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Suffrage: A Reproductive Justice Issue

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October 29, 2012

http://theautry.org/explore/exhibits/images/suffrage/poster1_350.jpgLet’s open our grade school history textbooks, shall we? Most of us know that, historically, suffrage was intended for white men only, in their infinite wisdom. And in their infinite wisdom, white men have decided for hundreds of years, both in the U.S. and abroad, that certain groups should be excluded from the voting practice for a number of great reasons, e.g., which God you believe in, what kind of genitalia you were born with, the color of your skin, income, etc.  Suffrage for (white) women was attained in 1920 with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  Suffrage for people of color, particularly black people, was attained in 1870 with the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment during U.S. Reconstruction. But the right to vote isn’t as black and white as legislation passed saying that these groups are allowed to vote.

The Fifteenth Amendment reads, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States of by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (like slavery, for instance).  While this amendment did give black people the right to vote in 1870, Jim Crow laws of the South once again denied black people from the fundamental right of voting.  By introducing poll taxes and literacy tests, Jim Crow was able to exclude black people from voting in a way that was technically legal. We started to see real change with the Civil Rights Acts of the 1950’s through 1964. 

My point here is to show that rights denied and granted do not end with legislation.  Rights have more to do with the culture that surrounds legislation and policy.  Currently in the United States, a number of qualifications must be met to obtain and maintain voting privileges.  These include citizenship, age, residency, registration, language skills and a non-felon status. Additionally, gender, age, education, race and social class are all standard demographic and social characteristics used to predict levels of civic engagement, voter turnout and electoral outcomes.  This is not a simple cause and effect formula, where personal background is the cause and electoral turnout is the effect.  Which leads me to the subject of voter suppression in the United States.

State legislators are increasingly putting policies into place that require voters to show photo ID and proof of citizenship.  On paper, the reason for this is to prevent voter fraud – which I’m still not convinced is a real problem – but rather seems to serve the purpose of disenfranchising voters of color.  To further support this claim, the Center for American Progress finds that not only are many policymakers who support voter ID laws aware of the disparate racial impact of these new requirements but have also been found to harbor resentment toward African Americans.  Women also disproportionately lack proper identification to prove their citizenship with their current legal name due to marriage, divorce and remarriage.  Obviously, name changes are more likely among women than men.

Women of color represent 18 percent of the U.S. population. According to the Center for American Progress, “On Election Day 2012, between 596,000 and 959,000 women of color may be disenfranchised by voter identification laws” and after the election, as estimate of between “1.05 million and 1.86 million women of color stand to be disenfranchised by voter identification laws.”  Having the identities of two disadvantaged groups in one, women of color sit at the intersection of racial/ethnic oppression and gendered oppression.  Thus, women of color are doubly disadvantaged. Contrarily, white men sit comfortably at the intersection of racial/ethnic privilege and gendered privilege.  What results is the overrepresentation of white men and the silencing of women of color’s voices.

With the recent voter suppression efforts in mind, it is especially imperative that women of color vote on Election Day to combat the attempted silencing of our voices and to ensure that our interests are represented.

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