Lessons from My Mistake


The following column appeared in several APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers during late September, 2020, including the Morrison County Record.

Lessons from my mistake


Readers’ reactions to a recent column about a Minnesota Historical Society online exhibit ranged from “nicely done” to insisting that I’d included “a grave and misleading error.” Yes, Jay from Lakeville was correct that I made a mistake. As an educator and columnist, I’d like to apologize, correct and clarify what I wrote.

The column praised the Minnesota Historical Society’s new online exhibit, “Votes for Women.” The exhibit describes what led to and has happened after adoption of the 19th Amendment in 1920.


I gave the exhibit an “A” and strongly recommend it.

However, one reader accurately noted I had one sentence that was not correct. I wrote that the 19th Amendment “guaranteed that white women could vote.” The word “white” is not in the amendment.  It reads: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

I should have written that the 19th Amendment helped make it possible for many American women to vote. As a project of the National Archives, National History Day and others points out, “ratification did not ensure full enfranchisement. Decades of struggle to include African Americans and other minority women in the promise of voting rights remained. Many women remained unable to vote long into the 20th century because of discriminatory state voting laws.”.

Kate Roberts, senior exhibit developer at the Minnesota Historical Society who worked on their 19th Amendment exhibit, agrees with both points. As she told me, the 19th Amendment “represented progress. However, many years of effort were required before some women were allowed to vote.”

Roberts explained, for example, that many American Indians were not considered citizens of the U.S. in 1920, when the 19th Amendment was ratified, so they were not allowed to vote. She also confirmed the National Archives statement that laws in some southern states prevented African American women (and men) from voting.

In preparing the previous column, I read a variety of sources. The PBS program “American Experience” was one of them. Their discussion of the 19th Amendment explained: “Native American, Asian American, Latin and African American suffragists had to fight for their own enfranchisement long after the 19th Amendment was ratified. Only over successive years did each of those groups gain access to the ballot.”

Reactions to this column remind me of what I’ve tried to do as an educator and parent. This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve made a mistake. What I hope students and readers will take away from this are several things:

  • When you make a mistake, it’s important to acknowledge it.
  • Making sweeping assertions about history or current events can be unwise. Whether it’s the 19th Amendment or the death of George Floyd, there’s a lot of complexity involved.
  • There can simultaneously be several things that are true along with multiple interpretations. Take for example, reactions to President Donald Trump: There are multiple facts and many interpretations.

I’m not saying that truth is always complex. It is a fact that the word “white” does not appear in the 19th Amendment. My apologies for suggesting that this amendment only gave white women the vote.

But clearly the 19th Amendment did not, by itself, allow all women to vote. I’m encouraging an openness to nuance and complexity.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at Joe@centerforschoolchange.org