Never go back, never apologize, and never forget we’re half the human race. – Rep. Bella Abzug (D-NY)
August 26th, 1971 Congress officially designated Women’s Equality Day - a commemoration of the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment in the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote.* Not only is it the celebration of a victorious day, it is also the day where full equality of women’s role and voice in society (in the workplace, the household, and the community) is rightfully acknowledged . *African-American women would not receive this right until the passing of the Voting Rights Act, August 6, 1965.
In 1848, the world’s first women’s rights convention took place in Seneca Falls, New York. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, co-leader of the women’s rights movement, and Lucretia Cotton Mott, a Quaker minister who was opposed to injustice against women and slaves, organized the Seneca Falls Convention on July 19th and 20th.
A Declaration of Sentiments, which Stanton had written and modeled after the Declaration of Independence, was adopted during this time with sixty-eight women and thirty-two men signing the document, promoting equal education, equal treatment under the law, and the equal right for women to vote. However, the process of ratifying the actual 19th amendment did not go as smoothly and would take the next seven decades to pass.
In 1878 the United State Congress amended a rule that women’s voting rights would only pass through the Constitution’s Article V rule. This rule required a two-thirds vote by both parties of Congress. Unfortunately, the two-thirds vote had failed at every voting opportunity, from 1878 to 1918. In March 1920, thirty-five people approved the 19th amendment. Unfortunately, due to the southern states’ opposition towards women’s suffrage, Tennessee was the one state that shorted the passing by the two-thirds rule. The state was evenly divided forty-eight to forty-eight votes and needed one additional vote to pass.
The hapless moment created “The War of the Roses” where anti-Suffragists handed out red roses for opposing the ratification and the Suffragists distributed yellow roses in support of the women’s right to vote. Counting of the roses from each side tallied a tied decision, forty-eight to forty-eight, resulting in one young man breaking the tie. His name was Harry Burn, a twenty-four-year-old Republican from rural Tennessee, armed with a seven-page handwritten letter from his mother, Phoebe (Febb) Burn. His mother’s wishes for him to vote for women’s rights had broken the tie and allowed for the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
Even after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the correct government official did not officiate the certification of this declaration.
In 1920, Bainbridge Colby, Secretary of State, signed the proclamation to end the struggle for a woman’s right to vote. However, this moment was not filmed or documented, even after suffrage leaders Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt requested so.
Colby responded to reporters,
“Effectuating suffrage through proclamation of its ratification by the necessary thirty-six states was more important than feeding the movie cameras.
... inasmuch as I am not interested in the aftermath of any of the friction or collisions which may have been developed in the long struggle for the ratification of the amendment, I have contended myself with the performance in the simplest manner of the duty devolving upon me under the law.”
Bella Abzug, New York Congresswoman and daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, born in the Bronx, New York on July 24th, 1920, was a consistent advocate of feminism and civil rights. Abzug defended an African-American man named Willie McGee who was convicted and sentenced to death for raping a white woman in Mississippi. When Senator Joseph McCarthy's investigatory committee targeted communist agents, she represented those accused as their lawyer. She also co-founded the Women Strike for Peace in 1961, which protested against nuclear arms and the American military in Vietnam. On January 3rd, 1971, Bella Abzug officially took the oath of office for the 92nd United States Congress.
Her described "brash and outspoken" behavior was considered “truculent and courageous” and it “could boil the fat off a taxi driver’s neck." Often seen in a wide-brimmed hat, TIME once noted, “No one, friend or enemy, denies that Bella Abzug has a certain presence.” With her strong opinionated voice supporting the rights of women, she was able to introduce the bill that would officially recognize them, known as “Women’s Equality Day.”
Similar to the numerous rejections to the 19th amendment before final ratification, the fight for gender equality continues today. Women in many roles, such as CEO, actress, and athlete, on average earn approximately 71% of what the top male in an equivalent role earns.
“I’ve been working, playing tennis, since I was three years old. And to be paid less just because of my sex – it doesn’t seem fair. Will I have to explain to my daughter that her brother is gonna make more money doing the exact same job because he’s a man? If they both played sports since they were three years old, they both worked just as hard, but because he’s a boy, they’re gonna give him more money?”
Serena Williams, Glamour Magazine
Today, our current government has placed a majority of men at the table deciding the fate and responsibility of women, in some instances, turning back the hands of time in the workplace, at home, and especially with regard to women's health. But luckily today, we also have women of every ethnicity, nationality, and religion fighting alongside one another, using their voice and right to vote in staunch resistance to any notions that negate or lessen their role in society.
On this day, our duty is to remind ourselves of the heroic history and efforts of all those, including supportive men, brought along this far to allow women to voice our choice, our conscious, and our convictions. In 2017, feminism has become one of the most empowering movements within society. Females have been given more respect and recognition for their impact and influence through others. However, this movement has taken a long time to get to where it is now, and we may still have a long way to go.
FLORENCE KIM (NEW YORK)
Cover thumbnail photo by LoboStudio Hamburg.