Today, August 26th, we celebrate Women’s Equality Day, the day the 19th Amendment granting all women in the United States the right to vote was made part of the US Constitution in 1920. The designation of August 26th as Women’s Equality Day was proposed in 1971 by Bella Abzug, representative from the 19th Congressional District in Manhattan. After seventy-two years of marches, protests, petitions, speeches, and writings, the 19th Amendment was finally ratified on August 18, 1920 by the 36th state, which happened to be Tennessee. Thanks to a last minute change of heart by a young Representative, Harry Burn, the Amendment was ratified and sent by Tennessee Governor Roberts to US Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby, whose job it was to sign the Proclamation and declare the 19th Amendment to be part of the United States Constitution.
The signing of the proclamation took place without ceremony, and its issuance was unaccompanied by the taking of movies or other pictures, despite the fact that the National Woman’s Party and the National American Woman Suffrage Association had both been anxious to be present and to have the historic event recorded. Colby was later gracious in his congratulations of the suffragists’ “efforts in the face of discouragement,” but when he was asked to recreate the ceremony in the presence of movie cameras he refused, stating that “the proclamation of the ratification…was more important than feeding the movie cameras.”
And when a woman suffrage delegation led by Carrie Chapman Catt, President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, was received and congratulated by President and Mrs. Wilson later that day, Alice Paul and members of the National Woman’s Party were not invited, despite the fact that their valiant efforts had spurred the President to change his stance and advocate for their cause.
One hundred and three years later the effort to achieve and maintain equality continues. Fighting voter suppression is an ongoing problem, while throughout the world women remain vastly underrepresented in assemblies, parliaments and governing bodies. The US is making steady progress (25 out of 100 in the Senate, 125 out of 435 in the House of Representatives), but has a long way to go for parity. And the Equal Rights Amendment, long a dream of Alice Paul, promising equality of rights under the law for all persons regardless of sex, has remained mired in controversy for one hundred years.
Still, in 1920 there was much to celebrate. Carrie Chapman Catt proclaimed: “This is a glorious and wonderful day. Now that we have the vote let us remember we are no longer petitioners…but free and equal citizens. Let us do our part to keep it a true and triumphant democracy.”
Happy Women’s Equality Day!