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Votes for Colonized Women

Woman Suffrage in the Philippines – 50th Anniversary
Photo courtesy of Philippine Stamps

Suffrage scholars have long recognized the de facto exclusion of African American women (and men) from voting long after 1920, as well as Native American and Asian American women deemed ineligible for citizenship. However, as we reflect upon the legacies of the Nineteenth Amendment, women in the United States’s overseas empire have largely been forgotten thus far.  What did the Nineteenth Amendment mean for women in the Caribbean and Pacific territories of the United States? When we place women’s suffrage in the historical context of U.S. empire, voting rights look even more gradual and conditional than they were on the mainland alone.

Because the U.S. Constitution did not “follow the flag,” the Nineteenth Amendment simply did not apply to the colonial possessions of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Thus the passage of a federal suffrage amendment did not enfranchise women in those territories, even in principle. In fact, it took decades after 1920 for women—and men—in some parts of the United States to gain the very right, de jure, to vote. And in each American colony, women gained suffrage through a different means. Women in Puerto Rico could not vote until the passage of legislation in 1929, and even then suffrage was limited to literate women until 1935. Women in the U.S. Virgin Islands gained enfranchisement in 1935 through a court ruling. Women in the Philippines finally gained the ballot after voting in their own separate plebiscite in 1937. Neither women nor men in  Guam had voting rights until the federal U.S. government passed the Guam Organic Act in 1950. American Samoa first enacted universal suffrage through its federally recognized Constitution in 1967.

The United States treated the colonies it adopted from Spain in 1899 differently from the lands it had previously taken through purchase, annexation, and wars of conquest. Under the earlier model of expansion, the status of Territory was just the first step along the path to eventual statehood; the initial lack of voting rights and self-governance in territories were only temporary. In contrast, the roughly 120,000 square miles of territory acquired in the war against Spain were not set on a path to statehood. Neither were the Caribbean islands that the U.S. purchased from Denmark in 1917.[i]

Deep divisions ensued over whether the U.S. should “adopt” the new territories in the first place.  Filipino nationalists immediately revolted against American colonization. The Philippine American War was a military conflict that cost hundreds of thousands of lives (almost all of which were Filipino lives) and persisted through decades of guerilla warfare long after Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the official end to the insurrection in 1902. Meanwhile, an anti-imperialist movement galvanized in the U.S. mainland. Some argued that imperialism violated democratic principles. Other Americans expressed racist misgivings about whether the peoples of the Philippines and Puerto Rico were even capable of becoming truly “civilized,” much less American. South Dakota Senator Richard Franklin Pettigrew vividly gave voice to fears of “this mass of indolent, filthy, leprous, nerveless savages of the southern seas” who would contaminate their would-be colonial masters.[ii] Acquisition of the “sugar islands” endangered federal revenues from import tariffs as well. In the end, the U.S. Supreme Court balanced protection for the republic on the one hand, with the interests of empire on the other.  The Court’s decision in the Insular Cases (1901) declared that Puerto Rico and the Philippines were not part ofthe United States but rather belonged to the United States. The women and men of these “appurtenant territories” were, correspondingly, deemed subjects not citizens of the republic. By this point in American history, citizenship itself had become “rights-poor,” as legal scholar Sam Erman terms it, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s interpretations of the Fourteenth Amendment. From the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873) to Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Court repeatedly held that the states—not the federal government—rightfully defined most of the civil rights of U.S. citizens.[iii]

For American women, citizenship had always been “rights-poor”—precarious, unclear, and disconnected from suffrage. Though legally recognized as citizens since 1787, women’s civil rights and duties differed categorically from men’s.[iv] Their classification by sex constrained not only their political participation but their property rights and economic agency, military service, parental custody rights, and more. Women’s birthright citizenship itself was conditional. Per the Expatriation Act of 1907, a native-born or naturalized American woman lost her U.S. citizenship if she married a foreigner.[v] Although the Cable Act (1922) reversed this as a general policy, American women who married “aliens ineligible for citizenship”—i.e., Asian immigrant men—continued to lose their own citizenship until 1936. Mainland American women were still battling for equal rights to jury service in the 1970s and 1980s.

Within the long struggle for women’s rights, the politics of American imperialism often intersected with calls for suffrage. As historian Kristin Hoganson has demonstrated, suffrage leaders like Mary Livermore made their appeals by noting that American women were, scandalously, “as badly off as Filipinos” by being excluded from the U.S. electorate.[vi] Suffragists advocated for women’s rights in overseas territories like Hawai’i, even claiming at times that colonized women were more fit for the franchise than colonized men.

Meanwhile, for women under American colonial rule, the goals of national sovereignty and equal suffrage were entwined. They hoped this would lead to support from mainland American suffragists. For instance, when Clemencia López addressed the New England Woman Suffrage Association in Boston in 1902, she boldly declared, “I believe that we are both striving for much the same object—you for the right to take part in national life; we for the right to have a national life to take part in. And I am sure that, if we understood each other better, the differences which now exist between your country and mine would soon disappear.”[vii] The Woman’s Journal published López’s speech, amplifying her invitation for greater mutual understanding. In 1911, Carrie Chapman Catt traveled to the Philippines, to promote women’s suffrage there. Yet suffragists did not regularly champion colonial independence; rather, many positioned themselves as reformers who were vital to governing empire in a benevolent fashion.

We should not reduce the history of American women’s suffrage to the attitudes of white women on the mainland. Colonized women were not the passive recipients of an imperialist American suffrage movement. While they sometimes sought tactical alliances with North American feminists, colonial women in the Caribbean and Pacific organized their own associations and movements to demand and win their own enfranchisement. Even in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where a court decision extended suffrage to women, the ruling was the culmination of strategic activism by St. Thomian suffragists including Ella Gifft, Edith Williams, Anna Vessup and Eulalie Stevens. Williams, Vessup, and Stevens were all teachers who had spent time in African American communities in the mainland United States and applied lessons learned about judicial power over enfranchisement (and disenfranchisement).[viii] In Puerto Rico, calls for women’s suffrage had begun decades earlier with working women like Luisa Capetillo, a cigar factory worker and labor organizer, and Ana Roqué de Duprey, a widowed teacher. Suffrage activism revivified in 1920 when factory worker Genera Pagán attempted to register to vote, and was rejected. Pagán’s experience made clear that, despite the extension of citizenship to Puerto Rico three years earlier, the Nineteenth Amendment would not apply there. New suffrage organizations formed in response, from the socialist, working-class Asociación Feminista Popular to the conservative Liga Social Sufragista.[ix]  Women’s suffrage victory in Puerto Rico in 1929 resulted from their collective, if often competing, pressure.

In the Philippines, women had to reassemble a suffrage movement after briefly achieving their goal. Educated clubwomen and writers, like Constancia Poblete, Sofia Reyes de Veyra, and Trinidad Fernandez Legarda, first openly identified themselves as suffragists. Allied with working women like Rosario Lam, they repeatedly issued public calls for the ballot and canvassed for several bills to achieve it. The Ninth Philippine Legislature passed a law granting women suffrage in 1933, and the appointed Governor-General, Frank Murphy, signed it.  But the passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act (1934), establishing the Philippine Commonwealth, swept away the previous legislation before it took effect. Filipina women had to affirm their actual desire for enfranchisement, through their own separate plebiscite in 1937. The number of participants amply exceeded the required 300,000 voters, and overwhelmingly voted in favor: 447,725 to 44,307.[x] Only then did women in the Philippines gain suffrage.

We should take note of the many “American women’s suffrage centennials” that will follow 2020, and the many paths to enfranchisement that they represent. Ongoing research and current public humanities initiatives, like the “Suffrage and Empire” syllabus project being developed by University of California’s Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Histories of the Americas (WGSHA) Consortium, are expanding the resources available. A more inclusive account on these lines should avoid over-romanticizing colonized women’s activism. Women’s suffrage movements within U.S. colonies, like those on the mainland, had internal conflicts over issues of class, race, and color. Elite Puerto Rican suffragists called for literacy restrictions for example, and some in the U.S. Virgin Islands suggested property qualifications. But the account of women’s suffrage in the U.S. remains incomplete if it does not acknowledge American women outside the contiguous States. We should recognize America’s colonies as a part of the United States, even if the federal government denied them that status a century ago.

Laura R. Prieto is Alumni Chair in Public Humanities and Professor of History and of Women’s and Gender Studies at Simmons University in Boston. Her first book was At Home in the Studio: The Professionalization of Women Artists in the United States (Harvard University Press). Her current research studies women and American empire, a topic on which she has published in several academic journals and anthologies, including Crossings and Encounters: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Atlantic World, which she co-edited with Stephen R. Berry, forthcoming in summer 2020 from the University of South Carolina Press. 


[i] See Neely’s Our New Island Possessions (1898).

[ii] Richard Franklin Pettigrew, The Course of Empire: An Official Record (New York, 1920), 163.

[iii] Sam Erman, Almost Citizens: Puerto Rico, the U.S. Constitution, and Empire (New York, 2019), 82–3. On definitions of citizenship in earlier nineteenth-century law, thought, and activism, see Martha Jones, Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (New York, 2018).

[iv] Linda Kerber, No Constitutional Right to be Ladies: Women and the Obligations of Citizenship (New York, 1998).

[v] See https://www.archives.gov/files/publications/prologue/2014/spring/citizenship.pdf

[vi] Kristin Hoganson, “‘As Badly Off as the Filipinos’: U.S. Women’s Suffragists and the Imperial Issue at the Turn of the Twentieth Century,” Journal of Women’s History, 13 (Summer 2001): 9–23.

[vii] Laura R. Prieto, “A Delicate Subject: Clemencia López, Civilized Womanhood, and the Politics of Anti-Imperialism,” Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, 12 (April 2013), 199–233.

[viii] Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, “Enfranchising Women of Color: Woman Suffragists as Agents of Imperialism,” in Nation, Empire, Colony: Historicizing Gender and Race, ed. Ruth Roach Pierson and Nupur Chaudhuri,  (Bloomington, 1998), 51–3.

[ix] Yamila Azize-Vargas, “The Emergence of Feminism in Puerto Rico, 1870–1930,” in Latino/a Thought: Culture, Politics, and Society, ed. Francisco Hernández Vázquez and Rodólfo D. Torres (Lanham, 2003), 180-81.

[x] Mina Roces, “Is the Suffragist an American Colonial Construct? Defining ‘the Filipino woman’ in Colonial Philippines,” in Women’s Suffrage in Asia: Gender, Nationalism and Democracy, ed. Mina Roces and Louise Edwards(New York, 2006).

For Further Reading:

Mariá de Fátima Barceló-Miller, La lucha por el sufragio femenino en Puerto Rico, 1896-1935 (San Juan, 1997).

Catherine Ceniza Choy and Judy Tzu-Chun Wu, eds., Gendering the Trans-Pacific World: Diaspora, Empire, and Race(Leiden, 2017).

Felix Matos-Rodríguez and Linda Delgado, eds., Puerto Rican Women’s History: New Perspectives (New York, 2015).

Katherine Marino, Feminism for the Americas: The Making of an International Human Rights Movement (Chapel Hill, 2019).

Gladys Jimenez Muñoz, “Deconstructing Colonialist Discourse: Links between the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the United States and Puerto Rico,” Phoebe, 5 (Spring 1993): 9–34.

Alison Sneider, Suffragists in an Imperial Age: U.S. Expansion and the Woman Question, 1870–1929 (New York, 2008).

Bartholomew Sparrow, The Insular Cases and the Emergence of American Empire (Lawrence, 2006).

Yamila Azize Vargas, La Mujer en la Lucha (San Juan, 1985).

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