On August 26th, Americans will celebrate Women’s Equality Day: the 99th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote. That’s ninety-nine years of some women having a political voice.
President Nixon, in his 1973 proclamation for Women’s Equality Day, referred to the “full and equal participation of women in our Nation’s life.” Americans have made political, social, and economic gains toward this goal, and women of color have been key to this progress.
The achievement of women’s suffrage and campaigns for equality often have been recorded as the efforts of white women. For many, names like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul come to mind first, while black suffragettes like Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, and Mary Church Terrell are an afterthought.
Tubman focused her energy on the state of freedoms for black men and women; Wells advocated for justice through journalistic writing and activism; Terrell campaigned for voting rights and educational equality.
After suffrage,obstacles to voting for people of color persisted through poll taxes and voter intimidation, while women lacked representation in the workforce and in the political sphere.
In the 1930s and 40s, Mary McLeod Bethune was instrumental in the fight, heading equality-focused organizations like the National Council of Negro Women and leading voter registration drives. While Frances Perkins served as the first female member of the US Cabinet, Bethune served as an adviser to Franklin Roosevelt in his unofficial “black cabinet.”
In the 1960s, Dolores Huerta began campaigning for the rights of migrant farm workers and became one of the most important advocates in the labor movement.
Though most Americans of Asian descent were not allowed to become citizens until 1952, in 1964 Patsy Takemoto Mink became the first woman of color elected to the House of Representatives. There, she championed equal opportunities for women, especially the passage of the transformational Title IX in 1972.
Today, women of color continue to be key players in the quest for equality.
In the 2018 elections, a record number of female candidates were elected, among them progressive Congresswomen like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Deb Haaland.
Stacey Abrams, a candidate for governor of Georgia, fought the suppression of minority votes during the campaign and has continued her advocacy with Fair Fight 2020.
In the 2020 presidential race, candidate Kamala Harris has argued for equal pay and passing the Equal Rights Amendment.
One hundred sixty-eight years ago in Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, she noted that women are just as capable in mind, body, and spirit as men, yet she was dumbfounded that equality did not exist. “You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, for we can't take more than our pint’ll hold.”
Today, her message of wisdom and equality could not be more truthful. Men in power cannot fear women’s socio-political involvement.
Women’s Equality Day is an aspirational title and should be a call to action to women around America. Today all women are finally able to vote but there is more work to be done. We should use this day every year to highlight the progress American women have made in their search of full political social, and economic equality while simultaneously acknowledging the work left to be done. Women’s suffrage was a first step, but until the words “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state” are added to the Constitution, a purposeful, historical exclusion persists.
Beginning August 26th and continuing through Election Day, November 5th, Virginia women will raise their voices with the #iScream4Equality ice cream tour around the state. On November 5th, women will once again cast their votes. Come 2020, the 100-year anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, the General Assembly will have the chance to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and, in doing so, enable all American women to achieve full equality under the law.
Kimberly Bartenfelder is an English undergraduate student at George Mason University and a writer for the VAratifyERA.