Women’s Equality Day – August 26

In the United States, August 26th was declared Women’s Equality Day in 1971. Congressional Representative Bella Abzug (1920-1998) introduced the measure. The 26th was chosen to commemorate the day in 1920 when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, granting American women the right to vote. Each year, the president of the United States issues a Women’s Equality Day proclamation on the 26th.

The women’s voting rights movement had begun more than 70 years before the Amendment passed, on July 19, 1848. On the day, the world’s first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York. It was the first time American women had seriously proposed in public that they should be given the right to vote. They were inspired, in part, by Native American women who belonged to matrilineal societies where women’s voices were valued. These women had long realized that they lost their political power as they Americanized.

The passage of the 19th Amendment did not come easily. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was one of the speakers at the 1848 convention; she and lifelong friend Susan B. Anthony fought throughout the latter half of the 19th century for women’s equality. Women attempted to vote illegally as early as 1872; among them was anti-slavery and civil rights activist Sojourner Truth. Anthony was convicted of voting in 1873. (She had to pay a $100 fine.) The 19th Amendment was first drafted in 1878, but Cady Stanton and Anthony would not live to see it pass.

When the Wyoming Territory applied for statehood in 1889, voting rights for women were written into its laws. By 1914, women could vote in every Western state except New Mexico. New York ratified female suffrage in 1917.

Women like Carrie Chapman Catt (who founded the League of Women Voters), Alice Paul, Allison Hopkins, Ada Davenport Kendall and Inez Milholland carried the universal voting rights movement into the 20th century. They were among the first people to ever demonstrate in front of the White House and were often arrested for this peaceful action. Paul and other women who went on hunger strike while imprisoned were brutally force-fed. A dramatization of their struggle is portrayed in the film Iron Jawed Angels, starring Hilary Swank.

Congresswoman Abzug, together with feminists Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, founded the National Women’s Political Caucus, also in 1971. A civil rights attorney by training, Abzug championed causes including the Equal Rights Amendment. She was one of the first members of Congress to take up the cause of gay rights. The daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, she once famously said, “A woman’s place is in the House – the House of Representatives.”

Today, Women’s Equality Day not only commemorates the passage of the voting rights law, but also draws attention to current issues in women’s equality, including wage inequality.

For Further Reading:

The American Women’s Almanac: An Inspiring and Irreverent Women’s History by Louise Berkinow and National Women’s History Project (Berkley Books, 1997).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bella_Abzug
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women’s_Equality_Day
http://www.lwv.org/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Women_s_Equality_Day&Template=/TaggedPage/TaggedPageDisplay.cfm&TPLID=207&ContentID=14134
http://www.nwhm.org/blog/celebrate-equality-day/
http://www.nwhp.org/resourcecenter/equalityday.php

About the Author:

Erin O’Riordan is an author, editor and book reviewer who loves American women’s history. She lives in the Midwest with her husband and cat and writes the book blog Pagan Spirits at http://www.erinoriordan.blogspot.com.

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