Memebusters: Clinton and Suffrage



I saw this “memed tweet” getting passed around with the comment: “This why people of color and Non-first world women choose not to take feminism seriously.” I’m not sure what the antecedent of “this” is, but I’ll pretend it refers to the misleading string of dates.

The implication here (which several other comments made explicit) is that CNN is being racially exclusionary by bringing up the 96versary. There are some problems with this view. As we covered once before eighteen-year-old women couldn’t vote until 1971, seventeen-year-old women still can’t vote, and neither can female felons, etc. Saying (as the meme does) “black women couldn’t vote till 1964” excludes millions of women as surely as saying “women couldn’t vote until 1919.” This is clearly an isolated demand for rigor (you should read that link even if you decide not to come back and read about this meme, frankly); you can’t really demand lawyerly precision from CNN when you’re speaking everyday casual yourself.

So this meme would be misleading even if the dates were correct and apposite. But this is not really the case.

(Warning: I know nothing about American history; double check what I say; I probably know more than this meme, though.)

The 1924 act alluded to here we went over before due to an earlier meme, but to review: Although the text implies that 1924 changed voting rights based on race, actually those Native Americans who were US citizens could vote long before this date. Many Native Americans, however, had an ambiguous citizenship, and were subject to the jurisdiction of their own nations, hardly independent (the US claimed the land they dwelt on) but also not fully answerable to Washington; in 1924, the ambiguity ended, and all Native Americans on US soil became citizens. Although some states pulled shenanigans to keep the vote from Native Americans even then, this was, again, not based on race, but rather on affiliation with “tribal lands.”

The 1952 act is similar, in that it controls not voting but citizenship, but is perhaps slightly more accurate. In 1952 the US lifted some of the bans on immigration from Asia that had been put in place in 1924. A “technically” person (you know the type) would say that Chinese nationals could not vote in the US in 1951, and they cannot vote today, but this is technically true yet misleading; Asian citizens could always vote but it was very difficult for Asians to become citizens and therefore vote before 1952.

Hardly impossible, though. The Wong Kim Ark case of 1898 established that Asians born in the US to non-citizen parents were citizens (and could vote). The statement “Asian women couldn’t vote till 1952” obviously “erases” all the American-born Asian women who were enfranchised in 1919.

The final date given, 1964, differs from the previous two in that it refers not to a change in who is a citizen, but rather to the Civil Rights Act (the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is perhaps more apposite, but the two are closely related). Of course, in theory African-Americans could vote long before 1964, but were in practice often disenfranchised.

Many would claim that disenfranchisement continues today, although it’s clear, I think, at the very least that the percentages have changed. Even in 1963, though, whether a black woman (or man, of course) could vote or not depended on where she lived.

Each of these dates marks a milestone, but in no case is it accurate to say that any of these groups categorically “couldn’t vote.” Of the acts referenced, only one really addresses voting, the other two being about citizenship and immigration.

“Non-first world women,” as the commenter puts it, would seem to be citizens of other countries by definition, and therefore still cannot vote in American elections. This will not change soon.

“Inspired by true events” but still really misleading, this meme is a case study in why you should never try to learn anything from memes or tweets. Still, although it’s no good as education, it’s dynamite as signaling.

People often say (I’ve seen this many places variously attributed but perhaps it comes from here?)  that saying “all lives matter” is like yelling “cure all diseases” at a breast cancer run. Who would do such a thing? The answer would appear to be: whoever shares this meme, elbowing into the women’s suffrage celebration with a hashtag not all women. Ideologically, the two stances are analogous; but we must not try to understand people by thinking ideologically. There is no demographic that would both share this meme and say “all lives matter.” These demographics are at odds with each other! By choosing to share this sentiment, and no other, you signal that your demographic is distinct from those all lives matter trolls, but also from Hillary supporters, or moderate Democrats, or whatever group you wish to distinguish your identity from.

There’s a little bit of a power play here, too. It’s hard to interpret this meme as not asserting something like: How dare CNN not interrupt their dozen-word headline to explore the nuances of tangentially related immigration law! Such as assertion is relatively benign for the internet, though, and insofar as we well know that the only things people really do online are signal their demographic and exercise power, I’d say this signals more than it exercises.

All of which is just business as usual. My only request is that next time we signal, we elect to signal without misrepresenting history.

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