It took Black women 45 years longer than white women to tear down the obstacles standing between them and the ballot box. But once we got there, we never left.
Black women are some of the most active voters in the country. Voter turnout among Black women consistently tops the national rate — by nine points in 2016, and by 10 points in 2008 and 2018. Black women’s vote can be decisive. In Virginia, in Alabama, in electing a record number of women of color to Congress in 2018.
After fighting for women’s suffrage and for the voting rights of Black folks, Black women have become a political force. Our votes are counted by pundits and politicians long before we ever get to the polls. Our votes matter.
So why don’t our lives? Why are Breonna Taylor’s murderers still walking free? Why are Black trans women still subject to fatal violence and dehumanization? Why are Black women still dying more than three times as often as white women in childbirth?
America is only democratic because Black people have put our bodies on the line over and over again to make it so. We march, we organize, we show up over and over again to the polls, hoping this time our voices will be heard. A Black woman, Fannie Lou Hamer, was beaten by police in 1963 to the point of permanent injury, for the crime of registering Black voters in the South. Fifty-five years later, voter registration purges and closures of polling places in Black neighborhoods may have stopped a Black woman, Stacey Abrams, from becoming governor of Georgia.
Key protections of the Voting Rights Act were struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, and states with a history of suppressing the votes of Black people are doing it all over again. People with criminal records are still routinely denied the right to vote, and because of centuries of over-policing and under-resourcing, Black people are vastly overrepresented in this population. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic — which is killing and sickening Black people at alarmingly high rates — will make it even harder to ensure that every vote is counted, and every voter is able to cast their ballot.
It has been 100 years since the 19th Amendment was ratified, and 55 since the Voting Rights Act. Those who came before us believed that access to the ballot box would give us the power to validate our humanity as equal to white people’s. But we are still so, so far from equality. And we are still not being heard.
We have told the powerful what we want. Four Black women founded the Black Lives Matter movement, and grew it to become possibly the largest protest movement in history. Black mothers who lost children to police violence have turned their ocean of grief into action. A Black woman began the #MeToo movement. Twelve Black women began the Reproductive Justice movement to make clear that in a just world, women would have the resources to raise their families, if they choose, in healthy and safe communities — that movement is now leading organizations like Planned Parenthood to shift their focus from legal rights to equitable access to health care.
So if things haven’t changed, it’s not because we haven’t made the problems clear. We want leaders to defund the police, and fund our schools and our health care system. We want an end to mass incarceration. We want immigration reform and common sense gun laws. We want to be paid every dollar white male counterparts are paid, not 61 cents. We want not just the “right” to control our bodies, but real, affordable access to abortion, birth control, and sex education. We want the racist Hyde amendment repealed.
We know we cannot win any of these things if we continue, 100 years later, to be denied access to the polls.
When the 19th Amendment passed, it failed to live up to its promise. Year by year, decade by decade, Black women have done the painstaking work of making it real. Our work is not finished. There is plenty more still to do.
For this next century, do not make us fight alone.
Register to vote, and spread the word.
Jamesa Bailey is the Associate Director of Black Campaigns at Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
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