By Cynthia Richie Terrell on August 28, 2020
Joint Resolution of Congress, 1971 Designating August 26 of each year as Women’s Equality Day
WHEREAS, the women of the United States have been treated as second-class citizens and have not been entitled the full rights and privileges, public or private, legal or institutional, which are available to male citizens of the United States;
and WHEREAS, the women of the United States have united to assure that these rights and privileges are available to all citizens equally regardless of sex;
and WHEREAS, the women of the United States have designated August 26, the anniversary date of the certification of the Nineteenth Amendment, as symbol of the continued fight for equal rights;
and WHEREAS, the women of United States are to be commended and supported in their organizations and activities,
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that August 26th of each year is designated as Women’s Equality Day, and the President is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation annually in commemoration of that day in 1920, on which the women of America were first given the right to vote, and that day in 1970, on which a nationwide demonstration for women’s rights took place.
There is still a persistent wage gap disparity, and women remain vastly underrepresented in all levels and sectors of leadership here in the US and around the world. At the start of this year, only 15 of the 193 United Nations countries were led by women, and that has now dropped to 13. Women currently make up only 23.7% of the US Congress and only 5.8 % of Fortune 500 CEOs—and these numbers fall even lower when it comes to women of color. There are also concerns about how the pandemic is disproportionately impacting women and other marginalized groups, whether in the ways they are suffering more financially or the failings in our caregiving systems that are forcing many women to drop out of the workforce to take care of their children, slowing or even reversing whatever progress has been made.
From the vantage point of this turbulent moment, and as we look back at 1920, it seems equally crucial to consider the next hundred years and ask where the road to true equity should take us next. Is there a “women’s movement” in 2020? What does the turbulence of 2020 teach us about what 1920 left undone?
This march was the biggest women’s mobilization in U.S. history until the Women’s March in 2017 shattered that record—and, like the more recent example, was both a significant catalyst for change and a spark that awakened opposition. The Women’s Strike for Equality caught Americans off guard in 1970, highlighting discontent about women’s status in America that had been brewing since pioneering Rosie the Riveters were fired from their jobs and told to go home to make way for the boys returning after World War II. The organizers sought to draw a continuous line between their actions and those of earlier women’s suffrage advocates, but they also wanted to make clear that voting rights had not led to gender equality or equal political power. Fifty years after women’s suffrage was inscribed into the U.S. Constitution, the work was unfinished. Today, 50 more years have passed and the same truth remains.
For many Americans, watching local and national coverage of the Women’s Strike for Equality on the evening news was the first time they saw feminism on display. Viewers witnessed a movement that cut across all identity and partisan lines, with women marching in over 90 cities across the country. The largest gathering in New York City stretched across Fifth Avenue, 50,000-people deep. There were radical “Weatherwomen and [more moderate] League of Women Voters members … black women, suburban housewives, professionals, office workers, women of the peace movement, Black Panthers and religious orders,” reported one journalist on the scene in Washington, D.C., where over 1,000 attendees carried a banner asserting, We Demand Equality.
We are seeing Sen. Kamala Harris take the stage as a vice presidential candidate: the first Black woman, the first South Asian woman, on a major party ticket. But we are also asking: What will it take for a woman to become President of the United States? In 1917, members of the National Woman's Party picketed the White House, carrying banners that included the question: "Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait For Liberty?" In 2020, players in the Women's National Basketball Association are competing in a bubble without fans but in front of the world wearing jerseys bearing the name of Breonna Taylor.
How far have we come since 1920? What did it mean to be an ally then, and what does it mean now? What are the most important political questions confronting women today who seek equity, who strive for justice, who want to step into their power?
The 18th century did see a few lucky American women get to vote–those who lived in New Jersey, were unmarried, and had 50 pounds (of British currency, that is). That state’s first constitution allowed all property owners, including women and African-Americans, to vote.
It didn’t last, though. In 1807, the state legislature changed the rules, restricting suffrage to white men. Why would they do that? According to a historical report from the National Park Service, the goal was to help James Madison win the presidential election of 1808, because women tended to vote for the opposing Federalist party. Their plan worked, and the women of New Jersey didn’t get to vote again for more than 100 years.
Meanwhile, a host of other places were granting women the right to vote, including South Australia in 1861, Argentina in 1862, and Finland in 1863. The earliest laws often had limitations, for example, only allowing single women to vote or limiting their participation to local elections.
As groundbreaking as this move is, Biden’s appointments will not address the systemic barriers that women face when they run for office. Until these barriers are addressed, electoral outcomes will remain unbalanced across identity, race, age, ideology and geography in the United States. As a result, even as the country considers another gender-balanced ticket, the U.S. as a whole lags behind many other countries in terms of women’s representation and leadership. This trend will persist until we address our antiquated voting system designed to limit competition and hinder women’s electoral success.
In January of 2000, the United States ranked 48th for gender parity in national government leadership globally; now, 20 years later, we’ve dropped to 83rd. Although the U.S. has been gradually increasing the number of women in Congress, progress is intermittent and uneven across racial, geographical and ideological constituencies. And, while the U.S. has failed to elect a woman president, 13 countries have women heads of government, many of whom have gained global recognition and acclaim for their leadership skills. Of those 13 countries only one, Taiwan, shares our first-past-the-post voting system, which was implemented here well over 200 years ago to maintain the status quo.
Other countries are closing the electoral gender gap faster by taking deliberate action to modernize their recruitment rules and electoral systems. Canada, Ethiopia, and South Africa, for example, have committed to and named gender balanced cabinets. If we hope to ensure that gender parity across government is possible, we must address the barriers which continue to block women from running, winning, serving and leading.
Our nation is better when we hear from individuals with diverse backgrounds, be it gender, race, ethnicity, or religion. Kamala Harris’s appointment is a historic step. Gender-balanced cabinets, ranked-choice voting, and ensuring that women have equal opportunities to run, win, serve, and lead are all on the table as next moves towards parity.
Women have always been here. They were able to vote in parts of colonial America. Native American women were full political participants in the Iroquois Confederacy. Property-owning white men wrote all of them out of the U.S. Constitution.
Syracuse University Professor Sally Roesch Wagner notes, “History is not what happened. History is who tells the story.” Too often, women’s stories have not been included in the American history that students are taught.
Parity has always been an elusive goal for women. Despite voting rights granted in 1920, laws across the board discriminated against women. Married women disappeared as individuals. Wives could not get a credit card or a mortgage on their own. Laws specifically allowed employers to fire a woman for a pregnancy.
Some progress has been made since those dark days, but there is far to go. Philanthropist Melinda Gates, whose work focuses on issues of women and girls, calculates that at this rate, women will have gender parity in 208 years!
A century of voting rights is something to celebrate. It will be marked today, Aug. 26, with the dedication of the first and only statue honoring women among the 23 in New York City’s Central Park that honor men.
In writing history, it is critical to tell the whole, often ugly truth. White suffragists often were also white supremacists. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass was willing to jettison women’s voting rights to win passage of the 15th Amendment, which gave African-American men the right to vote. Heroic women of all races have been overlooked consistently in the American story.
Acknowledging that ugliness does not negate the progress made. Facing America’s actual history, with all its faults, strengthens the social muscles needed to make the changes yet to come.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg quoted 19th-century activist Sarah Grimke about the future women want: “All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
The rise of women does not mean the fall of men. Instead it is a tipping point. Gender parity, like an end to all other types of discrimination, will benefit everyone.