August 26, Women’s Equality Day, always raises mixed feelings for me. I can join in the spirit of celebration over how far women have come from the days when my graduate school professor announced in class that if the political science department ever hired a woman, he would leave. When I was told I could not change my name from my married name to my “maiden” name; when flight attendants were all women who had passed an “attractiveness” test; and domestic workers had no rights to fair pay nor protection from assault and sexual harassment. And, of course, I remain grateful to Rep. Bella Abzug (D-NY), who almost single-handedly pushed the creation of “Women’s Equality Day” through Congress in 1971.
The date was selected to commemorate the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote (though a meaningful extension of this right for African American women in many states did not occur until the 1964 Voting Rights Act). The passage of the 19th Amendment was the culmination of a massive, peaceful civil rights movement by women that had its formal beginnings in 1848 at the world’s first women’s rights convention, in Seneca Falls, New York. Workplaces, libraries, organizations, and public facilities now participate with Women’s Equality Day programs, displays, video showings, or other activities.
This is all good. So why my lingering sense of discontent when the subject of equal rights for women comes up? It may be based, in part, on personal experience. I lived in Illinois in the 1970s, when the very last states were scheduled to vote to ratify the Equality Rights Amendment (ERA). Having passed Congress and been ratified by 35 states, it seemed that the ERA was on the path to becoming part of the Constitution.
But Phyllis Schlafly, doyenne of the right-wing, anti-feminist women’s movement, decided to stop Illinois’ ratification of the ERA, making that goal explicit by starting an organization called STOP ERA. Her followers baked pies for Illinois legislators with the message Stop ERA hidden inside. She travelled tirelessly to argue against the ERA. She raised the specter of “horrible consequences” that would follow from its passage, such as women in military combat and unisex bathrooms. On June 18, 1980 Schlafly succeeded when the Illinois legislature failed by five votes to ratify the ERA. Our current Congress would never pass its equivalent, though it has been reintroduced in every session of Congress since 1982.
Certainly another source of my discontent is the ongoing plight of low-income women, whose safety net is now shredded, so that life is increasingly unmanageable and the struggle to keep food on the table is harder every year. As the gap in income widens inexorably, these women and their children are, far from equal, being left farther and farther behind. A growing number of women continue to live in fear of violence, wage theft and abuse by employers, with little access to public services and usually facing a hostile welfare system. Their rights are limited by their lack of earning power and, often, their lack of a good education.
But women do have a number of avenues to redress unequal treatment. The Violence Against Women Act became law in 1994 (though periodic reauthorizations are still a struggle). Title IX became the basis for the transformation of women’s and girls’ participation in sports in 1972. Women have successfully sued for equal pay for equal work, equal access to promotion, equal right to a military career, and pregnancy rights in the workplace. In international settings, pursuit of rights for women is increasingly seen as an important key to unlocking the potential for improvements for a country as a whole.
Women’s rights organizations continue to organize, lobby, and litigate in areas that remain intransigent, such as family leave, child care, equal pay, protection from sterilization, domestic violence, and the rights of women in prison. Massive problems, such as human trafficking, persist. Fighting for women’s equality is an arduous but necessary process, ploddingly pursued by dedicated women and men who refuse to accept a lesser role for women in society.
“Women’s rights are human rights”--a current anthem of the women’s movement--remains a vision, a goal, and a noble quest that we pursue at the Wellesley Centers for Women. As we say, “A world that is good for women is good for everyone."
Jean Hardisty, Ph.D. is a Senior Scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She is the founder and president emerita of Political Research Associates (PRA), a Boston-based research center that analyzes right wing, authoritarian, and anti-democratic trends and publishes educational materials for the general public.
Why doesn't the Wellesley Center for Women do a webinar or feature on the two paths to achieving the Equal Rights Amendment today? One of course is the non-starter - starting all over again which surely couldn't succeed in any of our lifetimes. OR the new and exciting campaign launched by a mother-daughter social enterprise known as United 4 Equality, LLC. Their congressional joint resolution: HJ Res. 43 and SJ Res. 15 seeks to eliminate any deadline for ratification of the 1972 ERA in the final 3 states needed for victory. Sadly, most women who stand on the opposite of Phyllis Schlafly prefer to dismiss any possibility of laying the foundation for women's parity now and concede to allow Phyllis to die knowing she won (and women lost).