Written by Martha Barry, PhD, Chief Racial Justice Officer, YWCA Southeast Wisconsin
What is Women’s Equality Day? The National Women’s History Alliance states “At the behest of Rep. Bella Abzug (D-NY), in 1971 and passed in 1973, the U.S. Congress designated August 26 as “Women’s Equality Day.” The date was selected to commemorate the 1920 certification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote. 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.” Women have fought for equality for centuries. As an organization dedicated to eliminating racism and empowering women, it is important to look at the intersection of women’s rights with our nation’s centuries of racism.
The 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. Passing the 19th Amendment took decades of women’s suffrage work. For a timeline of actions, see this site. We know the names of some of the white women who fought for our right to vote – Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Alice Paul.
The adoption of the 19th Amendment, however, did not guarantee Black women, and other women of color, access to voting. Parallel suffrage movements showed the depth of racism in our country. The African American Suffrage movement identifies Black women who fought for the right to vote. Why do we not know the names of these Black suffragettes, Harriet Forten Purvis, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper? Read this article to learn about them and other Black women suffragettes.
Researching Women’s Equality Day made me think more about what it means to be civically engaged. I found myself reflecting on our current moment. A Covid-19 pandemic, a racial justice movement, voter suppression and gerrymandering, and numerous other challenges to our democracy. And I also thought about the flu epidemic of 1918. What did it do to democracy, voting and women’s equality?
It seemed that the Spanish flu, as it was named, might have upended the suffragettes desire for the vote. But in a NYTimes article, we learn how Carrie Chapman Catt, ill with the flu, worried more about women’s right to vote not passing. World War I was taking a human toll on the country. Women jumped into serve important roles (selling war bonds, being nurses, working as farmers) which showed them as patriotic. Facing layers of defeats along the path, in the end, the flu epidemic may have pushed lawmakers to adopt the 19th amendment and move it forward to ratification.
Fighting for women’s equality and voting went hand-in-hand a century ago. While we still had a long way to go in getting the vote for all women, there was cause for celebration.
As you think about equality and equity, we hope you’ll take seriously the need to vote. August 11th was a primary election day for the state. We trust you voted. The next election is November 3rd. Remember to register to vote, get an absentee ballot or plan to vote in person. Equality and equity are not taking a pause this year. Support women of color initiatives. And remember – your vote matters.
- In “Finish the Fight!,” excerpted here, New York Times journalists tell the stories of lesser-known figures in the battle to make the 19th Amendment a reality. Click the article title to read more.
Winning the Right to Vote Was the Work of Many Lifetimes, New York Times
- It took generations of women — mothers and daughters, leaders and followers — to secure the 19th Amendment. Click the title listed above to read more.