Today is Women’s Equality Day, which celebrates the passage of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote on August 26, 1920.
Black suffragists like Sojourner Truth, Nannie Helen Burroughs and Ida B. Wells worked bravely to secure their right to vote. However, it wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 that some of the barriers preventing black women and other minorities from being able to cast their ballots were removed.
It isn’t widely known that it took more than 70 years to win the right to vote, with the women’s rights movement launching at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. The convention’s manifesto was the Declaration of Sentiments, which said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal.”
At the time, besides being unable to vote for the laws they had to follow, women also couldn’t own property or get custody of their children if divorced. Three generations later (and after the deaths of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony), women were finally granted the basic right to vote in 1920.
Shortly after, in 1923, suffragist Alice Paul wrote the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which declared, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
This was a woman who was bold, doing what had not been done before in an effort to rewrite the rules that weren’t working because they were leaving half the population without a voice in the law. She helped organize the first-ever women’s marches and protests outside the White House in an effort to secure women’s right to vote. She was imprisoned for seven months and force-fed after going on a hunger strike.
When the ERA was brought to Congress in 1923, Paul said she hoped it wouldn’t take 70 years to ratify. Her hopes went unrealized. The amendment didn’t get widespread support until the 1960s civil rights movement. For an amendment to make it into the Constitution, it needs to pass in Congress and then be ratified by 38 states. In the 1970s, Congress finally passed the ERA and was ratified by 35 states, leaving it three states shy of the goal needed to turn it into law.
Fast-forward to today, when the ERA still hasn’t been ratified to grant women protection against sex discrimination under the law. However, it’s gotten renewed attention in light of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, the rise in women’s marches and the threat to reproductive rights. Nevada became the 36th state to pass it in 2017, and Illinois became the 37th last week. We have just one state to go.
It’s been nearly 100 years since the ERA was first introduced, and women are still waiting for equal protection under the law. Paul said, “I never doubted that equal rights was the right direction. Most reforms, most problems are complicated. But to me, there is nothing complicated about ordinary equality.”
It’s not that complicated. Equality is a choice. Passing the Equal Rights Amendment would be a giant leap forward for everyone.