Happy Women’s Equality Day, Everyone! Designated by Congress in 1971 and initiated by Congresswoman Bella Abzug (D-NY), Women’s Equality Day commemorates the passage of the 19th amendment, women’s suffrage, which the U.S. government ratified on August 18, 1920. Last week marked the 90th anniversary of women earning the right to vote.
The National History Women’s Project states,
“The date was selected to commemorate the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote. This was the culmination of a massive, peaceful civil rights movement by women that had its formal beginnings in 1848 at the world’s first women’s rights convention, in Seneca Falls, New York. The observance of Women’s Equality Day not only commemorates the passage of the 19th Amendment, but also calls attention to women’s continuing efforts toward full equality.”
So let’s crack open our U.S. history books and take a quick look back at the path to women’s suffrage. Lydia Taft became the first woman “legally allowed to vote in colonial America” in Uxbridge, Massachusetts in 1756 after the death of her husband. For other women, it would be two centuries of an uphill battle before they would have the same right. Lucretia Mott and Margaret Fuller became suffrage activists in Boston in the mid 1800s. In 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention designed to raise awareness for women’s rights particularly women’s suffrage, was hosted by Mott and activists Mary Ann McClintock and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Susan B. Anthony attended the conference and would soon join the fight. United in the cause of women’s equality, Anthony and Cady Stanton became an infamous team and founded the National Woman’s Suffrage Association (NWSA) in 1869. Responding to women not being allowed to vote, Susan B. Anthony said,
“The fact is, women are in chains, and their servitude is all the more debasing because they do not realize it.”
While some women advocated for the right to vote, a couple of others tried to change the system from within. Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to run for U.S. President in 1872. A decade later, Belva Lockwood would also make a bid for the presidency, in 1884 and 1888. The irony was that neither woman could vote but the law didn’t prohibit them for running for office.
But women running for office didn’t sway people to think women deserved the right to vote. While suffrage was viewed as a white women’s movement (which in many ways it was), Ida B. Wells, an African-American suffragist and anti-lynching advocate, founded the Alpha Suffrage Club in 1913 to support suffrage for women of color.
Alice Paul and Lucy Burns immortalized by Hilary Swank and Frances O’Connor in the fabulously fierce film Iron Jawed Angels, shows their vigilant struggle to get Congress to pass the 19th amendment. (Seriously, if you haven’t seen this film, log on to NetFlix immediately and rent it!) Paul and Burns, a duo of steely determination, founded the National Women Party (NWP) in 1917 to organize and rally women around suffrage. The more radical and militant NWP marked a departure from the established and more conservative National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Carrie Chapmann Catt and Anna Howard Shaw ran NAWSA which focused on state by state suffrage, whereas Paul and Burns demanded a federal amendment. Alice Paul said,
“We women of America tell you that America is not a democracy. Twenty million women are denied the right to vote.”
Iron Jawed Angels depicts highlights from Alice Paul and Lucy Burns’ advocacy such as organizing thousands of suffragists marching in parades in NYC and DC (surviving harassment) and protesting outside of the White House, (they were called the “Silent Sentinels”) holding signs that read, “Mr. President how long must women wait for liberty?” Paul and Burns, along with other suffragists, endured incarceration at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia and the District of Columbia Jail. Paul and Burns protested by instituting a hunger strike which many other women joined. The guards retaliated by beating the women and force-feeding Paul and Burns. Their efforts, along with continued press coverage of the suffragists’ abusive treatment, put pressure on President Wilson, who in turn eventually pressured Congress to pass the 19th amendment. Phew…that’s a whirlwind tour through history and Feminism 101!
Female activists’ struggles paved the way for our ability to vote, voicing our opinions today. Yet we as women still have far to go in achieving equality in government. Globally, women hold 19.3% of parliamentary seats. Rwanda ranks number one with 56.3% of women in parliament. The U.S. holds the abysmal rank of 73rd regarding women’s representation in government with 16.8% of women in Congress.
As I’ve written before, many women my age and younger take our rights for granted, not realizing what women before us had to endure. We have the right to vote…now use it! Let your voice be heard by voting for elected officials and legislation that will protect your rights. Get involved with an organization like EMILY’s List, that supports women candidates, or the League of Women Voters. Or better yet, run for elected office yourself. Men are perpetually poised to run, regardless of their experience. Women think they must learn more, garner more experience and need to be asked to run…so I’m asking you…run! In the meantime, grab your girlfriends, pop in the Iron Jawed Angels DVD, pour yourselves a glass of wine and let’s celebrate our suffragist sisters.