What Does Women’s Equality Day Really Mean in 2013?

4 years ago

It's Women’s Equality Day! August 26 marks the date that the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920, giving women the right to vote. In 1971, Rep. Bella Abzug, a Democrat from New York, pushed a bill through Congress establishing August 26 as Women’s Equality Day. But this year especially, I find it hard to get inspired to celebrate this occasion, which just so happens to share a date with National Toilet Paper Day and National Dog Day, and seems to be recognized mostly as the day after Miley Cyrus twerked at the VMAs.

Women's Equality Day observance at U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys, South Korea, Image Credit: USAG-Humphreys, via Flickr

If I sound slightly jaded, I'm not alone.

Just a few weeks ago, we saw the explosion of the #solidarityisforwhitewomen meme on Twitter, which seemed to collectively unleash the pent-up frustrations of Black, Asian, Native American and Latina women.

Honoree Fannon Jeffers at Phyllis Remastered points out that in 1920, only white women won the right to vote, pointing out some painful truths about the suffragists who we celebrate on this day:

Why? Because Black women were specifically excluded from the U.S. Women’s suffrage movement in the nineteenth century. The early leaders of the movement, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, felt that the inclusion of Black women in their movement would hinder it.

In particular, Stanton was against paralleling voting rights for Black men, the Irish, Germans, and Chinese people with the White women’s struggle. She wrote in The Revolution, a publication in the nineteenth century, “Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung who do not know the difference between a Monarchy and a Republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence . . . making laws for Lydia Maria Child, Lucretia Mott, or Fanny Kemble.”

Securing the right to vote while female was only possible if your entire race was allowed to participate in democracy. Women of color did not secure their place at the ballot box until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, But it goes beyond the legalities of who gets to cast a ballot – although that itself is something to watch out for, with the Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this summer to gut key parts of the Voting Rights Act, making it nearly impossible to enforce.

Add to that the fact that overall, female workers continue to earn 77-cents for every dollar earned by males, and the continuing debates about women's career advancement and reproductive rights, and you have to wonder, just how equal are we?

However, it seems that if anything, #solidarityisforwhitewomen raised the profile of the concerns that feminism needs to include the needs of all women, regardless of race, income level, or even immigration status. In the aftermath of the Twitter storm, the silver lining of the cloud is that there seemed to be some perceptible needle-moving of white feminists speaking out about these inequities.

But the cloud remains that when it comes to women’s advocacy, the most high-profile feminist voices are still attached to bodies with fair skin.

However, this August 26, I want to look for ways to be forward thinking. Let’s
recognize the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 as a milestone, not a finish line. We need to look back at history with our eyes open and move forward. So I celebrate women, such as the immigration rights advocates at We Belong Together, who are launching rallies around the country today, in their efforts to continue to push for the rights of women, whether they are H1B visa engineers or domestic workers, even as the immigration reform bill seems stalled in the House of Representatives. I celebrate women of color, such as Mikki Kendall who are continuing to speak up. And I celebrate all women and girls who are listening and choosing to be part of the continuing conversation.

How do you feel about Women’s Equality Day? Leave a comment and join the discussion.

News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs about raising an Asian mixed-race family at HapaMama.

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