BENICIA BLACK LIVES MATTER
By Sheri Leigh, a member of Benicia Black Lives Matter
March has been designated as “Women’s History Month,” and there has been a lot of progress towards women’s empowerment in this country over the last century. Because of the indomitable will of women to be recognized as fully capable citizens, the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution was passed in 1920, giving women the right to vote; the Equal Rights Amendment passed in 1972, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex; and the recent Me Too Movement created a wave of public awareness, condemning sexualization of women in professional settings. Although sometimes women are still treated as sexual objects and/or with derision, a woman’s right to a workplace free of hostility is protected by law. Women, as a group, are now more educated than ever; have climbed the ranks of the professional world, making them a powerful force in the economy; and have equal political decision making power as men. Despite progress, women still have a ways to go to achieve true equity. For example, women currently make up 50.5% of the US population, but only represent ~25% of those in public office. The balance of power is still tipped towards men, but it is slowly and steadily shifting.
But what about women of Color?
Because racism and sexism have been defining features of this country’s history, Black women, on the whole, have a deeper experience of subjugation and disenfranchisement than white women. Their path towards equality has been more difficult. They are a prime example of the effects of “intersectionality,” or social and systemic discrimination towards a person or group based on two or more categories of race, gender, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation.
Intersectionality and the vote
The history of voting rights for women is an excellent illustration of how intersectionality has affected Black women. At the turn of the 20th century, the powerful Suffragist Movement helped bring about the 19th Amendment giving the right to vote to ALL women. Black women leaders such as Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, and Nannie Helen Burroughs worked in conjunction with white women suffragists.
However, many Black women wanting to vote after the Amendment was passed were presented with new and significant barriers, particularly in the South — barriers that were primarily fabricated by white men and often carried out with cooperation from Black men and white women. These included having to wait in line for up to twelve hours to register to vote, paying poll taxes, and being required to read and interpret the Constitution before being deemed eligible to vote. In parts of the Deep South, Black women endured threats, assault, and/or jail time based on false charges if they attempted to vote. This oppressive conduct went unchecked until the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) was signed into law, specifically protecting the right to vote and banning deterrents like poll taxes and literacy tests.
More recently, however, new threats to the Black female vote have emerged. On June 25, 2013, Shelby County (Tennessee) v. Holder, a landmark Supreme Court decision, declared that the VRA’s formula, in which jurisdictions were required to submit a preclearance plan for voting, is unconstitutional. With the subsequent change to the VRA, several state and local jurisdictions with a significant history of racism were able to formulate their own voter regulations without Federal oversight. Although State voting laws can still be reviewed by Congress, this act significantly reduced the protections provided by the VRA. For example, within three years of the Supreme Court decision, 868 polling stations, mainly in African-American counties, were closed. Those who reside in those areas now must travel a greater distance to vote. Many can’t access the polls because mail in ballots are prohibited and they don’t have transportation or are unable to take time off from work or because they have to present a driver’s license and don’t have time or money to get one. These individuals have become disenfranchised and underrepresented once again. Unfortunately, this probably has impacted Black women voters more than any other group.
In the State of California, voting rights are unencumbered by literacy tests, mandatory poll locations and other factors that would limit access. California and other states like it guarantee freedom to voters, despite the coordinated efforts of many to suppress the role of minorities and women in our country’s leadership.
Black women have been and continue to be at the forefront of voting rights and accessibility for everyone since the earliest days of the Suffrage Movement. Their advocacy has allowed more people to vote than ever before. We have a growing number of Black and other women of Color who have been elected into office to represent their constituencies: Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass; California US Congresswoman Maxine Waters; and former District Attorney of San Francisco and current Vice President Kamala Harris, to name a few. These women represent all of us through positions of power and are backed by a history of strong, brave, and persistent women of Color who fought and continue to fight for their rights to be fully active and engaged and enfranchised citizens of the United States.