Friday, August 26, is celebrated as Women’s Equality Day, commemorating the 1920 certification of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution. This amendment proclaimed that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Sounds like women got the right to vote on that day in 1920, right? Well, not entirely.
Voting is a privilege of citizenship, and there were many arbitrary roadblocks to full citizenship at that time, usually based on race. Native Americans didn’t get the right to vote until the 1940’s; Asian-Americans had to wait until the 1950’s; and African-Americans struggled through the mid-1960’s until the Voting Rights Act was adopted in 1965. Up until 1936, it was still questionable if an American woman could retain citizenship if she chose to marry a non-American. Viewed through this lens, American women have had equal access to the ballot for just a short period of our country’s history.
And what about other measures of equality? August 23 was “Equal Pay Day” for African-American women – the day when they finally catch up to what their white male counterparts made for similar work last year. White women pass that mark sometime in April, while Latinas won’t reach it until sometime this fall. Add to that the motherhood penalty/fatherhood bonus, and we are left with a persistent wage gap that traditionally undervalues women’s labor and is hardly an equitable situation.
Access to quality health care is another aspect of women’s lives filled with inequities. Many women have a need to visit the doctor’s office more during their lifetime than men, mainly due to their reproductive lives. Whether or not they can access this health care, however, depends on numerous factors: their age, economic status, race, disability and immigration status, for example. Where they live and what kind of health insurance they have has a huge impact on the care they can access. And queer and transgender women face additional barriers to accessing quality health care.
When it comes to birth control and abortion, where women work may also impact their access, as corporations have been granted personal religious freedom by our courts. If you think that only impacts women who don’t want to be pregnant, it can also be hard to access quality prenatal care when you’ve been fired from your job because you are pregnant. Or when your job doesn’t provide you any paid time off to go to those prenatal appointments. And in a country with no guaranteed access to paid maternity leave, access to quality post-partum care is also hit or miss.
The type of violence women disproportionately face – domestic and sexual – certainly doesn’t seem to be given equal weight to other types of violence. Victims of robberies aren’t demanded to answer for what they were wearing, why they were in the area they were in, what they were doing before the robbery, and if they were drinking, before it’s determined a crime has been committed. If you are punched in the face by a neighbor during a fight, the law doesn’t think it’s a lesser act of violence just because you knew the person; but if you are married to them, courts might think it is. People put up with protestors violently harassing women entering abortion clinics in ways they would not accept if safe driving advocates did the same in front of a popular bar on a Saturday evening. Women still don’t experience equity in the public sphere.
None of these observations is to take away from the historic achievement of the 19th amendment. Like all voting rights, this was a hard fought struggle. It was an ugly fight, and the opposition that arose was not an illustration of America at its best. But in commemorating that achievement, we need to acknowledge those who joined that fight who were then left out of the victory. And we can’t ignore all of the inequities that still remain today, not just between genders, but between different groups of women. It’s critical to our movement to take time to mark past achievements. But it’s more critical to honor the work that brought about those achievements by continuing our struggle towards full equality for all.