The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

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Women’s Equality Day: Still Seeking a Century’s Worth of Progress

Women suffrage picket line, courtesy of Library of CongressThe long march towards progress is often one that extends across generations. The U.S. woman suffrage movement, which resulted in women’s right to vote with the 19th Amendment in 1920 – took 75 years to produce the desired result. That’s three generations of women, each playing a specific role in getting that policy objective to the finish line. Along the way, there were movements and side movements and countermovements, all of which shaped the ultimate contours of that social justice victory. We’ve now gone 99 years past the ratification of the 19th Amendment – that’s almost four generations – and women’s equality is still far from realized. Thus, on this Women’s Equality Day, it seems most fitting to me, as we stare into the century mark of this milestone, that we make a full-court press to fast-track some gender equality moves that would signal a bona fide century’s worth of progress.

Here are my suggestions:

First, we should revisit the Equal Rights Amendment. Its simple yet powerful text, originally crafted in 1923 right after women got the right to vote and revised in 1943, reads:

  • Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
  • Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
  • Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

In the late 1970s, the Equal Rights Amendment passed both houses of Congress and was signed by President Carter, but failed narrowly during the state-by-state ratification process. That was 40 years ago. In 2019, the Equal Rights Amendment has regained attention, as theoretically only one more state needs to ratify the amendment to reach the majority needed. Do we have the political will to pass the Equal Rights Amendment now? Women’s equality was not a partisan issue then, nor is it one now; women in both parties desire equality and benefit from equality. Passing this constitutional amendment at long last would signal to America’s women and the world that women – and, in fact, people of all genders – are now truly included in “liberty and justice for all.”

Second, we should join the community of nations that has ratified the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (known as CEDAW). This international instrument, which has already been ratified by every country in the world except for Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Pulau, Tonga, and the United States, is basically like a global Equal Rights Amendment. It addresses women’s human rights and commits nations to legally enshrining them. While the U.S. has made various arguments about why it has not ratified CEDAW, a more powerful statement for gender equality would be to just ratify it!

Other actions that would signal that we are truly in the 21st century when it comes to women’s equality would be stronger laws, policies, and legal procedures that address sexual violence in all its forms for all women (with a nod to the recent groundswell known as the #MeToo Movement), and laws, policies, and legal procedures that enshrine gender spectrum equality (because gender in the 21st century doesn’t mean what it meant 99 years ago).

Lest we think these legal moves towards equality are ends in themselves, we can also consider the fact that social scientists have found links between legal equality at the national level and human wellbeing. For example, a recent multi-national study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence showed that greater gender equality at the national level correlates with greater life satisfaction among both female and male adolescents, even with other potentially-influential factors controlled. Thus, there is something to the notion that gender equality, social justice, and human wellbeing are all interrelated and interdependent.

As we look back at and celebrate the generations of women who fought for the right to vote, let us remember that progress doesn’t end there. Each generation must pick up the baton and push forward for increased recognition of gender equality in the law and in our everyday lives. Let’s hope that this time next year when we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, we will also be celebrating the ERA, CEDAW, and, all in all, a bona fide century’s worth of progress on gender equality!

Layli Maparyan, Ph.D., is the Katherine Stone Kaufmann ’67 Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women.

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The New $20 Bill: A Victory for Women, or, Happy about Harriet!

 Harriet Tubman

One of my favorite footnotes in the world appears at the bottom of the first page of the Combahee River Collective Statement in the first edition of Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology on page 272. It reads, “The Combahee River Collective was a Black feminist group in Boston whose name came from the guerrilla action conceptualized and led by Harriet Tubman on June 2, 1863, in the Port Royal region of South Carolina. This action freed more than 750 slaves and is the only military campaign in American history planned and led by a woman.” As a Southern Black woman now living in greater Boston, I have in my travels back and forth driven across the Combahee River many times, moved by the small highway sign that unceremoniously identifies this historically significant waterway. It has become a kind of sacred place to me, over which I always say a silent prayer when crossing. Whether on Interstate I-95 or Highway 17 (the older, smaller “blue route” that runs parallel, all the way up and down the East Coast), it is a prayer of gratitude to Harriet Tubman and all that she did for the liberation of human beings.

She was a tiny woman, a woman with a disability, and, of course, a Black woman--who also happened to be an almost superhumanly courageous person and a logistical/navigational genius. She commandeered the Underground Railroad, shotgun in hand (so that no one would run back to slavery). An abolitionist in word and deed, she led the Combahee River Raid. She eventually worked as a suffragist. And, in her old age, she founded an old folks home for indigent women, even though she herself died indigent in that very home. Race, class, gender--she covered it all. Her story is one of the archetypal stories of American culture. We are because she is, and because she is, therefore we are, to paraphrase my retired philosopher colleague, Ifeanyi Menkiti, and many other African cosmologists and epistemologists.

When the U.S. Department of the Treasury announced two years ago that it was planning to put a woman on the $10 bill, I voted for Harriet Tubman every chance I got. I was privileged to participate in an invitation-only phone call of women leaders with representatives from the Treasury Department, and I also voted online as an “ordinary citizen.” And I unapologetically urged my friends on social media to do the same. So, when the announcement arrived last week that Harriet Tubman would be the face of the new $20 bill, I was ecstatic. Victory!!! Who better to represent so many different marginalized U.S. populations, not to mention to embody, personify, and reify the black feminist theoretical innovation of intersectionality, emblazoned onto popular discourse by the very Combahee River Collective that so revered Tubman??

I have to hand it to Jack Lew, the U.S. Treasury Secretary who recognized that the time was right--indeed, overdue--to put a woman on a piece of high-circulation U.S. currency and to right some historical wrongs. In fact, not to stop with Harriet Tubman, Lew spearheaded a series of changes to the $20, $10, and $5 bills to reflect a more inclusive history of the U.S. Beyond the addition of Harriet Tubman to the $20 bill, a diverse group of suffragist women will be added to the back of the $10 bill: Sojourner Truth, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Like the women of the U.S. today, these women were ideologically and politically diverse, ranging from radical to reformatory in both rhetoric and method. Their history of interaction is complex, as texts such as Angela Y. Davis’s Women, Race and Class, and documentaries such as Ken Burns’ and Paul Barnes’ "Not for Ourselves Alone," reveal in captivating detail. Placing these women together on the back of the $20 bill suggests symbolically that we can work through our differences for good--a message badly needed right now in the U.S. It took 75 years--three generations of activism--to achieve the vote for women in America. No single woman did it alone, and women of diverse opinions each played a pivotal role, even when they disagreed on tactical and ideological points. This is a great inspiration for our times. And to add even more inspiration, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Marion Anderson, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt will be added to the back of the $5 bill to give life to the legacy of President Abraham Lincoln.

Admittedly, if I had a private audience with Secretary Lew, I would suggest the inclusion of some notable Americans of Asian, Latin, Middle Eastern, Native American, and Pacific Islander descent in addition to the very welcome inclusion of African Americans on the new bills--and I might even suggest that he replace the image of slaveholder President Andrew Jackson (after whom my hometown, Jacksonville, Florida, is named, incidentally) with these diverse Americans, since he has (too) long had his day in the sun. I can only hope that this is the plan for the $50 and $100 bills!

I think it was a good decision to begin these momentous changes with the currency of everyday life. $20s, $10s, $5s--we look at these every day, and now these ordinary currencies will stimulate important social discourse. They might even stimulate the economy! #GenderPayGap, #SayHerName, #NotThere, #EverydaySexism, and #BlackLivesMatter are all having a heyday. All of these discussions should move a step forward now that we have racial and gender diversity on the money!

In sum, this was a great week for U.S. women, U.S. history, and maybe even the U.S. economy. Who won’t be excited to get and try out the new $20 bill? ATM machines, anyone?? Another milestone toward gender equality has been passed, another hurdle cleared. Although there is still a long way to go, I am thankful and glad, indeed, exuberant!

Layli Maparyan, Ph.D. is the Katherine Stone Kaufmann '67 Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women and Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College.

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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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