Week 7: Voting and Party Politics in the U.S. Empire


Photo of women in San Juan, Puerto Rico registering to vote in 1950
Women in San Juan, Puerto Rico in November 1950 register to vote in an island-wide referendum that facilitated the creation of the Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico (Free Associated State of Puerto Rico, known as the Commonwealth in English) two years later. With the change, Puerto Rican voting rights did not expand beyond those that they already held in local elections (image courtesy of PhotoQuest/Getty Images).


“Despite the overt, systemic, and racialized disenfranchisement and discrimination against Black and Brown citizens in the territories, all too often these injustices have been met with silence, even from leading progressive voices and institutions. No administration, presidential candidate, or party has taken a firm stance against the Insular Cases or in favor of voting rights for residents of the territories.”
– Delegate Stacey E. Plaskett, member of the U.S. House of Representatives
representing the U.S. Virgin Islands, The Grio, June 2020


Registering to vote at the local level and serving as a non-voting delegate in Congress exemplify the diverse ways that women of the US unincorporated territories have engaged in electoral politics despite the federal disfranchisement that Plaskett denounced. Such women have also canvassed, run as candidates, won local offices, and lobbied legislators. Indigenous women and those in former U.S. colonies have likewise pursued these activities to advance civil rights and self-rule.

Secondary Readings

Cahill, Cathleen D. Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020.

Cahill traces Native, Hispanic, Chinese, and African American women’s efforts to secure women’s voting rights and involvement in the electoral system. Organized around the histories of six female activists, the book illuminates the connections between the struggle for women’s voting rights and battles for citizenship, sovereignty, and civil rights for their communities. The final chapters consider in depth how women canvassed voters, lobbied legislators, and ran for office to achieve these goals. Following the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act, for instance, Zitkala-Ša (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin) attempted to leverage Native votes toward pressuring elected officials to use their office to fulfill broken promises outlined in longstanding treaties between the United States and Native nations. In another example, Nina Otero-Warren—one of six Latinas elected to New Mexico’s state legislature during the 1920s and early 1930s—advocated for the welfare of the state’s Spanish-speaking women while also favoring assimilation policies for Native Americans that threatened cultural traditions.

Guise, Holly Miowak. “Elizabeth Peratrovich, the Alaska Native Sisterhood, and Indigenous Women’s Activism, 1943-1947.” In Suffrage at 100: Women in American Politics since 1920, edited by Stacie Taranto and Leandra Zarnow, 147–62. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020.

Guise explores the Indigenous Alaskan rights activism of Elizabeth Wanamaker Peratrovich during the 33 years that the 1925 Alaska Voters’ Literacy Act disfranchised the Indigenous population of Alaska. Peratrovich led the Alaska Native Sisterhood (ANS) toward lobbying for Indigenous land and civil rights, including opposing segregation and protecting Indigenous homes. Her mobilization of the ANS was central to the Alaska territorial senate’s enactment of the 1945 Alaska Equal Rights Act, which forbid racial segregation in the territory, although the franchise did not expand until the 1958 adoption of the Alaska State Constitution.

Gallart, Mary Frances. “Political Empowerment of Puerto Rican Women, 1952-1956.” In Puerto Rican Women’s History: New Perspectives, edited by Félix V. Matos Rodríguez and Linda C. Delgado, 227–52. New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1998.

This chapter examines Obdulia Velázquez de Lorenzo’s activism and that of other women in the Popular Democratic Party (PPD) leading up to her 1952 mayoral election in Guayama. This chapter explores Doña Obdulia’s founding of the Union de Damas de Oficios Domesticas prior to her mayoral run and its role as a significant voting bloc. The records of El Batey, known casually as “the peasant’s mail,” provide much of the evidence as, the official city archives and those of its major newspaper say little about the organization’s history. Gallart disputes the notion that women were not an important or substantial part of the PPD and argues that more scholarship should explore the interiority of female political actors and their self-definition of success and intent. In reframing Doña Obdulia, her struggle, and her accomplishments through a “feminine perspective,” the chapter models a reevaluation of women’s political work through self-definition.

Materson, Lisa G. “Gender, Generation, and Women's Independence Organizing in Puerto Rico.” Radical History Review 128 (2017): 121–146.

This article demonstrates the range of strategies within and beyond electoral politics that fueled the struggle for Puerto Rico's independence in the 20th century through the lives of Emilia Rodríguez Sotero, Baldramina Sotero Cervoni, and Isabel Rosado Morales. Though these women pursued different strategies, they relied upon intergenerational support to endure the daunting challenges of independence activism; such challenges included surveillance, prosecution, and incarceration. Among the three, Sotero Cervoni embraced electoral politics. She was a founding member of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) in Guayanilla in 1946 and devoted her adult life to canvassing for PIP candidates as a means of obtaining territorial sovereignty. Her story exemplifies the behind-the-scenes canvassing work that PIP women like her performed to sustain the party.

Roces, Mina. Women, Power, and Kinship Politics: Female Power in Post-War Philippines. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998.

Roces focuses on Filipinas’ use of official and unofficial power in multiple political structures between 1945 and the early 1990s in which Filipino styles of kinship politics continued to play a crucial role in spite of the influence of western-style liberal politics due to Spanish and U.S. imperialism. This emphasis on kinship connections offered women significant unofficial, yet highly efficacious, political influence. Of particular note are Chapters 2 and 3. Chapter 2 explores how politicians’ female relatives campaigned, fundraised, and otherwise furthered their male relatives’ careers in elections. Chapter 3 analyzes how elected female politicians wielded official power similarly to and differently from the ways that their male colleagues did.

Lozano, Rosina, “Vote Aquí.” Modern American History 2, no. 3 (2019): 393-96. doi:10.1017/mah.2019.31.

Lozano examines considerations for non-English speaking and illiterate voters from the mid-19th century to the early 21st century. For example, New Mexico’s early elections were primarily in Spanish, which Lozano suggests supported the success of Spanish-speaking politicians, including the first Mexican American U.S. senator. Although provisions for Spanish-speaking and illiterate voters increased in the late 19th century, ballots became increasingly complicated in the 20th, spurred by post-World War I nativism. For decades, government provided no translations of ballots or directions to polling places. However, lobbying for bilingual ballots and Spanish-language election materials increased in the 1970s. The author considers the perspectives of politicians such as Petra Díaz, a Puerto Rican Democratic committee woman who called for bilingual ballots, and Vilma Martínez of the General Counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Primary Sources

Zitkala-Ša (Gertrude Bonnin). “America’s Indian Problem.” In American Indian Stories. Washington: Hayworth Publishing House, 1921.

“America’s Indian Problem” is one of ten chapters in Sioux activist Zitkala-Ša’s 1921 autobiographical and political work, American Indian Stories. In this chapter, Zitkala-Ša critiques how the United States government renders Native Americans politically voiceless in their own land by categorizing them as wards and not citizens.

Galler, Christine (Christal Quintasket, Mourning Dove). “Let Us Try a New Deal” (1934). In Say We Are Nations: Documents on Politics and Protest in Indigenous America since 1887, edited by Daniel M. Cobb. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.

Christine Galler (also known as Cristal Quintasket and by her Okanogan name, Mourning Dove) was the first woman elected to the Colville Tribal Council. In this testimony to federal officials and tribal delegates from Klamath, Spokane, Yakama, Warm Springs, Taholah, and Flathead reservations, Galler spoke as a representative for the Colville people in support of the Indian Reorganization Act, which allowed for self-rule within reservations. The act, proposed by the then-commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier, would come to be known as the most important facet of the Indian New Deal. Galler framed it as an opportunity for American Indians to reassert agency that had been suppressed for 122 years.

Women in Politics,” A Speech by Lourdes Aflague Leon Guerrero, November 7, 2012 (accessed January 12, 2020).

In this speech, Lourdes Aflague Leon Guerrero, then director of the Bank Guam Holding Company, shares her perspective on women in politics in Guam. She explains that the precolonial Guamese governance was derived from Chammarro caste systems operating at clan and family levels often led by women. Patriarchal western forms of democracy and electoral politics came later. Guerrero chronologizes the efforts of Guamese women in politics in the first half of the 20th century, including Rosa Aguigui Reyes, Marian Lujan, Cynthia Torres, Lagrimas Untalan, Concepcion Barret, Cecilia Bamba, Elizabeth Arriola, and Candelaria Rios. Guerrero calls on women in Guam to continue the fight for further representation in Guam’s political economy. She concludes that women must have a say in politics because women’s issues affect everyone.

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