What does it mean to be a woman in America today?

Nine African American women are standing, with a banner.
Nine African American women posed, standing, full length, with suffragist Nannie Burroughs holding banner reading, "Banner State Woman's National Baptist Convention" Even though Black women joined other suffragists in fighting for the right to vote, many weren’t able to cast a ballot after the 1920 adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment because of racism.
Library of Congress

Today, women lead voter turnout in the United States. They have voted at higher rates than men in every presidential election since 1989 — and in midterm elections too.

Women have had the right to vote for less than half of American history. August 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment. And racist policies kept too many women of color from the polls for decades beyond that. 

As we mark this anniversary and weigh that history, MPR News with Kerri Miller is asking: What does it mean to be a woman in America today?

During the month of August, we’ll explore this question and look at how women have shaped American culture, politics and power in the last century. Kerri Miller kicked off the series by talking with historian Martha S. Jones about how Black women shaped the country and had to fight their own battle for the right to vote. 

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  • Martha S. Jones is a historian and writer. Her forthcoming book is “Vanguard: How Black Women Overcame Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All.”

A portion of this conversation has been transcribed and lightly edited for clarity. Listen to the full conversation with the audio player above.

Kerri Miller: I know Americans have a pretty ambivalent relationship with the idea of power and women. Pew research finds 92 percent of the time ‘power’ is used in a negative way when it describes a woman. We have a long way to go. I feel like, 100 years later, we're still figuring out what it means to use that power and be seen as people who should be able to use that power. I'd love you to reflect on that.

I think you're absolutely right. And as we see American women entering into new spheres of power, don't we also see then, if you will, the backlash, the criticism, the commentary. Tuesday in The Washington Post, Michele Norris had a piece about the kind of critiques that have come to women like Kamala Harris as they're being vetted for a spot on the Democratic ticket for the November election — pointing out the ways in which, still, when women make themselves visible in public life, when they put themselves out front, they can expect critiques that probably would not come to men in the same position. Women in public life, particularly in political life, I think have to still anticipate that kind of criticism.

Norris notes that this idea of ambition, of aspiring to an exalted political position, is still seen essentially as suspect in women when it is never questioned in men. I mean, there, you've seen the writing about how women who are aspiring to this vice presidential position, how it is seen as unseemly that many of these women are openly saying, ‘Yes, I'd love to have the job and I think I could be successful and bring a lot of value to a Biden presidency.’ 

I'm hearing the voice of Stacey Abrams in your, in your remarks, right?, Abrams, who's been very forthright and what that really brings up for me is the important degree to which this is an old critique of African American women in particular that goes back to the 1820s, when in a period during which slavery is ending, particularly in the northern United States, African American women are becoming free people aspiring to be citizens and occupying the public space in a city like Philadelphia. They will be caricatured and critiqued, 200 years ago, precisely for aspiring too much.

Professor Jones, we did a show about some of the new statistics on who the pandemic is falling most weightily on, (and women are) still doing much of the child care, still doing much of the work that needs done around the home, still juggling the professional jobs, and still trying to make our case in a social construct where there remains a lot of skepticism about this. One of the things that came out in one of the surveys I relied on was that men believe they are doing equal housework and child care. That is one of the things that I find most infuriating.

One of the things I think American women struggle against are the myths, right? About who does what, and who carries which burdens. When we aspire to professional, professional accomplishment and more, there is this erasure, isn't there, of the ways in which women continue to carry responsibilities, not only in their immediate families, but in their communities, but also the ways in which women are part of a whole range of civic enterprises, their religious communities, their charitable organizations, their benevolent organizations and more.

But we get somehow mythologized either as women, people who cannot, or people who are somehow super and can do it all and it’s very difficult to bring that conversation back down. But I'd add that I think that is one of the reasons that this ongoing struggle for American women's political power includes a question about how to use it. And the question is how to put these questions not simply on the agenda in an exchange with a colleague or friend, right, but how do you put that question on the agenda in a state legislature in Congress for policy makers.

That is where women's political power and the kind of risk-taking and the kind of barrier-breaking that women do is essential to moving beyond myth and getting us to some very concrete questions about the ways in which American women fit into the many facets of life, including political life.

I note your use of the word ‘risk’ when you talk about how to put these questions into the policy agenda in our political institutions. Risks of what, would you say? 

Well, I think that there is the risk of being dismissed, right? as somehow inventing concerns out of whole cloth. There is the risk of being accused of somehow, as the women I write about in the 19th century, were accused of unsexing themselves somehow — betraying or abandoning the perceived privileges of womanhood. So these kinds of critiques are, of course, part of the story.

But we know, for example, that American women still face a series of scourges. Whether it's for African American women, it’s health disparities or economic disparities. Whether it's the #MeToo question and the prospect of sexual harassment and violence. These continue to be dangerous waters for American women. Even as these are old questions, I can tell you have their origins in the 19th century. It turns out that those concerns and those risks for American women continue even into the 21st century. 

Listener question: My biggest concern is that returning to school in the fall affects teachers, a group that is still largely comprised of women, and the administrators and politicians, a largely male group, are the ones making the decisions about returning to class and safety and what that will look like. I think this is a feminist fight as well. 

I'll add another word that is very much of our moment and that is the word “essential.” This rethinking, this new understanding, this illumination, of the ways in which many workers like teachers turn out to be essential workers in a complex and multifaceted American economy.

Part of the focus and the urgency around the question of reopening schools is precisely because so many American women need to return fully to the workplace, and school is one facet of that. I'm interested in the ways in which perhaps we have a new opportunity to, if you will, reset the equation and to talk about women as having done the work and continuing to do the work, but more to the point, how essential that work is.

Of course, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't talk about women as leaders, women as policy makers, women who are at the helm of these institutions. But I do think this focus on essential work gives us an opportunity to also talk about broad swaths of American women, many of them who have been unsung, unappreciated, unrecognized for the indispensability of the sort of labor that they perform every day.

Listener question: I'm very involved in startups and venture capital and after the wake of the killing of George Floyd ... there's been a huge movement, which is necessary, to bring more capital to people of color. However, I see infighting and tension created within the startup and funding community between white women and people of color and women of color specifically. 

Yes, it's a comment that really does invite us to take history as a set of lessons or at least as a cautionary tale. Because you're right to point out that for much and throughout most of the movement, the women's suffrage movement, the movement that gives us the 19th Amendment, racism becomes an instrument.

Racism runs through the politics of women's votes in ways that very much prevent Black and white women from finding common ground, consolidating women's power as Women's Power, and instead you have the kind of fracturing that I think the caller is concerned about. One of my great issues sheroes from the 19th century was a poet, anti slavery lecturer, novelist, and political commentator, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper.

Watkins Harper was born in Baltimore, but became a activist of great reputation in part for her speaking style. And as a Black woman when she came into these fraught scenes, white men, Black men, white women, all speaking in narrow terms about their interests. Her wonderful line is “we are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity.” And this value really comes to be at the core of African American women's quest for the vote.

But as I suggested, when they confront racism, when they discover white suffragists using racism as part of their tactic to win the 19th Amendment, African American women pull back and continue to work in their own organizations, but do not find a hospitable, if you will, home for their political ambitions, in collaboration with white women. So it is a fraught history. That brings us to 2020. And the ongoing necessity for American women to struggle to find their own common ground, to discover how they are bound up together as humanity.

And so I'm deeply sympathetic and appreciative in fact of the caller's work as she's described it, right, that this requires conversation, it requires listening, it requires some time ceding authority where one might enjoy it. But in my view, if we're going to talk about American women, as women in the 21st century, there's no way to do that without moving through as difficult and fraught, as it is the legacies of, among other things, anti Black racism in order to get there. I just think there's no shortcut around those conversations. 

In some ways, it seems like the white suffragists felt that this was a zero-sum game as in, if people of color — specifically men of color — get the vote first, we will again have to wait. Could you describe how they saw the political landscape?

So we're going back to a critical moment in U.S. history, the years after the Civil War. The Constitution is being rewritten. The nation is going through a Reconstruction that incorporates four million formerly enslaved people into the body politic as citizens. This is a revolution in the United States and it is also an opportunity for rethinking the fundamental terms of who is in and who is out when it comes to political rights. You're right to point to the opportunities of this period, which appear to many as coming out of Congress to be some protection for African-American men's votes, by way of the 14th and then the 15th Amendments to the Constitution.

But within certainly radical political coalitions, there’s no companion proposals coming out of Congress for women's votes. So how to think about that?

Well, there's not one way to think about that, of course, and notoriously, Elizabeth Cady Stanton will take the position that no one should win the vote in this era before educated white women. This is her position, right? Educated women should come first. Frederick Douglass sees the question of voting rights as a matter of life and death for African American men who are facing violence in the public square in the wake of slavery abolition.

But I mentioned Francis Ellen Watkins Harper. Importantly, because oftentimes when we look back on that history, she and other Black women like Sojourner Truth who are part of the scene also get erased or overlooked. And yet I think that it's Francis Ellen Watkins Harper who sets the bar high, who says, in essence, no racism, no sexism, politics should not concede to either of those prejudices. And as a coalition, as a nation, we should be speaking about political rights in terms of humanity and all of humanity. This is a legacy that African American women leave to us.

In fact, it turns out, the reason I call women like Watkins Harper “the vanguard” is that she articulates a political vision, a set of values that today in the 21st century, I don't think we would argue with right?

Racism and sexism should have no place in arbitrating political rights in the United States, but she has that vision going all the way back to the 1860s. And of course, she's not successful, and there will be splinters and factions, and women's voting politics will proceed.

Oftentimes, it’s by way of a dirty bargain with racism, particularly when that movement looks to bring white Southern women and their husbands and fathers sympathetically into the movement. African American women will be set to the side. They will be marginalized. And that is, frankly, one of the legacies as well of the 19th Amendment and it is a legacy that we still are grappling with even today.

Listener question: The 14th Amendment, under the equal protection clause, women's rights are still not explicitly guaranteed even in 2020. I wanted to get your thoughts on how this impacts women today. Is it symbolic? Is it creating barriers? Or does it have no effect?

The 14th amendment, it turns out, has no teeth of its own. We have, for a very long time, looked to Congress to give teeth to that amendment, to the 15th Amendment, to the 19th Amendment. And so it takes, for example, until the Civil Rights Act for the equality principle, in the 14th Amendment, to actually become something that both lawmakers and citizens can use.

I think an even bigger point is that constitutional amendments on their own don't do the kind of work that we might hope they would do or that we need them to do. It requires, then, Congress to act on those and give teeth to those amendments. And it requires, of course, us citizens to be vigilant and to breathe meaning into something like the 14th Amendment.

No American becomes equal by virtue of the 14th amendment. It's only when that amendment is put into practice, that we begin to see its potential. Today, American women are facing a gnarly fight over the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, still a live question many, many, many decades, almost a century after Alice Paul first put forward the Equal Rights Amendment. We are going to live in real time, both through the struggle for that amendment as ratification, and then, what does it mean to give teeth to the promise of equality to American women? That is something we will have to be vigilant about if we want that amendment to have meaning in our lives.

Do you think the ERA is worth the investment of time and energy? Or should we turn our limited time and energy to other causes?

I think we've come this far with the ERA and it's time to see it through. … We are as close as we're ever going to be and so I'm one who would like to see us see that amendment through to the Constitution.