How Black Women Fought Racism and Sexism for the Right to Vote

African American women played a significant and sometimes overlooked role in the struggle to gain the vote.

The 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, barred states from denying American women the right to vote on the basis of their sex. It was a monumental achievement, won by one of the most powerful political movements in American history. But the amendment was not the end of the fight for suffrage for all Americans. For decades, many African-American women remained disenfranchised, despite having played a significant role in the struggle to gain the vote. Just a few of the obstacles they faced: State laws. Poll taxes. Grandfather clauses. Literacy tests. Whites-only primaries.

Finally in 1965, the Voting Rights Act outlawed many of the barriers to voting, and counties with a history of discrimination were placed under federal oversight.

Today, some states have made it easier than ever to vote. But in some places, little has changed. Registration restrictions, voter ID laws and cutbacks to early voting continue to hinder access to the polls, disproportionately affecting Black and Hispanic voters. Now, coronavirus is making voting even more complicated.

Black women have long been at the forefront of the right to vote. Today, 100 years after the passage of the 19th Amendment and 55 years after the Voting Rights Act, their fight continues. This Retro Report video was created in collaboration with American Experience PBS for its film The Vote.

For teachers
  • Producer: Sarah Weiser
  • Editor: Anne Checler

For Educators


This 10-minute video chronicles the role played by Black women in fighting for the right to vote, and opposing the various mechanisms of voter disenfranchisement, suppression, and intimidation. Focusing on the racially unequal consequences of ratification of the 19th Amendment, the video shows how Black women have successfully engaged in advocacy and activism relating to voting rights issues, including participation in the campaign to pass the Voting Rights Act, and modern-day opposition to various schemes of voter suppression. Useful for lessons focused on voting rights and racial inequality at the ballot box, the lesson helps students draw a line between past struggles over ballot access and present controversies over voting rights.

Background reading

The 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920 and barred states from denying women the right to vote, but that victory was not shared by all.

African-American women across the South were still disenfranchised by determined segregationists, who used a variety of tactics to keep them from the polls, including state laws, poll taxes and literacy tests.

As a result, many of these women would not even have a chance to cast a vote until the 1960s, and then only after a long and protracted fight by the civil rights movement.

Fannie Lou Hamer, Diane Nash, and Septima Clark were among the many African American women who played a central role in that movement. They ran programs to educate potential voters, marched, and were often jailed and sometimes beaten for seeking the Constitutional right to vote in a segregated state.

Their struggle was heard when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed many barriers to voting and placed counties with a history of discrimination under federal oversight.

The impact on voter registration was soon evident. By 1968, African American voter registration rates in 11 Southern states increased 50 percent from 1964. And more Black voters eventually led to the election of more Black candidates to local, state, and national offices.

But in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the voting rights act that provided federal monitoring of counties with a history of discriminatory voting practices.

That led many states to adopt stricter voting procedures, such as voter ID laws, which disproportionately affect African American and Hispanic voters.

African American women again responded, participating in voter education and registration groups, and made clear that the right to vote still remains a fight for many.

Lesson Plan 1: Suffrage for Black Women

Students will learn how Black women have often been at the forefront of activism and advocacy relating to ballot access, voter suppression, and the right to vote.

  • How the Voting Rights Act and the 19th Amendment relate to the expansion of opportunities for political participation.
  • How the 19th Amendment provided voting rights to white women, but frequently not to Black women.
  • How Black women have engaged in protest and activism in order to secure the right to vote.
Essential questions
  • When was the 19th Amendment ratified? How long did it take for some Black women to actually have access to voting?
  • After the 19th Amendment was passed, what legal obstacles prevented many Black women from voting?
  • How did the Voting Rights Act of 1965 expand access to the ballot? How did activists help trigger passage of the Act?
  • What obstacles still discourage or prevent Black people from voting?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.His.14.9-12.Analyze multiple and complex causes and effect of events in the past.
    • D2.Civ.13.9-12.Evaluate public policies in terms of intended and unintended outcomes, and related consequences.
  • AP Government and Politics
    • Unit 5: Political ParticipationTopic 5.3: Political Parties
      Topic 5.8: Electing a President
      Topic 5.9: Congressional Elections
      Topic 5.10: Modern Campaigns
    • Topic 5.1: Voting Rights and Models of Voting BehaviorSkill 1.D: Describe political principles, institutions, processes, policies, and behaviors illustrated in different scenarios in context.