The 100 Year Anniversary of the 19th Amendment Reveals that the Battle for Equality is Far From Over
100 years later, the same issues that women were grappling with back then - voting rights, inequality, racism, and sexism - are very much behind the social upheaval we’re seeing now.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. The day the words “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex” were added to the U.S. Constitution -- August 18th, 1920. The day it seemed that women got what they finally deserved.
Looking back a century prior, this day was just another stepping stone on the tumultuous journey towards equal rights and women’s empowerment - a journey that we are still on to this day.
Although the 19th Amendment is thought of as the time when women were finally allowed the right to vote, the fact is that it did not deliver on that promise. In spite of the fact that many Black activists - like Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, and March Church Terrel - played a critical and largely unacknowledged role in the fight for women’s suffrage, the amendment was far from inclusive. Both Native Americans and Chinese immigrants were not granted voting rights and Black women were subjected to Jim Crow laws, not being fully enfranchised until 45 years later when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed.
Even to this day, many barriers still exist that prohibit Americans from exercising their Constitutional right to vote. Blatant suppression efforts such as strict I.D. laws, voting roll purges, restrictions on mail-in ballots and inconvenient, understaffed, and limited polling places disproportionately impact women, people of color, voters with disabilities, students, and older citizens.
When early feminists first fought for suffrage their hope was that it would eventually lead to full integration of women in economic, cultural, and political life. As Susan B. Anthony said it best, “There never will be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers.” Clearly this is still not the case.
Progress towards this goal of full equality has been slow, often moving backward before it moves ahead. Although we may often hear about the gains women have made in American politics, the halls of power still remain far from equal: Despite the fact that half of the population are women, the 101 women in the House of Representatives are only 23.7% of the legislative body. Slightly over a quarter of the 100 seats in the U.S. Senate are held by women. Of the governors of the 50 states, only 9 are women - a mere 18% - and women of color hold just a fraction of those seats. Clearly, a lot of changes and progress must be made until we as women are fully represented.
There is no doubt that women have made tremendous progress over the last 100 years, but true equality still eludes us. Women now comprise nearly half of the workforce, yet we’re subject to a pay gap that threatens our economic security from the moment we enter the field. Women, and disproportionately women of color, hold nearly two-thirds of the country’s low-wage jobs, undervalued labor that is essential to a functioning economy.
We’re confronted with a workplace that hasn’t adjusted to our presence. A workplace that has been modeled on an outdated notion of how families are ‘meant’ to work and old paradigms that favor men. And still, to this day we’re encountering outright racism and sexism, one evident example being when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was forced to call out a fellow legislator for referring to her with a vulgar and gendered insult. His dismissive attitude towards her, further reiterating an, “...acceptance of violence and violent language against women and an entire structure of power that supports that,” said AOC, who called for a change to dehumanizing bigotry and misogyny that is deeply rooted in our culture. AOC’s commanding presence on the House Floor encapsulated both how far women have come since the passing of the 19th Amendment - but also how much farther we still have to go.
No matter how urgently we need it or how impatient we are to see it happen, change takes time. But right now is an opportune moment: With the country reeling from a global pandemic, a controversial presidency, and a movement against 400 years of structural racism, the time to push for sweeping change is now. And while we may draw inspiration from early feminists, our goals must be broadened. Acknowledging that there will be no justice, equity, or equality until every individual has access to the same basic civil rights.
We must double down on our efforts to expand access to polls, including enacting the John Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020, which would further enable more citizens to have their voices heard. We must work to elect candidates who are committed to racial justice, gender equality, diversity, and inclusion. We must advocate for laws to close the wage gap, modernize the workplace, and open gateways to success for all Americans regardless of race, gender, or ability.
But this does not start and end with policies and programs. We as individuals must listen, learn, and reflect on our own attitudes and biases to continuously grow and improve. Change in humanity must match whatever policies and practices that we enact. That is the only way to keep things moving forward, and rapidly so.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it has shown us that we can make dramatic changes when necessary. And just as it was 100 years ago, social change is necessary. So, let’s use this anniversary to commit ourselves to do the unfinished work of achieving equal rights for all.
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