By Bernadette Cahill
Women’s Equality Day (August 26) is a national commemorative day that deserves instant recognition by all citizens, like Martin Luther King day does, for it honors the heroes of the longest civil rights struggle in our nation’s history – the mostly women who fought for women’s right to vote. The late Bella Abzug worked in Congress for Women’s Equality Day and won it in 1971.
The stunning victory of a federal amendment guaranteeing women the vote happened because younger women new to the struggle, by grit and tenacity, wrestled the Democratic Wilson administration to the ground and gained national politicians’ support one by one for the right of the female half of the population to have a say in the political process if they were to be subject to the nation’s taxation and laws.
The last struggle of the 72-year campaign – the National Woman’s Party’s work from January 1913 until August 26, 1920 – is the forgotten civil rights campaign in our nation’s history: it is our only successful non-violent civil rights campaign. It was won with ground-breaking tactics, such as picketing outside the White House and concentrated lobbying, which still have influence today.
Women’s Equality Day is now a day also for looking forward, because, as the architect of the innovative campaign that secured the 19th Amendment, Alice Paul, knew clearly, winning the vote was only half the victory. The other half was equal rights for the sexes under the law.
Paul launched the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923. It states: Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. Eighty-eight years later, the ERA is still unratified.
This is a huge national failure. While it creates disabilities for both sexes, at the moment women bear the greater burden of disability. This failure denies them a key tool to fight unequal pay or other unequal penalties under the law, such as the death penalty, even as they do not enjoy equal rights.
This is an international disgrace, making a mockery of the United States’ position as a world beacon for human rights, even as our ambassadors have ensured that Iraq and Afghanistan have equal rights for women in their constitutions.
Two bills currently before the House deal with this failure. H.J. Resolution 61 would re-start the amendment process, requiring Congressional passage and ratification by 38 states to become law. H.J. Resolution 47 is the better measure, preferred by most women. It removes the deadline from the successful 1972 bill that introduced the ERA and would require only three more states to incorporate it in the fundamental law of the land. H.J. Resolution 47 makes speedy ratification of this long-awaited improvement to our fundamental law possible – and it also provides the prospect for women who fought for the ERA in the 1970s of actually seeing equal rights for the sexes during their life time.
Bernadette Cahill is a freelance journalist, author and historian with work based in Arkansas and North Carolina. She specializes in women’s issues, particularly the Equal Rights Amendment.
United 4 Equality (U4E) is a woman-owned social justice enterprise solely committed to the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Founder Carolyn A. Cook authored H.J. Res 47 to target the remaining three states needed to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sex. For more information, visit www.united4equality.com.