The best books on the history of voting rights in the United States

Jennifer Frost Author Of "Let Us Vote!" Youth Voting Rights and the 26th Amendment
By Jennifer Frost

Who am I?

After growing up in California, earning a PhD in Wisconsin, and having a stint as an academic in Colorado, I now teach United States history in beautiful Aotearoa New Zealand. I write books on 20th century U.S. politics, social movements, and popular culture. Along the way, I have found important political content, interactions, and struggle in unlikely spots, from community organizing to Hollywood gossip. In all my work, I find Americans drawing upon the ideological and material resources available to them—whether radicalism, conservatism, and liberalism, or social movements and popular culture—to construct and contest the meanings of citizenship.  

I wrote...

"Let Us Vote!" Youth Voting Rights and the 26th Amendment

By Jennifer Frost,

Book cover of "Let Us Vote!" Youth Voting Rights and the 26th Amendment

What is my book about?

"Let Us Vote!" tells the story of the multifaceted endeavor to achieve youth voting rights in the United States. Over a thirty-year period starting during World War II, Americans, old and young, Democrat and Republican, in politics and culture, built a movement for the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 1971 was the last time that the United States significantly expanded voting rights, enfranchising tens of millions of young Americans since. 2021 marks the fiftieth anniversary of this historic achievement and comes at a time when voting rights are under threat.

By remembering how and why the 26th Amendment came about and recognizing the citizens and campaigns that led the way, I hope my book can contribute to protecting our democracy today.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States

Why did I love this book?

The best word for this book is “magisterial.” By detailing the entire history of U.S. voting rights from the late eighteenth century to the early twenty-first, Keyssar covers both the expansion and contraction of democratic political rights for different groups of Americans over time. In this way, he challenges popular and earlier scholarly assumptions that progress toward inclusive voting rights was easy, inevitable, and assured and that antidemocratic exclusions from the franchise—based on class, race, ethnicity, gender, or age—were the exception. 

Keyssar taught me how the U.S. Constitution divides power between the federal and state governments with regard to determining election regulations and voting qualifications, with the states predominant. As a consequence, constitutional amendments and federal oversight would be necessary to advance universal suffrage for all citizens. Laying out the broad themes in this long history, Keyssar’s book shows American democracy to be both fundamental and fragile.  

By Alexander Keyssar,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Right to Vote as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Originally published in 2000, The Right to Vote was widely hailed as a magisterial account of the evolution of suffrage from the American Revolution to the end of the twentieth century. In this revised and updated edition, Keyssar carries the story forward, from the disputed presidential contest of 2000 through the 2008 campaign and the election of Barack Obama. The Right to Vote is a sweeping reinterpretation of American political history as well as a meditation on the meaning of democracy in contemporary American life.

Book cover of The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement: 1890-1920

Why did I love this book?

This book, published first in 1965 and then revised and reissued, was required reading when I was in graduate school. With this intellectual history of women’s suffrage, Kraditor sparked my interest in how ideas spur and shape political and social movements. Arguments, tactics, and strategies originate in the ideas of participants, and these ideas have consequences for how and what is eventually achieved. My favorite chapter explained the two kinds of arguments suffragists used. The argument from “justice” asserted women’s equal humanity with men, while the argument from “expediency” affirmed the benefits of extending women’s domestic caretaking into politics. 

My takeaway was that movements need multiple arguments to convince different constituencies to join and support their cause. Kraditor refused to whitewash the women’s suffrage movement and recounted how white, middle-class, native-born women also used ethnocentric and racist arguments to claim access to the ballot. 

By Aileen S. Kraditor,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What united and moved millions of women to seek a right that their society denied them? What were their beliefs about the nature of the home, marriage, sex, politics, religion, immigrants, blacks, labor, the state? In this book, Aileen S. Kraditor selects a group of suffragist leaders and investigates their thinking-the ideas, and tactics, with which they battled the ideas and institutions impeding what suffragists defined as progress toward the equality of the sexes. She also examines what the American public believed "suffragism" to mean and how the major events of the time affected the movement.

Book cover of The Woman's Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote

Why did I love this book?

This recent book tells the dramatic story of Tennessee’s ratification of the 19th Amendment. Thirty-six states were required for ratification, and by July 1920 it all came down to Tennessee. The fate of women’s suffrage, decades of struggle, hung in the balance. I love how Weiss brings the context, characters, and events in the drama to life. She vividly portrays the public proceedings and plotting behind-the-scenes for a victory that almost didn’t happen and can’t be taken for granted. Yet, in terms of race, it was a hollow victory. Weiss shows how the suffrage debate in Tennessee, a former slave state, inextricably interrelated with Black voting rights. 

As antisuffragists played the race card—women’s suffrage endangered racial disenfranchisement—white suffragists responded with their own version: white women outnumbered and could outvote African Americans, plus racial disenfranchisement would remain. Betrayed by the “suffrage sisterhood,” Black suffragists fought on.

By Elaine Weiss,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Woman's Hour as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Both a page-turning drama and an inspiration for every reader" -- Hillary Rodham Clinton

Soon to be a major television event, the nail-biting climax of one of the greatest political battles in American history: the ratification of the constitutional amendment that granted women the right to vote.

Nashville, August 1920. Thirty-five states have approved the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the right to vote; one last state--Tennessee--is needed for women's voting rights to be the law of the land. The suffragists face vicious opposition from politicians, clergy, corporations, and racists who don't want black women voting. And then there are the…

Book cover of Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All

Why did I love this book?

Painting a broad picture of African-American women’s political advocacy and activism, Martha S. Jones presents women fighting for a voice in our political system from the early days of the Republic through women’s suffrage to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Many of the women and their contributions to racial and gender equality were familiar to me. Others less so, including three generations of Jones’s own foremothers who worked for democratic participation in their day. Bringing home how very personal the political is, Jones finds Black women’s politics in parties, elections, government, and beyond. In churches and community institutions, in careers as teachers and journalists, they pursued an expansive vision of human rights and dignity.

It’s an informative, inspiring history, with hard-won gains contextualized with hard truths about our impaired democracy, and reminded me that the obligation to repair it belongs to us all.

By Martha S. Jones,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Vanguard as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“An elegant and expansive history” (New YorkTimes)of African American women’s pursuit of political power—and how it transformed America  
InVanguard, acclaimed historian Martha S. Jones offers a new history of African American women’s political lives in America. She recounts how they defied both racism and sexism to fight for the ballot, and how they wielded political power to secure the equality and dignity of all persons. From the earliest days of the republic to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and beyond, Jones excavates the lives and work ofBlackwomen—Maria Stewart, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Fannie Lou Hamer, and more—who…

Book cover of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America

Why did I love this book?

Ari Berman picks up the voting rights story in 1965, with the Voting Rights Act’s transformative impact on Black electoral participation and office-holding, especially in the South. Designed to enforce the 15th Amendment, the Voting Rights Act removed barriers to voter registration, like literacy tests, and required states and localities with histories of racial disenfranchisement to seek “preclearance” for changes to their voting and election laws. These and other measures succeeded in greatly expanding American democracy. 

Yet, as Berman documents, opposing forces sought to return to the states the power to restrict access to the ballot, and their own success came with Shelby v. Holder (2013), which ended preclearance. A raft of restrictive regulations immediately rolled out and have intensified today. In this book, since, and joined now by many others, Berman warns that American democracy is at great risk, a warning I deeply feel we need to heed.

By Ari Berman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Give Us the Ballot as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, Nonfiction

Named a Notable Book of the Year by
The New York Times Book Review and The Washington Post

Named a Best Book of the Year by
NPR, The Boston Globe, and Kirkus Reviews (Best Nonfiction)

Countless books have been written about the civil rights movement, but far less attention has been paid to what happened after the dramatic passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and the turbulent forces it unleashed. In this groundbreaking narrative history, Ari Berman charts both the transformation of American democracy under the VRA and the counterrevolution…

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