“…remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” – Abigail Adams, in a letter to John Adams during his participation in the Second Continental Congress
Those words were written by the future First Lady Abigail Adams fully one hundred and forty-four years before women were granted suffrage by the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Fifty-one years later, Congress declared the anniversary of the 19th Amendment having been formally included in the constitution—August 26th—as National Women’s Equality Day. That joint resolution was initiated by Rep. Bella Abzug of New York, a vocal and visible feminist activist. The text of the congressional resolution explicitly designates the day to be more than just a commemoration of women’s suffrage, but also a day to recognize that equality has not yet been achieved and to highlight the ongoing work toward that end.
And that work was, indeed, still ongoing: the seminal case that would lay the groundwork for women’s bodily and reproductive autonomy had not yet been decided by the Supreme Court; Title IX was still an idea being fleshed out in a House subcommittee; and it wasn’t until 1984 that the state of Mississippi finally ratified the 19th Amendment. At that point, it was most definitely a symbolic gesture—women had been voting in federal elections for 64 years—but, still! 1984!
In 1920, women were granted suffrage by the law of the land, and today activists and educators of all stripes are still working toward a more just and equitable society. And our idea of what justice and equity should look like has grown more nuanced and more inclusive as we pay more and closer attention to the intersections of race, gender, gender identity, ethnicity, dis/ability, socioeconomic status and so on. Take, for instance, that oft-cited statistic about the gender pay gap:
…yeah, that only holds true if you’re talking about the pay gap between white men and white women. According to data published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2013, Black men earn 75.1%, Latinos earn 67.2%, Black women earn 64%, and Latinas earn 54% of every dollar earned by white men in median annual earnings. Women, particularly women whose lives are situated at the intersection of one or more other marginalized identities (women of color, queer women, disabled women, First Nations women, etc.), are far more likely to live in poverty. They are also far more likely to have their issues overlooked because they are dramatically underrepresented in government and other high profile positions with the power to leverage for change.
Even when women do manage to find themselves in high-profile positions, the legitimacy of their authority and expertise is constantly undermined. Female politicians are frequently demeaned by their male colleagues; female CEOs are generally regarded less favorably by investors; and female athletes…? Well, let’s just take a quick look at the coverage of the 2016 Summer Olympics:
It is important to recognize that yes, we are breaking down barriers, setting records, and reaching positions of power. I doubt that Abigail Adams would have ever dreamed of a woman being a major party’s candidate for the presidency. I’m sure that Margaret Sanger couldn’t have imagined the advances—albeit, not without considerable and ongoing struggle—we’ve made in reproductive healthcare (though, thank goodness we’ve moved away from a lot of her ideas about the matter). And how incredible would Mary Jane Patterson find it that Black women are enrolled in college at higher percentage rates and earning more degrees than any other demographic? These, and so many other accomplishments, are remarkable steps forward and worthy of celebration, but our work is not over. So, let’s take pride in how far we’ve come and let that inspire us to tackle the challenges ahead!
Happy National Women’s Equality Day!