In Puerto Rico, Women Won the Vote in a Bittersweet Game of Colonial Politics
Puertorriqueñas’ fight for suffrage shaped by class, colonialism and racism—but even today, island residents cannot vote for president
Genara Pagán was causing a stir at the voter registration office. As a Puerto Rican and an American citizen, Pagán wanted to register now that the 19th Amendment that extended the franchise to women was ratified. Knowing that she might encounter challenges, the sufragista arrived to claim what she believed was rightfully hers. The Puerto Rican officials were flummoxed; they turned her away as the government asked the U.S. Bureau of Insular Affairs to weigh in on whether Pagán had the right to vote.
When Pagán heard back months later, it confirmed the grim reality she was prepared to hear. As colonial subjects, Puertorriqueñas would not be afforded the same freedoms as their white, American sisters on the mainland. Despite the 19th Amendment’s promises and despite their American citizenship, Pagán and the roughly 300,000 other Puerto Rican women eligible to vote would have to wait another 16 years to cast ballots.
In their journey to suffrage, Puertorriqueñas defiantly used the island’s colonial politics to their advantage to pressure the island’s governing elite to deliver the vote. Yet the story remains incomplete. Their struggle didn’t end when Puerto Rican women were extended the franchise for local elections; on a federal level, Puerto Ricans of all genders remain as disenfranchised as they were 100 years ago. Island residents have the rare displeasure of being citizens who cannot vote for president, and the delegates they elect to Congress also cannot vote on U.S. laws.
In 1898, the U.S. claimed the island as a bounty of its victory in its war with Spain and took over colonial control. After a few short years of military rule, the U.S. established a civil government subject to American supervision, drastically transforming Puerto Rican society. Thousands lost their family-owned farms to U.S. companies eager to exploit the island’s natural resources through the sugar, tobacco and coffee industries. More women, facing the prospect of poverty, were forced to enter the workforce.
For sufragistas like Pagán, the factory was where they developed revolutionary ideas. As a despalilladora (tobacco stripper), Pagán followed in the footsteps of one of Puerto Rico’s earliest feminists, Luisa Capetillo. A bookish girl who grew up in Arecibo, Capetillo was a fierce labor organizer and journalist who railed against capitalist oppression in her role as a lectora, the workers’ reader. She would stand on the factory floor reading aloud the writings of Émile Zola and Victor Hugo so workers could spend hours discussing socialism, racism, anarchism and feminism.
The seed of women’s suffrage grew out of such boisterous ideological debates among working-class women, who were mostly black and mixed-race. As descendants of enslaved Africans, indigenous Taínos, and white Spaniards, black and brown Puerto Rican women struggled in the racial and economic hierarchy established under 400 years of Spanish colonialism. Puerto Rican society was stratified by class, gender and skin color, with wealthy, light-skinned criollos, Spanish men born on the island, privileged over mixed (mestizo and mulatto) and dark-skinned black and brown Puerto Ricans. Working-class socialists, though not without their own colorist and sexist struggles, often organized political platforms around issues of race and gender.
In socialist circles, Capetillo stood at the forefront of demands for gender equality. She's credited with penning the 1911 book of essays Mi opinión sobre las libertades, derechos y deberes de la mujer (My opinion on the liberties, rights and responsibilities of women), widely considered the first treatise on feminism in Puerto Rico. Her subversion of traditional gender roles extended to her fashion choices, too. Capetillo is popularly known as the first woman to wear pants in Puerto Rico, and she was even memorialized in a song that said: “Doña Luisa Capetillo, intentionally or not, has created a tremendous uproar because of her culottes.”
In the early 1900s, women all across Puerto Rico were unionizing in earnest. By 1904, eight women’s unions had organized to lead strikes and protests demanding equal wages and worker protections. Capetillo and other women called for women’s suffrage to be a central political platform at a worker’s organizing meeting in 1908. That same year, labor activists convinced one lawmaker to present the first bill calling for women’s civil rights to the Puerto Rican legislature, but it was soundly rejected. Within the next decade or so, Puerto Rican politicians would reject more than a dozen bills calling for women’s right to vote.
The 1917 Jones Act made Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens practically overnight—but under special conditions. Beyond voting limitations, citizenship was statutory and was not protected by the Constitution, so it could still be revoked by the Supreme Court.
Five months later, Ana Roqué de Duprey and Mercedes Solá, elite white educators, cofounded Liga Femínea Puertorriqueña, one of the first organizations dedicated specifically to women’s suffrage in Puerto Rico. The first meeting in the capital city of San Juan included prominent teachers, intellectuals and doctors, all ready to fight for their shared interests. For Roqué, that meant only enfranchising those who could read and write. “If it is feared that the illiterate classes will increase their power by giving the vote to women,” she wrote, “the solution is to restrict the vote to the literate classes.”
Literacy proved the most divisive question in the fight for suffrage. White, wealthy and educated Puerto Ricans organized for the restricted vote. Literacy restrictions were popular because white criollo men in power deeply feared losing their political capital to the Socialist Party, which they rightly believed working women would support. A literacy requirement meant only a small minority of women could participate, anyway, as formally educated and upper-class women constituted just a sixth of the female population. And, writes gender and Africana scholar Magali Roy-Féquière, “Many suffragists/educators were more than willing to negotiate their enfranchisement at the expense of illiterate, black, mixed-race, poor women.”
In the 1920s, after it became clear that the 19th Amendment did not apply to Puertorriqueñas, suffrage organizations regrouped. Liga Femínea reformed itself into Liga Social Sufragista (LSS) and implemented changes, like cutting monthly dues, to diversify their membership. Under the leadership of the more progressive Ricarda López de Ramos Casellas, the LSS changed its position and formally declared itself in support of universal suffrage.
Roqué and other conservative sufragistas bristled at the inclusive ideological shift. In 1924, she severed her relationship with the organization she founded and started the Asociación Puertorriqueña de Mujeres Sufragistas to continue pushing for the restricted vote. They found quick allies in the growing number of male politicians now willing to concede some women’s right to vote as long as they could continue to secure their interests—yet the legislature still stalled.
Despite the increasing pressure to formally expand the vote, Puerto Rican legislators staunchly opposed anything without a literacy requirement. Fed up with waiting, activists focused on strategic alliances that could help take the fight to the U.S. Congress that delivered citizenship to Puerto Ricans in the first place.
In 1926, Puerto Rican sufragistas, including López de Ramos Casellas, met in San Juan with delegates from the U.S.-based National Woman’s Party. The American organization, founded by famous suffragists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, was an unlikely ally considering its checkered record of largely ignoring the voices of black women and women of color. But they were interested in expanding women’s right to vote to Puerto Rico. Later that year, the NWP worked with the LSS to draft a bill to add one crucial line to the Jones Act: “And provided further, That the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex.” It was introduced in Congress by Senator Hiram Bingham of Connecticut but got little traction.
Puerto Rican politicians, including president of the Senate Antonio R. Barceló, believed the sufragistas' outreach to the U.S. jeopardized the island's governing autonomy. They “conveniently chose to see in women’s suffrage struggles an undesirable intrusion of U.S. ideas in the social life of the Island at the cultural level as well as at the level of colonial politics,” writes Roy-Féquière. At the time, illiterate men were able to vote in local elections, but Barceló even deemed male universal suffrage a mistake, insisting that literacy requirements were a necessary voting standard.
Navigating the politics of colonization and sexism proved difficult for sufragistas. In a 1928 speech that was reprinted in the NWP’s magazine, Equal Rights, the suffragist and poet Muna Lee, who was born in Mississippi but had moved to the island with her Puerto Rican husband, said: “Our position as women, amongst you free citizens of Pan-America, is like the position of my Puerto Rico in the community of American States…We are treated with every consideration save the one great consideration of being regarded as responsible beings.” She continued with a searing indictment: “We, like Puerto Rico, are dependents. We are anomalies before the law.”
In April 1928, LSS and NWP suffragists testified together before Congress. Marta Robert, an LSS member and doctor who ran the maternity hospital in San Juan, pointed out the ludicrous reasoning that prevented her from voting, “Why should we not ask you to give us complete citizenship in our country?” she said. “We are allowed to come here to the United States…and we have the right to vote...but the only thing that prohibits us from going to Puerto Rico and voting and exercising our electoral right is just a little injustice from our men when they make the electoral law in Puerto Rico.”
Another LSS speaker, Rosa Emanuelli, stressed that Puerto Rican women could advance democratic freedoms for their people if given the franchise. Her appeal to democratic ideals carried some irony, given that she was asking a colonial power for political representation, but this dynamic proved fruitful for the cause. When Congress moved towards passing the Jones Act amendment—an act of colonial imposition, albeit indirectly—Puerto Rican legislators had no choice but to push through a suffrage bill to save face. There was a catch, though. While the LSS and NWP had firmly argued for universal suffrage, the first bill that Puerto Rico passed in the spring of 1929 only enfranchised literate women.
It was a bittersweet victory. The LSS begrudgingly accepted that, like black and Indigenous women in the mainland U.S., their Afro-Puerto Rican and mixed-race working class peers would be forced to wait. In the years that followed, thousands of women workers protested the discriminatory literacy tests that barred them from voting.
Despite these restrictions, women who could pass literacy tests participated in their first major election in 1932. About 50,000 cast their ballots, and promptly elected women to city governments across the island, as well as María Luisa Arcelay, the first woman member of the Puerto Rican House of Representatives. The final push for universal suffrage came from a coalition of working-class and middle-class women who organized within Puerto Rico’s Republican and Socialist Parties. A bill for universal suffrage finally passed in 1935.
Today, as the world’s oldest colony, Puerto Rico remains disenfranchised because its 3.1 million residents, despite most being American citizens, do not have voting representatives in Congress and cannot cast votes in presidential elections. The 20th-century chapter of women’s suffrage in Puerto Rico is a history lesson, but full enfranchisement for Puertorriqueñas remains a goal still incomplete, a story without its ending.