Looking Back, and Forward, on Women’s Equality Day

Women's Equality Day is a commemoration of history--the 90th anniversary of the victory of women's suffrage--as well as a marker of the incomplete struggle for equal rights.

By Michelle Chen Aug 26, 2010

Today is Women’s Equality Day. It’s a commemoration of history–the 90th anniversary of the victory of women’s suffrage–as well as a marker of the incomplete struggle for equal rights. It’s also an opportunity to revisit the feminist movement’s most famous dream deferred: the Equal Rights Amendment. The amendment was put forward soon after the passage of 19th Amendment in order to ensure women’s equal protection before the law. Repeatedly thwarted by conservative backlash, the ERA is especially relevant today because it ties into the struggle to solidify the 14th Amendment, which is under the siege of the right once again. The National Organization for Women points out in its summary of the ERA’s rise and fall:

The Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, was drafted by suffragist leader Alice Paul and introduced in Congress in 1923 to fix the deficiency of the 14th Amendment by providing the constitutional foundation that women have equal protection under the law. The ERA passed Congress in 1972 but failed to be ratified by three-quarters of the state legislatures. Every year since 1982, the ERA has been reintroduced in Congress and repeatedly shot down. Opposition to it has been consistent and vitriolic.

Throughout the 20th century, the women’s rights movement has proceeded alongside the Black civil rights movement on parallel, sometimes conflicting paths; forging common ground is tough in the face of a political establishment that tends to pit marginalized communities against each other. As evidenced by the identity politics surrounding the 2008 presidential campaigns, the tension between the political aspirations of people of color and of women are still burdened by false dichotomies. The Equal Rights Amendment might have been too aspirational for its time, but by merging two concepts of equality and empowerment, it crystallized the idea that neither struggle will go far without engaging the other. In 1969, civil rights activist Shirley Chisholm spoke poignantly before the House of Representatives on the twin battles against racial and gender oppression:

As a black person, I am no stranger to race prejudice. But the truth is that in the political world I have been far oftener discriminated against because I am a woman than because I am black. Prejudice against blacks is becoming unacceptable although it will take years to eliminate it. But it is doomed because, slowly, white America is beginning to admit that it exists. Prejudice against women is still acceptable. There is very little understanding yet of the immorality involved in double pay scales and the classification of most of the better jobs as "for men only." More than half of the population of the United States is female. But women occupy only 2 percent of the managerial positions. They have not even reached the level of tokenism yet No women sit on the AFL-CIO council or Supreme Court There have been only two women who have held Cabinet rank, and at present there are none. Only two women now hold ambassadorial rank in the diplomatic corps. In Congress, we are down to one Senator and 10 Representatives. Considering that there are about 3 1/2 million more women in the United States than men, this situation is outrageous. It is true that part of the problem has been that women have not been aggressive in demanding their rights. This was also true of the black population for many years. They submitted to oppression and even cooperated with it. Women have done the same thing. But now there is an awareness of this situation particularly among the younger segment of the population. As in the field of equal rights for blacks, Spanish-Americans, the Indians, and other groups, laws will not change such deep-seated problems overnight But they can be used to provide protection for those who are most abused, and to begin the process of evolutionary change by compelling the insensitive majority to reexamine it’s unconscious attitudes. It is for this reason that I wish to introduce today a proposal that has been before every Congress for the last 40 years and that sooner or later must become part of the basic law of the land — the equal rights amendment.

That was a Black woman addressing fellow legislators over forty years ago, demanding equity on every battlefront she occupied. But the social and economic gaps suffered by women and people of color persist today, and we’re still wearily re-introducing the question of equal rights before an intransigent status quo. Yet Chisholm’s vision of "evolutionary change" survives on the hope that, "sooner or later," something’s got to give.