Since classes haven’t started yet, we aren’t officially celebrating Women’s Equality Day here at CCSU. I just received this from the National Women’s History Project, so am passing it along via the blog. Enjoy!
A Speech for Women’s Equality Day
On August 26th, we are celebrating the anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. With that Amendment, 51% of the United States population that had only had limited say in their government – the women – won the right to vote. The passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 capped the most extensive civil rights campaign our nation had ever experienced. The amazing story of that grassroots campaign is a proud part of our shared history that is fascinating, full of brilliance, daring, and heroism. Women gave the accumulated possibilities of entire lifetimes to win the vote. Their story merits remembering and retelling often. It’s a story that can bolster us as we promote women’s advancement during our own lives as well.
To recognize this important Constitutional anniversary, and as a reminder of women’s continuing efforts for equality, August 26 is formally designated Women’s Equality Day. The idea orginated with a massive parade down Fifth Avenue in New York City to celebratate the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment’s passage. The following year, in 1971, Bella Abzug was a new member of Congress when she introduced a resolution to proclaim August 26 as Women’s Equality Day. It passed in the House and Senate, and has been affirmed by the President every year since.
How many of us are already familiar with details of woman suffrage movement in this country? Not many, I’m afraid. It is a very dramatic story, one that opens in the earliest days of the American republic when the basic concepts for the new government were being hotly debated. It is a story of women’s perseverance and determination against strenuous opposition. It illustrates how a fundamental belief – that the rights of citizenship should belong to all Americans – resulted from a gradual change of minds and attitudes. I think you’ll agree with me that it’s a story that can inspire our own lives today.
The 19th Amendment to the Constitution sounds simple and reasonable to us today. It reads: “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.”
But it had been “on account of sex” that the women had been denied that most basic right of democracy for the first one hundred and forty-four years of our nation’s history.
From colonial times to the present, women have put their minds to winning expanded rights and freedoms through the government. At the outset, in 1776, Abigail Adams sent this urgent advice to her husband, John, who was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress:
“In the new Code of Laws…” she wrote, “I desire you would remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors… If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
John Adams’ reply voiced his own opinion about women’s rights, and reflected the sentiment of that exclusively male meeting: “As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh… Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems.”
The rebellion Abigail Adams threatened to foment at the birth of the republic did not take place during her lifetime. Still, she did help sow the seeds of anti-slavery work and advocated greater educational opportunity for women. Those two reform movements would lead directly to the creation of a full-blown women’s rights movement seventy years later.
Women in the early republic quickly learned that no matter what political reforms they supported and no matter how great the risks were that they took, they were not taken seriously themselves. Their rights, as women, were not considered important. The more active women became in causes to help others, the more clearly they realized that the most fundamental legal, moral, and social structures of American society would need to be changed for their own situation to improve.
In 1840, Lucretia Mott, a Quaker minister, had become so important in the anti-slavery movement that she was one of six women elected for the American delegation to the World Anti-Slavery Convention, to be held in London. Imagine the amazement when the delegation arrived there and the women delegates were refused seats on the main floor. Unbelievably, they were told they could only observe the proceedings – seated in the balcony, behind a screen! Elizabeth Cady (KAY dee) Stanton was at this convention, too. She and Lucretia Mott were appalled by the attitude the abolitionist men demonstrated toward women, and pledged that one day they would do something about securing equal rights for all women.
Eight years later, Lucretia Mott visited Elizabeth Stanton at her home in upstate New York. Over tea, they reminisced about their earlier experience together in London. Right then, they and three of their friends daringly agreed to call for a Women’s Rights Convention. They placed a small ad in the local newspaper, with no idea what kind of response it would get. They were astounded when wagon loads of women and men poured into Seneca Falls for that landmark meeting. On July 19, 1848, over 300 people, most of them women, discussed and adopted a revolutionary “Declaration of Sentiments.” The document was based on the new nation’s revered Declaration of Independence. In it were listed the many abuses women suffered under the legal and political systems then in force, including the following:
No voice in the laws
No independent rights after marriage
No custody of children in case of divorce
No right to a college education
No opportunity to enter most professions
And, no right to vote
The nearly 100 people who signed this bold “Declaration of Sentiments” knew at the time that they would face misrepresentation and ridicule. As they entered upon what they called “the great work before us,” they made this pledge: We will “…use every instrumentality within our power to effect our object. We shall employ agents, circulate tracts, petition the State and National Legislatures, and endeavor to enlist the pulpit and press in our behalf.” In the decades to come, they did just that.
Although the people signing the declaration had anticipated opposition, few of them were prepared for the level of vilification that came from both the press and the pulpit. Newspaper editors ran hateful articles about how women just wanted to be men… how progressive women were terrible mothers… how these new ideas of equality for women would destroy the very fabric of society. The clergy denounced the early women’s rights activists with a particular vehemence, decrying these signers as aberrant… ungodly… obviously in cahoots with the devil. The attacks were vicious and unrelenting. Yet these articles and sermons, no matter how negative, had one definitely positive effect: they spread the discussion far, far beyond that original meeting. The Seneca Falls Convention had framed a national discussion about women’s rights in America and marked the beginning of a massive civil rights movement that would span the next seventy years.
Of all the issues the convention had originally raised, the aftermath of the Civil War crystallized the need for reformers to focus first and foremost on women’s right to vote. At the end of the war, slavery was abolished. Progressive people hoped that an amendment for universal suffrage, the vote for all, would be the next step in expanding American democracy. But, instead, the 14th Amendment drove a wedge between the activists for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights. It added language to the Constitution implying that the right to vote was the exclusive right of men. And worse was to come. When the 15th Amendment was proposed soon after, it stated that while the right to vote could not be denied on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” the vote still could – and definitely would – be denied on the basis of sex.
Many equal rights advocates were aghast at this proposal. Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who were leaders in both the abolitionist and women’s rights movements, refused to support the limitations of this 15th Amendment. They pointed out how appropriate it would be to include the word “sex” and extend suffrage to everyone. As a Black woman, Sojourner Truth was deeply committed to expanded rights for African-American men. But she insisted that the 15th Amendment must also include all women, too. The 15th Amendment passed, without such a change. Male legislators once again had demonstrated that other issues were more important. Women’s rights would have to wait.
In 1869, two national organizations were established, both dedicated to advancing women’s rights. The National Woman Suffrage Association, led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was more expansive in its reach. It sought an amendment to the federal constitution that would give all women the right to vote no matter where they lived. They also pressed for reforms on a variety of rights issues that included clothing restrictions, marriage laws and women’s property rights, employment opportunities, and education.
The other organization, the American Woman Suffrage Association, was founded by Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone. They focused their efforts entirely on winning the vote at the state level, working through petitions and referendum campaigns. For the next twenty years, these two organizations worked separately toward their parallel goals. Their advocates – women and men alike – traveled throughout the country giving speeches, organizing lobbying efforts, and discussing strategies with local groups.
When the two organizations finally merged, twenty years later, very little progress had actually been made. Some western territories had granted women the right to vote, hoping to increase their sparse populations by attracting more women as settlers. In 1889, when the Wyoming Territory applied for statehood, Congress insisted they discontinue female voting rights in order to join the Union. Wyoming refused, saying this: “We will remain out of the Union a hundred years rather than come in without woman suffrage.” Congress relented, and Wyoming became the first state where women could participate fully in all levels of their government.
By 1910 the National American Woman Suffrage Association had already organized dozens of state referendum campaigns, appealing directly to the male voters, and had led hundreds of campaigns to get state legislatures to consider suffrage amendments. Only a few had been successful. As you might well imagine, convincing men to share their decision-making power was not an easy task. But women’s overall position in society was beginning to change with the turn of the century. An increasingly popular interest in reform meant new enthusiasm was flowing into the women’s rights movement, too. Between 1910 and 1913, the vote for women was won in six states through hard-fought campaigns. And these six victories brought the movement back to life.
Carrie Chapman Catt, who was a brilliant strategist and organizer, took over leadership and directed the campaign for the next five years. New organizations were also formed that galvanized labor and media support through their innovative tactics. For instance, by staging parades that drew thousands of marchers and tens of thousands of spectators, the suffragists began to call worldwide attention to President Wilson’s hypocrisy. They carried large banners quoting his eloquent speeches promoting liberty and democracy in war-ravaged Europe, and pointing out that at the very same time, women were not allowed full political participation in his own country.
Alice Paul simultaneously stepped up pressure directly on Congress for passage of the federal amendment. She helped organize The National Woman’s Party to channel the votes of women in suffrage states to elect legislators who favored such an amendment. She also initiated an entirely new tactic that proved to be extremely powerful in changing public sentiment: picketing the White House. For over a year, Alice Paul coordinated an ongoing demonstration beside the White House gate. Thousands of women from across the country took turns standing there quietly in even the most foul winter weather. They ceremonially burned his speeches and silently held large banners for the President and everyone else to see. “Mr. President: How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?” one pointedly asked. Another read, “Mr. President: What Will You Do for Woman Suffrage?”
Their quiet demonstration began peacefully. However, once the United States entered World War I, any criticism of the President was considered unpatriotic and the spectators passing by became increasingly belligerent. Some of the demonstrators themselves were arrested and thrown in jail. In all, over two hundred women from twenty-six states were arrested. As the length of their sentences was increased, the women started a hunger strike. Their jailers retaliated by brutally forcing food down their throats. Well-known social advocates and prominent society women were among these prisoners. Their harsh treatment was reported widely in the papers, raising the public’s awareness of what women they had admired were willing to endure to win the vote.
World War I was causing a public reconsideration of women’s place in other areas of life as well. Massive numbers of women moved into the many industrial and professional jobs left vacant by the men called overseas. It became simply impossible to hold on to the notion that women were incapable of handling the work and responsibilities men had previously borne alone. Coupled with the 1916 election of Jeannette Rankin from Montana to the House of Representatives, it was obvious that women were able contributors in traditionally male spheres. Surely they were also capable of voting responsibly.
And so, in 1918, the Suffrage Amendment finally passed in the House of Representatives, by exactly the two-thirds majority required. But it was still defeated in the Senate. In four states where women already had the vote, the National Woman’s Party struck back with campaigns to defeat senators who had voted “No.” Two of these campaigns were successful, and those two were enough to turn the tide.
The new Senate passed the Suffrage Amendment and sent it out to the States for ratification. Several states rushed to ratify, and the suffragists were jubilant. But stiff opposition remained entrenched in the Northeast and in the South.
After yet another year of intense lobbying, letter writing and petitions, the 19th Amendment was finally ratified, on August 26, 1920. Twenty-six million American women had the right to the vote at last!
Carrie Chapman Catt summed up just how hard-won that victory had been:
“56 referenda to male voters,” she reminded her audience.
“480 efforts to get state legislatures to submit suffrage amendments;
277 campaigns to get state party conventions to include woman suffrage planks;
47 campaigns to get state constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions;
30 campaigns to get presidential party conventions to adopt woman suffrage planks in party platforms;
and 19 successive campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.”
Remember the strenuous opposition the conventioneers in 1848 had anticipated? Could they have even imagined it would be this intense?
Now, realize that women won not only the right to vote in 1920. They also won the right to hold public office. Recently, women have begun to vote in greater numbers than men. Still, as I speak today, women are just 29% of the Representatives in Congress, and only 16% of our Senators. Yet their actions are clearly honoring that earnest plea from Abigail Adams to the lawmakers in 1776 to “remember the ladies.” A recent session of Congress, for example, passed into law 30 bills on women’s issues during its first year, 33 during its second. The previous record for any year had been five.
Generations have worked to secure these political rights for us. Now it’s our turn to use them wisely to further equality for women in other areas as well.
Not all of our efforts will be successful. We know the suffragists faced repeated setbacks without giving up. When success does not come quickly for us, let’s take satisfaction from playing our part in a worthy effort. And, when successes do come, as they inevitably will, let’s celebrate being part of a historic effort that will be recognized for generations to come.
Like Rosie the Riveter with her strong arm flexed, let’s have our motto be “We can do it!” Let’s do all we can for full political, social, and economic equality, for everyone, and settle for nothing less. Acting alone and together, everything we do builds toward the goal. Anonymously or publicly, out front and visible or from behind the scenes, woman or man – each of us can find something to do that fits our personal style and our interests.
Start where you are. Just start. Start by talking about your ideas with your friends. Talk about them with people where you work. Notice when opportunities come up and take them. Start a particular project alone or with others. The work of winning equality is work worthy of us all.
Our lives automatically link us to the strong chain of American history. Let’s very deliberately join the historic movement to claim women’s rights.
When the 19th Amendment was finally ratified, on August 26, 1920, Carrie Chapman Catt issued this public reminder about how long that first phase of the women’s rights movement had taken:
“Young suffragists who helped forge the last links of that chain were not born when it began,” she said, and “old suffragists who helped forge the first links were dead when it ended.”
As today’s links in that chain, we can forge the bonds of the past with the possibilities of the future. We can do it because we must. And because we must, we will!
This speech is one of the many resources developed by the National Women’s History Project for use by educators and by workplace and community organizers. Our Project is committed to providing education, promotional materials and informational services to recognize and celebrate women’s diverse lives and historic contributions to society.
It is our hope that the services and materials we offer will be a useful resource and support for your efforts to write women back into history.-
The National Women’s History Project Staff-