Does Women’s Equality Day sound like a made-up holiday? Yes. It isn’t even a federal holiday.
Do women have equality? No. #smashthepatriarchy
One hundred years ago, suffragettes achieved a momentous feat: the passage of the 19th Amendment. Women were granted the right to vote, and it was inscribed in the Constitution. Women’s Equality Day is a yearly celebration of this thrilling piece of history. Unsurprisingly, the bill to establish Women’s Equality Day was introduced by New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug. It passed in 1973.
The important caveat is that the 19th Amendment did not initially extend to women of African American, Asian American, Hispanic American, and Native American heritage because of national voter suppression efforts. These tactics included poll taxes, literacy tests, and other statewide laws. Nearly a half-century later, the Voting Rights Act was finally passed on August 6, 1965. Then and only then, women of color were able to exercise their right to vote.
The best protection any woman can have… is courage.Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Suffragettes Make Her-story
The movement for women’s suffrage is remembered for its achievement, but the names of its major players are less known. Perhaps Susan B. Anthony or Ida B. Wells are the first names that come to mind. However, there are so many more like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, Lucretia Mott, Carrie Chapman Catt, Harriet Forten Purvis, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.
These incredible women deserve more recognition, so here are cool facts about some of the many women’s rights activists and suffragists.
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Remember the dignity of your womanhood. Do not appeal, do not beg, do not grovel. Take courage, join hands, stand besides us, fight with us.Christabel Pankhurst
Lucretia Mott was an abolitionist and suffragist who actually supported the right of freed slaves, men, and women, to vote. She ended up caught in the middle with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton when they accepted financial backing from a man who did not support universal suffrage for Black people. Ultimately, this philosophical difference prompted her to resign her position as president of the American Equal Rights Association. Lucretia was also a pacifist and heavily involved with the Universal Peace Union.
Miriam Leslie was an author and married to publisher Frank Leslie. She is credited with taking over the publishing house and turning it profitable. Upon Frank’s death, she changed her name to Frank Leslie, herself. Perhaps it would help her move through the world with a man’s name. Then she died and left loads of money to Carrie Chapman Catt to fund the women’s suffrage movement. Leslie’s family reportedly contested the will. But the joke’s on them; Miriam’s publishing money supported scores of women as they fought.
Harriet Forten Purvis
Harriet Forten Purvis was a badass who ran an Underground Railroad station with her husband. She formed the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. Harriet and her husband seem like actual #couplegoals. She was a member of the Free Produce Society, an organization where members patronized businesses whose produce was not farmed or picked by slaves. In 1854, she and her sister helped organize the Fifth National Women’s Rights Convention in Philadelphia.
Mary Ann Shadd Cary
Mary Ann Shadd Cary is the first female Black editor of a newspaper in North America (she lived in Canada at the time), managing The Provincial Freeman. She returned to the US with the Civil War to help the Union Army. She became the second woman to obtain a law degree from Howard University. Alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, she joined the National Woman Suffrage Association. She testified before the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives for the right to vote and became the first Black woman to vote in a national election before the 19th Amendment had even been ratified!
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I’d rather go down in history as one lone Negro who dared to tell the government that it had done a dastardly thing than to save my skin by taking back what I said.Ida B. Wells
The Women’s Suffrage Movement is Racially Painful. We Cannot Forget That.
The women’s suffrage movement dates back to before the Civil War. In that time, American ideas about race and personhood were even worse than they are today. Many suffragettes were white women of the upper or middle class. They profited off white supremacy along with men, not to quite the same degree because #sexism, but white women were deeply embedded in the apparatus of white supremacy.
Black women, Asian women, and Indigenous women wanted the right to vote, too. When they attempted to join suffrage movements led by white women, they were turned away. As a result, women of color had to create their own institutions.
White suffragettes didn’t merely exclude women of color. In 1870, many of them were against the 15th Amendment which granted Black men suffrage. White women aligned themselves with racist opponents of the amendment. They argued if Black men were able to vote, then white women needed to vote to “counteract” the Black vote. In other words, if white women could vote alongside white men, they would double the white vote, and ensure the Black vote never made an impact. They drew extremely thin racial lines, assuming white and Black interests would never align.
This phenomenon still troubles us. White women voted an astonishingly 53% pro-Trump in 2016. They voted outside their interests in terms of their sex but in favor of their whiteness. White supremacy remains an institution propped up by white women (and men).
For the 2020 election, it remains to be seen how white women will vote as a class. A vote for Trump ignores the common human interest that crosses all lines. If someone votes for Trump because they personally are unharmed by any of his policies or rhetoric, they admit they are okay with the negative effects their vote brings on anyone else.
Messy and Complicated, But Still An Accomplishment
We cannot erase the bleak realities of the women’s suffrage movement. The value in remembering the bad stuff is in making sure we do better in the future. However, while we acknowledge it, we can reflect on the achievements, too.
Ratifying an amendment to the constitution takes a two-thirds majority of states. Even contextualizing this in our own country, trying to imagine two-thirds of the country agreeing on something is mind-boggling. The last amendment to the Constitution was done in 1992, and before that in 1971.
Women fought hard for the right to vote. They had two wars uproot and pause their crusades. They organized, protested, picketed, obstructed traffic, and served jail time. While imprisoned, many went on hunger strikes and endured force-feedings, leveraging public sympathy. Some of these tactics are still familiar to us today as our country frequently sees protests against police brutality, calls for climate action, and other causes. Let no one tell you that history has caved to change easily. Our foremothers and fathers have always fought for progress. It wasn’t always pretty or peaceful. It was uncomfortable. But in the end, it was effective.
The last state to vote on the 19th Amendment was Tennessee. By a thin margin, the amendment passed. Several days after the vote, the Tennessee legislature tried to rescind their vote. By then, the Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, had already declared the amendment law. No going back now, Tennessee. The suffragists won!
I know that women, once convinced that they are doing what is right, that their rebellion is just, will go on, no matter what the difficulties, no matter what the dangers, so long as there is a woman alive to hold up the flag of rebellionEmmeline Pankhurst
Virtual Events for Women’s Equality Day
Despite the racist history of women’s suffrage, it was still a successful movement that paved the way for many of us today. White women have the chance to make the white vote mean something better than it has before. For women of color, we have the chance to exercise the vote that our foremothers had to fight even harder and longer for.
In New York City, buildings will be lit up in purple in honor of Women’s Equality Day.
The Women’s Activism NYC network started an initiative several years ago to collect 20,000 stories of women activists by 2020 in honor of the centennial anniversary. They fell short of their goal, but you can check out #20000by2020 on their website.
If you’re interested in listening to a lecture on the local history of activists in Greenwich Village, The Vanguard is hosting a virtual event led by historian Lucie Levine. You can register for it here. The event is on August 26 at 6 PM EST.
“In honor of Women’s Equality Day and the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, join historian Lucie Levine for a virtual tour celebrating the women of Greenwich Village who fought for the vote, and those who continued on to advocate for greater women’s equality in American life. Village women were instrumental in both the fight for suffrage and the ongoing struggle for civil rights. Their advocacy and tenacity intersected with labor politics, reproductive justice, anti-militarism, the Black Arts Movement, LGBT+ liberation, criminal justice reform, and a host of other areas where women emerged as leaders. This Women’s Equality Day is a meaningful moment to consider their legacy, as the nation takes to the streets to demand justice and equality.”Village Vanguard
Celebrate Women’s Equality Day With Books
Finally, everyone loves books and movies, especially now amidst the pandemic. They are a great way to entertain oneself, or also learn more about things while museums, schools, and other places are closed.
One of my favorite recent historical novels is The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee. The novel is not suffrage-focused, but there is a gripping scene in which the main character, a Chinese-American girl, has a particularly chilling encounter with white suffragists when she comes to a meeting in solidarity and wants to join the cause. While this is not a history book, there are plenty of those to pick from, this is a great read and well-researched. Sometimes fiction affects us more than history because of the chance to really connect with characters.
History and nonfiction-wise, here are several titles to check out.
Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall (I loved this book! It has a section on voting, but the entire book is a masterpiece.)
The Women’s Suffrage Movement edited by Sally Roesch Wagner, introduction by Gloria Steinem
The Suffragents: How Women Used Men to Get the Vote by Brooke Kroeger
Celebrate Women’s Equality Day With Movies
For film buffs, here are some recommendations.
Iron Jawed Angels – About the suffragist Alice Paul who helped radicalize the movement and picketed the White House to campaign for the right to vote. While imprisoned, she led a hunger strike and was eventually force-fed by guards. My eleventh-grade teacher showed us this movie in class, and it has stuck with me all these years! She particularly chose it because she thought the suffrage movement was under-taught, and that the movie was historically accurate.
Suffragette – The British film from 2015 with Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep is a fictional story of British activists (who helped radicalize Alice Paul), but based on real events and testimony from numerous women activists.
Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony – This documentary focuses on its namesakes.
Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice – This Black American icon is the focus of her own documentary from 1989.
Inez Milholland: Forward Into Light – This doc is about NewYorker Inez Milholland, who helped champion women’s causes including suffrage.
Hulu has a Women’s Equality Day collection with titles such as RBG, Abortion: The Stories Women Tell, The Life and Death of Sandra Bland, and Hillary (a great one; I watched this months ago in quarantine). A lot of these titles are not voting rights specific. However, they are about intersectional feminist issues, embracing the idea of Women’s Equality Day as a chance to reflect and recommit to activist missions in the present.
Fight Like a Girl–or a Suffragette
To celebrate Women’s Equality Day, I’ll be reflecting on the racist past of the suffragist movement. This legacy reared its head in recent memory during the organization of the Women’s March in response to Trump’s election. When the Women’s March was originally announced, it was named the Million Women March. However, there already was an existing Million Women March from 1997 led by black women to speak out against racism and sexism. The fact that the leadership of the new Million Women March did not have a single Black woman on it, signaled again how often white women profit off the unpaid labor of Black women. It is clear we have a society that has not properly addressed our past and learned from it.
We should all embody the spirit of the suffragettes. To be determined in the face of adversity. To gather together and organize. We should be loud and “unladylike.” But we should not embody all their traits. We must forge a new legacy to fight like a suffragette without racism. Instead, our feminism must always be intersectional. If not, it is merely an agent of white supremacy.
This centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment, honor your mothers before you. Request an absentee ballot and mail in your vote. If you’d rather get up and go to the polls, do that instead. And remember the inspiring words of suffragists before as you do it.
Deeds, not words.Emmeline Pankhurst