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.
– 19th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America
Today is a notable day. It is also one of the many nationally designated holidays that until recently, many Americans barely thought about every time the day re-emerged from the calendar of politically significant landmarks. But this is 2020: A time of introspection, unease, and uncertainty. And hope. Now more than ever we discover the need to shake off our complacency and to reassess history through observance of our country’s important milestones. It is through a broad and inclusive approach to history that we will shed new light on how we perceive the present. So, great, today is Women’s Equality Day, but what does that mean?
Put simply, August 26th was designated to commemorate the 1920 certification of the 19th Amendment, the signing of the proclamation that ensured American women’s agency to vote as a constitutional right. This was a tremendous achievement and it may seem like an obvious cause for celebration, but not everybody enjoyed voting privileges following the inclusion of the 19th Amendment. You see, although the rule may seem simple, defined, obvious and absolute, it does not mean that law is impervious to the societal biases that would warp it. The United States had (and still has) centuries of racist policies and oppression to acknowledge and combat before the true intent of the 19th Amendment could be fully realized. This year marks the centennial anniversary of the amendment’s certification. That’s 100 years of guaranteed voting… for some American women, not all. More accurately, it guaranteed the vote for white women.
The 72-year struggle of the American Woman’s Suffrage Movement which dedicated itself to the enfranchisement of women, hypocritically emphasized the liberties of white women over the liberties of women of color. This blatantly discriminated against people of color, consequently resulted in an amendment that only defined it unlawful to discriminate in voting based on the sex assigned at birth, and did not provide contingencies for continued racial discrimination. This should have been the amendment that ensured everyone the right to vote, but it didn’t. In many states, Black women (and men) continued to be barred from voting by poll taxes, literacy tests, and aggressive intimidation from the racist white population. Asian immigrants and Indigenous Americans were prevented from voting by being denied citizenship and then later were disenfranchised with the same tactics used against Black Americans. The 19th Amendment was a launching point, but voting reform was a continuing struggle that would both suffer setbacks and celebrate steps forward throughout the mid-20th century. Real significant change in the form of voting rights for all American citizens, however, did not occur until the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
By 1965, second-wave feminism was ramping up its momentum. Whereas first-wave feminism focused on gender rights such as voting, the second wave focused on more complex issues dealing with the female experience moving within a heteronormative patriarchal world and changing sexist policies to remove those inequalities. Women were routinely limited in the jobs they were allowed to hold, were restricted in many cases from pursuing a higher education, and could not own property or open a line of credit without a husband, just to name a few.
In New York on August 26th, 1970 – the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment – 500,000 women gathered to protest, the largest gathering of that sort the country had seen. The Women’s Strike for Equality’s rallying cry was organized around three objectives: the right to free abortion, equality in the workplace, and free childcare. The media backlash to this protest was ugly, with many leading news figures diminishing the protesters as hysterical women, or by gaslighting their audiences stating that there was no need for liberation, for these angry women were already liberated. Despite this, congresswoman and staunch feminist Bella Abzug, with the support of President Nixon, introduced and championed a bill to designate August 26th as Women’s Equality Day. This of course did not address the issues of the protestors, but it did acknowledge the existence of inequalities, and as a result, that decade saw many progressive steps forward for American women. These changes affected different women with different backgrounds in different ways, but by no means solved the issues for everyone. The work to eliminate every form of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality is ongoing and continuing the conversation is imperative to achieve equality for all.
With so many days set aside to celebrate so many things, from donuts to lost socks, it may feel like the significance of Women’s Equality Day has been watered down, or that it could be viewed as an act of empty placation. Considering the culture of the 1960s and 1970s, it is doubtful that the gesture was meaningless to Bella