Women’s Equality Day: The gains we’ve made are at risk

In 1850, Sojourner Truth issued this challenge: “If women want any rights more than they’s got, why don’t they just take them, and not be talking about it?” It took 70 years more before the 19th Amendment to the Constitution granted women the right to vote. Women’s Equality Day celebrates the day the amendment went into effect:  August 26, 1920.

Much earlier, the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 was an important milestone in the women’s suffrage movement. Women who gathered at the convention declared their right to equal education, equal treatment under the law, and the vote. The movement gained momentum after the Civil War with the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1869, which granted black men the right to vote.

But for all intents and purposes, many black men and women were restricted from truly exercising that right until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

women marching together

Suffragists such as Susan B. Anthony refused to support the 15th Amendment because it excluded women, but others argued that enfranchising any disenfranchised citizens would build the pressure for women’s right to vote. The two communities united in 1890 in the National American Woman Suffrage Association—the same year Wyoming, which as a territory adopted women’s suffrage in 1869, entered the Union

As the years passed, younger women came into the movement with new energy and different tactics. Some favored marches and hunger strikes to gain attention. Finally, in 1920, the 19th Amendment was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, and Congress in 1971 designated August 26 of each year as Women’s Equality Day. This year, it has special meaning for a couple of reasons.

First of all, at the beginning of 2017, the Women’s March brought millions of women and men together in Washington, D.C., across the nation, and around the world to speak out for equality and the rights and safety of us all in the Trump era. Worldwide participation was estimated at 5 million, and I was proud to march in Washington with NEA members who traveled from as far away as California to be part of history.

This year’s Women’s Equality Day is also significant for me because it’s a reminder that many of the gains we’ve made are at risk.

From the protections granted under Title IX to victims of sexual assault and harassment in schools and on campuses, to the inclusion of transgender men and women in the military, to the protection of voting rights in the states, to affirmative action in higher education, to the safety of immigrant children and their families: The Trump administration seems determined to undo the progress we’ve made in recognizing and honoring the humanity of all people. We cannot take any right for granted.

We’ve also seen a rise in rhetoric and actions that make it clear how disturbingly loud and incredibly close the voices of hate are. In Charlottesville, we were reminded again of the impact of hatred, terror, and intimidation with the murder of Heather Heyer by a white supremacist wearing neo-Nazi symbols, the deaths of two Virginia state police officers, and the injuries of nearly 20 more. 

It feels to me like I’ve lived a lifetime in only eight months. Yet it was just last year when the Obama White House held a United State of Women Summit and committed $50 million to improving the lives of women and girls around the world.

At the same time, the Obama administration rolled out the White House Equal Pay Pledge, through which companies signed on and committed to conducting a yearly analysis of pay to find the gender gaps and take steps to ensure equality.

It’s an important issue to tackle, because for every dollar men earn, women earn around 80 cents. Race and ethnicity widen this pay gap: Black women, for instance, earn about 63 cents for every dollar a non-Hispanic white man earns. Studies also show that when women are in unions, they not only have stronger workplace protections, but earn higher pay and better benefits than women in non-union jobs.

Needless to say, there’s no summit this year. That pay pledge? It’s disappeared from the White House website.

Our accomplishments are tenuous. Everything activists achieved march by march, petition by petition, sit-in by sit-in, union contract by union contract, strike by strike, can be undercut, disrupted, or completely destroyed by an election, an appointment, a signature, a Tweet.

But we can’t be dismayed. I’m encouraged by something that Dorothy Day, leader of the Catholic Worker Movement, said long ago:

“People say, what is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time. A pebble cast in to a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that. No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.”

Please join me in the work we must continue to do together. Find out how you can get involved.

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