On August 26 each year, our country recognizes Women’s Equality Day in honor of that same date in 1920, which was a defining moment in history. That’s the day the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified, granting women the right to vote.
A Long-Fought Battle
Gaining the right to vote was an achievement that did not come easy. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, American women had been lobbying and protesting for equality—often to no avail.
The first official women’s rights convention in July 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, attracted 300 people, and resulted in the publication of the Declaration of Sentiments.
Based on the Declaration of Independence, it described women’s grievances and demands and compared the struggles of the nation’s Founding Fathers to those of women. It marked the beginning of what we now know as the US women’s rights movement.
Small Steps Forward
During this time, women lacked the right to vote—but they were also deprived of much more. Women were denied education, required to be obedient to their husbands, prevented from keeping their own wages (which were considered belonging to their husbands), and placed into inferior positions in the church.
Women’s rights have a complicated history, says Cecilia Gowdy-Wygant, a faculty member in the history program at FRCC. She teaches classes that include American and global women’s history, women and gender studies, and other American history classes.
Cecilia says that Women’s Equality Day recognizes and honors progress, which supports the continuing movement. “This is an opportunity to learn the multiple movements for suffrage and how later women’s movements used this day to continue their fights for equality,” Cecilia says.
“The ratification of the 19th Amendment was important and worth commemorating, but it didn’t change the political voice for most women in America. Millions of women still were not able to vote until years later. There are a lot of complexities behind women’s rights.”
100 Years Later: Equal Rights Amendment Still in Flux
The fight for equal rights for women endures. Case in point: the Equal Rights Amendment, which was introduced in Congress three years after the passing of the 19th Amendment in 1923. Its goal was simple: to ensure that equality of rights could not be denied or abridged because of a person’s sex.
However, the amendment—sometimes called the ERA—failed to gain widespread support in the 1920s. But almost half a century later, a Michigan Congresswoman brought it to light once again.
Rep. Martha Griffiths had already worked to have sex discrimination added to Title VII of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act. She went on to introduce the ERA every year—until it was finally passed by both the House and the Senate (in 1971 and 1972, respectively).
One conservative activist, Phyllis Schlafly, founded an organization called STOP ERA. She mobilized support and took the stance that the amendment would take away women’s rights to be supported by their husbands and harm the traditional American family.
Although 35 states ratified the Equal Rights Amendment by the extended 1982 deadline, three-fourths (38) were needed for it to pass.
A Hopeful Turning Point in 2020
The 2010s and the #MeToo movement brought renewed interest in the Equal Rights Amendment.
Nevada ratified the amendment in 2017, followed by Illinois in 2018 and Virginia in 2020. However, in April 2023, the US Senate fell short of votes needed to remove the 1982 ratification deadline. Today, some are still hoping to rescue the amendment and have it reconsidered by Congress.
Mary Ann Grim is an FRCC faculty member who teaches modern European history as well as women’s history. To her, an observance like Women’s Equality Day brings attention to current issues as well as historic events like the passing of the 19th Amendment.
“We’ve made progress on the fight for gender equality in many areas, but we’ve been on a downward spiral in recent years,” Mary Ann says.
“So, let’s celebrate wonderful things like having a woman of color as our country’s Vice President, the growth and popularity of women’s sports thanks to Title IV, and the fact that women with a college education now account for half of the labor force. But let’s also focus on the issues in front of us like reproductive rights, sexual harassment and violence against women.”
No Room for Complacency
Tiring as it might be, Mary Ann says that the fight for equality can never rest. “I tell my students a lot, ‘If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not growing,’” she says.
“I hope that a day like this sparks people’s curiosity to learn about the history and the issues going on right now. And for those who have fought for rights like the 19th Amendment, I hope it is a reminder to not take them for granted. When we become complacent, rights can get taken away.”
How to Celebrate? A Few Ideas
With Women’s Equality Day upon us this weekend, you might wonder: How should I celebrate? Here are a few suggestions:
Learn About the Suffrage Movement
Read about how the 19th Amendment came to be—and the struggle that ensued thereafter for women of color and immigrants to earn the same right to vote in the United States.
Discover the Milestones in Women’s History
Many trailblazing women fought for equality and civil rights before it was common to do so. Read about some of them and their accomplishments, and browse the timeline of notable events in women’s history that changed our nation.
Check out the online museum that is dedicated to celebrating women’s diverse contributions to society, the National Women’s History Museum.
Research Current Issues
There are many challenges confronting women and girls in our country and around the world. Gender-based violence, human trafficking, inequal access to jobs and education, lost rights to access sexual and reproductive health care—the list goes on.
Read up on what’s going on currently so you can be informed and support the causes that matter to you. This White House fact sheet summarizes the national gender strategy created in 2021.
Be an Ally and an Advocate
The issues confronting women might seem insurmountable some days. But if history has proven anything, it is that persistence and patience pays off when it comes to making progress.
Support and empower the women and girls in your life. Talk about these issues at home and with friends. Get involved with organizations that are doing important work. If you’re an FRCC student, check out the Feminist Uprising Collective.
This week and always, let’s continue to support the movement and lead it forward.