Women's Equality Day is a Milestone on a Long Road
August 26th is when the United States observes Women’s Equality Day. This date is the anniversary of the official adoption of Amendment XIX of the United States Constitution, which protects the rights of women to vote. It was a very important milestone for women in the United States, but was it the final destination?
The Road to Women’s Suffrage
Amendment XIX states, “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. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
The right to vote was a hard-won victory for women’s rights activists in the U.S. The first gathering to discuss women’s rights, especially the right to vote, occurred at the Seneca Falls convention in 1848, featuring famous names such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. Other suffragists and reformers, including Susan B. Anthony, joined the struggle, but the movement had many setbacks. They faced fierce opposition and internal divisions (not to mention an interruption due to the Civil War). It took until 1920—that’s 72 years after Seneca Falls—before the amendment was ratified.
As long as it took, and as important as it was, however, the right to vote did not guarantee that women were always treated equally.
Slow, but Steady, Progress
The adoption of Amendment XIX was not the only significant milestone in the pursuit of women’s equality. Both before and after the right to vote was secure, women were taking steps toward equal rights. A few examples include:
- 1848 – The Married Woman’s Property Act is passed in New York, allowing married women autonomy of their own money and property.
- 1920 – Amendment XIX is adopted.
- 1963 – The US passes the first legislation requiring equal pay for equal work.
- 1974 – The Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 prohibits discrimination in granting credit, allowing many unmarried women to get credit cards for the first time.
- 1975 – The United States Supreme Court struck down a ban on women serving on juries.
- 2013 – The ban on women serving in combat was lifted by the Department of Defense.
Of course, there is more to be done. The Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau website states that, “Women in the United States are more likely to live in poverty than men and still face significant barriers to economic security and stability, including: occupational segregation; barriers to moving into higher-level positions; low wages and unequal pay; inadequate workplace flexibility; and pregnancy and sex discrimination.”
The ratio of women's to men's median weekly earnings for full-time wage and salary workers in all occupations was 81.9 percent in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And over 84% of sexual harassment charges filed with the EEOC in Fiscal Year 2017 were filed by women. Despite the right to vote, women clearly face challenges for equal participation in the workforce and other areas.
Continuing the Journey
Despite these issues, however, progress continues. The #MeToo movement, along with workplace training and enforcement, is leading to increased numbers of sexual harassment claims—which indicates that the problem is being recognized and addressed. The recent media coverage of the U.S. Women’s Soccer team has opened up conversations about wage inequality. The percentage of the workforce made up of women is at an all-time high.
And the government continues to play an active role in ensuring that women’s equality is protected. For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate against applicants and employees because of sex. The Division of Labor, Women’s Bureau develops policies and standards and conducts inquiries to safeguard the interests of working women. Meeting women's health needs and improving their health is one of the most urgent priorities of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Individual citizens and government agencies can work together to promote true equality—especially when both women and men employ their right to vote.
In commemoration of the certification of Amendment XIX, in 1973 the United States Congress proclaimed August 26th Women’s Equality Day. That year, and every year since, the sitting president has also issued a proclamation of Women’s Equality Day (including today). These proclamations praise the trailblazers and suffragists who fought so hard to gain women the right to vote. The first such proclamation, by President Richard Nixon, includes this text that well summarizes the road that we are all still taking toward women’s equality:
"The struggle for women's suffrage, however, was only the first step toward full and equal participation of women in our Nation's life. In recent years, we have made other giant strides by attacking sex discrimination through our laws and by paving new avenues to equal economic opportunity for women. Today, in virtually every sector of our society, women are making important contributions to the quality of American life. And yet, much still remains to be done."
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