republic – we are assured that we have a republican form of government in which the voice of the people is listened to.  But we continue – those rights continue to be contingent, and we continue to struggle over them.  

But truth is, there were some women who could vote in the United States right at the time of the founding, in places like New Jersey.  And then those rights were rolled back as other groups got the right to vote. 

As is suggested by the question about voter suppression, that remains an open question today.  What does it mean to have the right to vote?  Under what circumstances?  And I think one of the things you see in the United States is that groups that care about – let me say it a different way.  Organizations that care about groups that have been traditionally under-represented in American politics spend a lot of time defending rights that they thought had been won – things like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 today – and that has real consequences, because it’s means you’re not fighting for other goals that your group might have if you’re continually having to defend voting rights or expend resources to ensure that people can get to voting places that may be farther away now or harder to access, right?  So that has sort of broader impact beyond just voting rights themselves.  So that’d be one lesson. 

Two is – and you rightfully raise this question about the right to petition.  Voting rights are enormously important, but voting is also a very blunt instrument.  When I cast a ballot for someone, am I voting for them because I like their VP choice?  Am I voting for them because I care about X issue or Y issue, right?  And so for consent of the governed to have real meaning, voters need to have other ways to express their political preferences.  And as you said, that’s where the right to petition, the right of free speech, the right to organize with other Americans are incredibly important, and again, also require more of us – more risk, more obligation, et cetera.  And so the lesson of the women’s suffrage movement is that suffrage matters a lot, but it’s not the only thing that matters. 

I guess my third, I think, global lesson would be that everywhere in the world – you gave specific examples of it – everywhere in the world our understanding of politics continues to be wrapped up in what is political, what is politically appropriate, wrapped in ideas about masculinity and femininity.  And there are clearly diverse cultures around the world and within the United States, bu everywhere in the world political power, at least today, is largely thought of in masculine terms – independence, power over, well, power in general, right?  Whereas women tend to be stereotyped – and again with variations around the world – as more dependent, as more communal instead of independent, et cetera. 

And so there are reasons why it’s hard for us to imagine women in positions of political power and why, when the United States falls particularly far behind on many of these measures, there are very few places around the world where women have equitable political power.   

MODERATOR:  Okay.  Thank you.  We’ll go back to Farrah Tomazin, if you want to continue with your follow-up question.   

QUESTION:  Sure.  It was basically in relation to voter suppression, and I’d be interested to get your thoughts in terms of how to lift women voter participation rights, given the amount of voter suppression that goes on here. 

MS WOLBRECHT:  So it’s unclear – so let me start by saying that’s a real concern.  In lots of different ways, access to the ballot in the United States, the kind of hoops that people are asked to jump through, and the fact that voter laws have different impacts on different groups related to their sort of positionality in the economy and society and politics, et cetera.  It’s not entirely clear that common modes of sort of voter control – so I’m thinking here about strong voter identification laws, picture identification; I’m thinking here about registration requirements, purging of ballots, et cetera – so I’m happy to talk about more – have a distinct impact on women.  And one of the reasons I say that is that we see that so many women do overcome whatever those may be and turn out at pretty high rates. 

Could women’s turnout be even higher without those sort of barriers?  That’s a really good question.  We have a couple of reason theoretically to think that it may be holding back – they may be holding back women.  One is that women in the United States, a large percent of them still change their names upon marriage, and name changes can be a reason for holding up voter registration or leaving someone be subject to a voter purge, right?  If your name doesn’t match your previous name, in some states that are trying to reconcile these things, you could be kicked off the registration list and have to re-register with your married name. 

Women, on average in the United States, are more likely to live in poverty than men are and to have fewer resources.  That means they’re probably more mobile.  And again, in many states that have been purging voter rolls or that require an up-to-date ID, if you haven’t had a chance to register from a new address, you’re going to be more likely to be subject to more barriers to access to the vote.   

And I think I’ll stop there. 

MODERATOR:  Okay.  Thank you.  We’re coming to the end of time, so I will ask if there are any final questions from the group.  Please raise your hand.   

Yes, Pearl, a follow-up.  Go ahead. 

QUESTION:  Dr. Wolbrecht, if you don’t mind, I may reach out to you.  I just want to think through all that data, which was very useful data, and kind of look over it, but I may reach out to via email.  I may have some subsequent questions.  

Thank you very much.  I appreciate your time. 

MS WOLBRECHT:  I’d be delighted.  Thanks.   

MODERATOR:  Okay.  If there are no other questions, none from those who may have dialed in via phone, that will conclude today’s briefing.  And on behalf of the Washington Foreign Press Center, I want to extend our thanks to Professor Wolbrecht for that very excellent data-driven presentation and wish everybody a good afternoon.  Thank you very much. 

MS WOLBRECHT:  Thank you. 

QUESTION:  Thanks very much. 

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future