Today is Women’s Equality Day. Why is August 26 known as Women’s Equality Day?
The 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote nationally on August 18, 1920, so why is Women’s Equality Day on August 26th each year?
The simple answer is that even when a constitutional amendment has been ratified it’s not official until it has been certified by the correct government official. In 1920, that official was U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby. On August 26, 1920, Colby signed a proclamation behind closed doors at 8 a.m. at his own house in Washington, D.C, ending a struggle for the vote that started a century earlier.
In 1971, Representative Bella Abzug championed a bill in the U.S. Congress to designate August 26 as “Women’s Equality Day.” The bill says that “the President is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation annually in commemoration of that day in 1920, on which the women of America were first given the right to vote.”
New York’s Central Park unveiled a statue of women’s rights pioneers Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sojourner Truth — marking the park’s first statue of real-life women. Central Park is unveiling a statue of women’s rights pioneers. It’s the park’s first statue of real women:
The statue will be unveiled Wednesday morning, and comes 100 years after the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. It honors three key figures in the women’s rights movement with roots in New York, each of whom died before American women gained the right to vote.
2020 is the Centennial Year of the 19th Amendment giving white women the right to vote.
For African-American women and other minority women who were leaders in the women’s suffrage movement, they would not obtain the full legal right to vote in many states until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. These women’s suffrage pioneers also deserve to be honored with a statute for their life’s work (while we are replacing Confederate traitor slaveholder statues).
Martha S. Jones, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and author of the forthcoming book “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All,” in an op-ed at the Washington Post rights, For Black women, the 19th Amendment marked not the end, but the beginning of the movement for voting rights:
When the 19th Amendment became law 100 years ago, women could no longer be barred from the polls because of their sex. Yet for Black women, ratification marked not the end but the beginning of a movement for voting rights. The intimidation tactics, violence and Jim Crow laws that kept Black men from the polls would deny Black women their votes for the next four-plus decades. Their struggle for equality, until passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, holds lessons about the need to remain ever vigilant against voter suppression efforts.
In the months before Tennessee’s ratification made the 19th Amendment law, those Southern lawmakers who supported women’s votes did so with the understanding that Black women’s access to the ballot box would not be protected. The amendment’s language did not prohibit states from continuing to impose poll taxes, literacy tests and “understanding clauses,” nor did it require them to curb the intimidation and violence directed at Black women.
Knowing this, Black women organized. Citizenship workshops and suffrage schools opened in church halls and YWCA meeting rooms, and Black women guided one another through the maze of voter registration requirements. Hoping for relative safety in numbers, women in many places turned out in groups to register. Some succeeded in getting their names on the rolls in 1920, but many, especially in Southern states, did not. Exercising their political influence would, perhaps counterintuitively, require more than a constitutional amendment.
Hallie Quinn Brown, leader of the National Association of Colored Women — whose 300,000 members made it the nation’s largest political organization of Black women — understood that the 19th Amendment needed teeth. Aiming to win federal legislation that would override state-level obstacles to the polls, she sought an alliance with Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party. But Paul declined and the National Woman’s Party followed, leaving Black womento carry on the fight for ballot access by new terms — ones that linked their quest with the goals of the growing civil rights movement.
The battle for voting rights had many fronts. In federal courts, the NAACP argued that the Constitution did not countenance racism and that the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, ensured Black Americans’ access to the polls. In its 1915 decision in Guinn v. United States, the Supreme Court struck down “grandfather clause” exemptions to literacy requirements for voting rights, as they discriminated against Black people whose formerly enslaved grandfathers could not vote. It was 1944 before Smith v. Allright overturned a Texas law that excluded Black voters from primaries. Outlawing poll taxes required its own constitutional amendment, the 24th, which was not ratified until 1964. It was another year before the Voting Rights Act ended disenfranchisement.
In the interim, Black women across the country sought political power by a variety of means. In Illinois, where journalist and anti-lynching advocate Ida B. Wells had founded the Alpha Suffrage Club, Black women’s votes helped elect Oscar De Priest, the first Black member of Congress in the 20th century. In Florida, Mary McLeod Bethune organized Black women voters — work that prompted Ku Klux Klan members to march, more than once, onto the campus of her Daytona Beach school for girls. (Bethune faced down the KKK, but such intimidation led many women to stay home.) By the 1930s, Bethune was in Washington, pursuing power through federal appointments and patronage; she founded the National Council of Negro Women and Franklin Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet.” In Alabama, Rosa Parks turned up to an NAACP meeting in 1943 and soon was helping to lead the Montgomery Voters League.
In the 1950s and 1960s, efforts to organize were increasingly met with violence, but local work persisted — and created a collective rumble. In 1951, female students at Bennett College in North Carolina encouraged Black residents of Greensboro to register. In 1954, the educator and activist Septima Clark trained to register Black voters at Tennessee’s Highlander Folk School and ran citizenship workshops that taught basic literacy and the civics of voting rights. By 1958, the activist Ella Baker was organizing Black voters in the Crusade for Citizenship, despite encountering widespread resistance from White officials. By 1964, organizer and activist Fannie Lou Hamer told a national television audience how Black Mississippians had been excluded from selecting the state’s delegates to the Democratic National Convention and called for members of her Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to be seated in their place. After four girls were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963, civil rights strategist Diane Nash headed to Selma, where she helped organize those who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday.
When the Voting Rights Act became law in August 1965, the signing ceremony attendees included a who’s who of the civil rights movement. For the Black women present — including Patricia Roberts Harris, Vivian Malone and Zephyr Wright — the occasion was a rebuke to the disappointments of 1920. They rightly took credit for the decades of work that followed.
The work is not over, however. Since the 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder gutted provisions of the Voting Rights Act, state laws that do not declare an intent to discriminate are suppressing the votes of Americans of color through ID requirements, while voter rolls are purged and polling places closed. Covid-19 also poses an outsize risk to voters of color. Despite the 15th, 19th and 24th Amendments, voting rights are still not guaranteed. In 1920, too few Americans were willing to join with Black women. Perhaps this year, at least that will be different.
Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Senator Kamala Harris writes today in the Washington Post, Kamala Harris: Voting is the best way to honor generations of women who paved the way for me:
One hundred years ago, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was formally adopted. Courageous American women had been organizing and protesting for seven decades to be treated as equal participants in our democracy, and their hard work finally paid off. After ratification votes from 36 states, it was official: Our Constitution would forevermore enshrine the right to vote for American women.
That is, unless you were Black. Or Latina. Or Asian. Or Indigenous.
We cannot mark this day, now known as Women’s Equality Day, without remembering all the American women who were not included in that voting rights victory a century ago. Black activists such as Ida B. Wells had dealt with discrimination and rejection from White suffragists in their work to secure the vote. And when the 19th Amendment was ratified at last, Black women were again left behind: Poll taxes, literacy tests and other Jim Crow voter suppression tactics effectively prohibited most people of color from voting.
In fact, if I had been alive in 1920, I might not have been allowed to cast a ballot alongside White women. Neither would my mother, an immigrant from India, who first taught me how sacred our vote is. It would be another 45 years until the Voting Rights Act protected the voting rights of millions more voters of color — and an additional 10 years until Latinas and Indigenous women were no longer subject to literacy tests.
So although the centennial of the 19th Amendment offers a reminder that extraordinary progress is possible, it is also a reminder that there has never truly been universal suffrage in America.
We know what we have to do to fulfill the promise embodied in the 19th Amendment: We need to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, support automatic and same-day voter registration and help fund secure state voting systems. And that is what Joe Biden and I will do when we’re in the White House.
But change cannot wait until then. Republicans are once again doing everything in their power to suppress and attack the voting rights of people of color. They are deploying suppressive voter ID laws, racial gerrymandering, voter roll purges, precinct closures and reduced early-voting days — all of which have been laser-targeted toward communities of color since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
And this year, Republicans are also spending millions on every scare tactic and trick in the book. Most visibly, they are doing what they can to take advantage of a pandemic that the president cannot, or will not, get under control. They are spreading misinformation about voting by mail — a safe and secure voting option — and they have been caught trying to politicize the U.S. Postal Service. Meanwhile, the president himself has already requested a mail-in ballot this year and encouraged his supporters to do the same in places where he needs a political advantage to win. This double standard is not right and cannot stand.
Our campaign, on the other hand, is committing the resources needed to beat back voter suppression. We need to make sure that everyone who’s eligible to vote is able to do so — and that their vote is counted.
We’re working with election officials across the country to add early-voting locations. Where possible, we’re providing absentee ballot request forms with prepaid postage and tracking applications to confirm they were submitted, in accordance with state laws. And when necessary, we’ll go to court to protect everyone’s right to access the polls and safely cast their ballot — in person or through the mail.
That said, this has to be a full team effort. Around 1920, Black women set up “suffrage schools” to teach each other how to pay a poll tax or pass the literacy test imposed on Black Americans by local election officials. So in that spirit, here’s what you, as voters, need to do: First, check that you’re registered to vote at iwillvote.com. Then, vote early if possible, either in person at your polling location while wearing a mask, or by requesting a ballot by mail, which you can mail back or drop off at drop boxes or at your local Board of Elections.
If we do that — and if we vote in numbers no one has seen before — we can prove that these past four years do not represent who we are or who we aspire to be. And we can finish the work begun long ago to bring more voices into our democracy.
After all, when the 19th Amendment was ratified 100 years ago, it would have been unimaginable for a Black woman to be a serious contender for the vice presidency of the United States.
So this fall, remember the struggles and sacrifices that made it possible. Because the best way to honor the generations of women who paved the way for me — for all of us — is to vote, and to continue their fight for all Americans to be able to do the same, no matter their gender, race, age, ability or Zip code.
Next year, with a Democratic president, House and Senate, passage of enabling legislation for the Equal Rights Amendment!