The 19th Amendment, which says, “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,” was ratified in 1920, giving American women the right to vote.
Puerto Rican women were U.S. citizens in 1920, having achieved citizenship in 1917 under the Jones-Shafroth Act. They naturally expected that they would be able to vote in local elections.
A suffragist and labor activist named Genara Pagán tried to register to vote in Puerto Rico and was refused by the officials there. She filed a complaint with the Bureau of Insular Affairs in Washington, D.C. The Bureau responded that Puerto Rico wasn’t covered by the 19th amendment. Milagros Benet de Mewton sued for the same reason in 1924, but lost her case.
The 19th amendment said that women could not be denied the right to vote because they were women. The 15th amendment (“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 race, color, or previous condition of servitude”), ratified in 1870, said that people could not be denied the right to vote because of their race.
But States could still impose conditions on voting. Many states, including Oregon and Nebraska, territories which gained statehood shortly after the Civil War, had laws forbidding African Americans to vote before the passage of the 15th amendment. They weren’t willing to give up their exclusionary laws after the ratification of the 15th amendment, so they rewrote them.
The “Grandfather clause,” which said that people couldn’t vote if their grandparents had not voted, kept immigrants and African Americans from voting. Poll taxes made it hard for less affluent people to vote. Literacy and land ownership were also requirements for voting in various states at various times. All these and other stratagems made it possible for States and territories to sidestep the Constitutional amendments intended to provide universal suffrage.
Puerto Rico was of course a territory rather than a state, and the Insular Cases determined that Puerto Ricans did not automatically have all the protections of the U.S. Constitution. The territorial government did not allow any women to vote until 1929, nearly a decade after the passage of the 19th amendment.
Even then, not all women could vote.
In Puerto Rico, as in many of the states, the law required a literacy test. While the territory could not forbid women from voting because they were women, or keep them from voting because of their ethnic heritage, it was entirely legal to disenfranchise women because they could not read.
At the time, only a small minority of Puerto Rican women were literate. The literacy requirement essentially kept most women from voting until 1935, when the government of Puerto Rico at last allowed all women to vote.
Voting rights in Puerto Rico are still limited
While Puerto Rico women gained the right to vote in local elections in 1935, they still cannot vote in presidential elections. Neither can Puerto Rican men. With no senators, residents of Puerto Rico can’t vote in Senate elections, either.
The people of Puerto Rico vote for one congressional representative, the Resident Commissioner. However, even this representative does not have full voting rights in Congress, and cannot vote for the president with whom she serves.
As a state, Puerto Rico would participate in presidential elections along with all the other States.