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August 26, 2014

Recognizing Women's Equality Day

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5 years before suffrage.
Image from NYPL Digital Collection

Anyone over the age of 50―as I am―can realize how short a span, historically, a century is. And that makes one marvel that major events, like the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution granting women the right to vote, happened so recently. In fact, it was less than a century ago―August 26th, 1920―when Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed this amendment into law! It took 72 years from the time of the first major women’s rights conference in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848 to achieve this legal milestone. Of course, this represented significant progress for women’s rights, but was hardly tantamount to full equality.

To put the amendment’s passage in perspective, consider how much earlier other nations provided for women’s suffrage (which in some cases was not universal). For example, as early at 1718 Swedish taxpaying women who were members of city guilds were granted the right to vote locally and nationally (although the right was rescinded later). The United Kingdom in 1869 granted local voting rights to women (almost 60 years later, in 1928, the right was granted universally).

So when we mark the not-so-widely known Equality Day this August 26th, we may still claim, as the early feminist Alice Paul did after the 19th Amendment passed, that voting rights do not denote genuine equality. The right to vote is merely a step in the right direction. True equality would mean that all would be treated equally before the law regardless of race, gender, gender identity, national origin, color, ethnicity, religion, disability and other traits, without discrimination.

In order to rectify the limitations of the 19th Amendment, in 1923 Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman introduced the “Lucretia Mott Amendment,” later known as the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Although it passed both houses of Congress in 1972, it did not gain the needed ratification of 38 states to become law by the deadline in 1979. In fact, after 35 states did ratify the ERA, five of them later rescinded their votes. The major part of the ERA text concisely stated that “Equal rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex.”

How can we mark Equality Day in the absence of legal protections like those that would’ve been afforded by the ERA? Our equality may still be imperfect, but this is an ideal moment to remind ourselves of the ideals we’re striving for, and what we have yet to achieve. Women remain underpaid and underprivileged socially and politically; despite our progress, many LGBT people also live with daily discrimination and prejudice; these experiences are often amplified for the people of color in our communities.

Now, as we evolve in this 21st century, let us dedicate ourselves to full equality for ourselves (marriage equality represent an excellent step, but it’s not the only one) and for others experiencing prejudice. In this effort, let us embrace those in our own community―such bisexual and transgender men and women―who emerge from another closet.

As the English author Gilbert K. Chesterton wrote, in another context, “We are all in this together and owe each other a terrible loyalty.”

--Posted by Felicia Sobel, Women’s Programming Coordinator

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