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Election 2012: What Can We Learn Now from Women’s Equality Day?

This article by Susan Bailey is reposted from the blog, Girl with Pen (girlwpen.com).

This year marked the 41st anniversary of Women’s Equality Day, marked each year on August 26th to commemorate the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment which granted women the right to vote in 1920. For many not actively engaged in women’s issues, it’s merely another in a long list of little known awareness days. But this election year’s escalating anti-woman rhetoric is crazy making. I feel like Alice falling down the rabbit hole into the land of the absurd. When ‘rape’ and ‘legitimate’ can be used in the same breath and women and men of reason are called upon to counter medieval constructs of female biology, I need the lessons of Women’s Equality Day. Maybe others do, too.

Women’s Equality Day originated after New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug proposed August 26th be so designated in honor of the 1920 ratification of the Woman’s Suffrage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The designation reflected the renewed energy of the ‘second wave’ of the feminist movement. It was an attempt to reclaim lost history.

By the 1960‘s, the struggles preceding the final ratification the 19th amendment had been largely forgotten. If school books mentioned women’s rights at all, a single sentence usually sufficed: “Women were given the vote in 1920.” The 70-year battle for women’s suffrage was not considered a significant part of our national history.

Beginning at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and continuing until 1920 when the Tennessee legislature became the 36th state required for a two thirds majority, women battled for a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote. They organized, lobbied, protested and picketed. Their efforts were mocked and ridiculed. Protesters were arrested, jailed, and force fed though tubes shoved down their throats. Leaders did not always agree on tactics. But women persisted. Far from being given the right to vote, women fought hard to win it.

Some of the rights women worked for and achieved over the years have remained controversial. There are many battles still to be fought and re-fought. The right to vote and to run for office is not one of these. It stands unquestioned.

But a key result the women and men who fought for suffrage expected, equal representation of women in elected office, remains elusive. Ninety two years after women won the right to vote, women make up barely 17 percent of the U.S. Congress. This percentage leaves us tied for 78th place with Turkmenistan in global rankings of national elected representatives.

At the state level it’s not much better. Women hold 23.4 percent of statewide executive offices and 23.8 percent of the seats in state legislatures this year.

Although I find it hard to believe given our current national discussions, I realize that some may still ask why it all matters.

Of course, neither women nor men march in lock step, or agree on every issue. Certainly many men support women-friendly legislation and there are women who vote for anti-woman initiatives. But studies repeatedly show that women, no matter what political party they represent, tend to sponsor and vote for legislation and programs that support women and families in larger percentages than do their male colleagues.

Women do not “misspeak” about rape and its consequences. Women will not fall in line with statements or policies that imply that women are governed by our bodies, rather than our minds.

U.S. Representative Todd Akin (R-MO) and his fellow travelers may be the last gasp of a crumbling patriarchy; I for one certainly hope so. Or they may be better described as part of a larger set of global fundamentalist efforts—of various origins—attempting to control women and their bodies. Maybe it’s some of both. But ‘last gaspers’ and fundamentalists can be equally dangerous and destructive. We cannot turn away in disgust. We cannot fool ourselves that lies and pseudoscience will fade away.

Our strongest weapon in the battles ahead may be the one our foremothers won for us. The 20th century began with women winning the right to vote. The 21st century is the time to fulfill the promise inherent in that victory. More women need to run for office. And RIGHT NOW we ALL need to canvass, phone bank, donate and vote for candidates who will fight for women’s equality. It won’t happen any other way.

Susan McGee Bailey, Ph.D., served as Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW), and a Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Education at Wellesley College for 25 years. Following college she taught in Asia, Latin America and the United States; experiences that fostered her commitment to gender equitable education.

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