Equal Doesn’t Mean Equal Yet: Women’s Equality Day, ERA & The Story of My Life

My friend Carol Jenkins, a board member of the Equal Rights Amendment Coalition was updating me over lunch about the current attempt to get the ERA into the U.S. Constitution.

“This is where I came in,” I said.

ERA-march-300x222The renewed effort, founded in 2014, comes almost a century after suffragist leader Alice Paul drafted the ERA in 1923.  The language is simple : “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.”

Paul, a founder of the National Woman’s Party, was one of the few suffragist leaders who recognized that getting the right to vote in 1920–the reason we celebrate women’s equality day each August 26 – – was not the end of the fight, but merely one necessary, albeit major, victory on the path to full legal and social equality.

Many suffrage leaders declared victory after the passage of the 19th amendment to the Constitution. They went on to other causes, but Paul realized that in a democracy, no political victory is secure without a vibrant movement to keep fighting forward. “It is incredible to me,” she said, “that any woman should consider the fight for full equality won. It has just begun. There is hardly a field, economic or political, in which the natural and accustomed policy is not to ignore women.”

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Women’s Equality Day and the Civil Rights March

It was all over the news for days. Every pundit, every political talk show, every newspaper march-on-washington-widerunning big retrospective spreads. Op eds galore, and reminiscences of what it was like to march together toward equality.

Today, August 26 is Women’s Equality Day, the day that commemorates passage of the 19th amendment to the US constitution, giving women the right to vote after a struggle that lasted over 70 years. A big deal, right?

Right. But that’s not what all the news was about. In fact, though President Obama issued a proclamation and a few columnists like the New York Times’ Gail Collins gave it a nod, hardly anyone is talking about Women’s Equality Day. At least not in consciousness-saturating ways that garner major media’s attention, as Saturday’s March on Washington commemorating the 50th anniversary of a similar Civil Rights march.

Yet the two anniversaries are rooted in common values about equality and justice for all. They share common adversaries and aspirations. Racism and sexism are joined at the head.

And as League of Women Voters president Elisabeth MacNamara’s article in the Huffington Post explains, both movements today share the challenge of maintaining the right to vote, earned with such toil and tears and even bloodshed.

Like many people who participated in the 1960′s Civil Rights Movement, I celebrate how far America has moved toward racial justice in the last 50 ‘years. I am grateful to the Civil Rights movement for calling our nation not just to fulfill its moral promise to African-Americans, but by its example of courage and activism inspiring the second wave women’s movement, the gay rights movement, and so much more.

I remember having an epiphany while volunteering for a multi-racial civil rights organization called the Panel of American Women, that if there were civil rights, then women must have them too. That awareness ignited my passion for women’s equality which has driven my career ever since.

But just as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s galvanizing “I Have a Dream” speech thundered, “Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood,” (emphasis mine) and sisters were not mentioned, women have yet to rise to full equality when it comes to honoring women’s historical accomplishments and current voices.

And just as the commemorative March on Washington was a necessary reminder of how far we have yet to go to reach the full vision of the Civil Rights movement, so Women’s Equality Day is best celebrated by committing ourselves to breaking through the remaining barriers to full leadership parity for women.

Check out Take The Lead‘s two posts on The Movement blog calling attention to the auspicious anniversary.

The first is Susan Weiss Gross’s delightful personal story–the tractor being a perfect metaphor — of how she overcame her internal barriers to equality. The second comes from author and Ms Magazine founding editor Susan Braun Levine. Suzanne will be writing about “Empowerment Entrepreneurs” and how empowering each other is the latest development in women’s equality.

Read, enjoy, and then get to work along with Take The Lead, which I co-founded along Amy Litzenberger early this year,  in our 21st century movement to prepare, develop, inspire, and propel women to take their air and equal share of leadership positions across all sectors by 2025.

As the March on Washington twitter hashtag exhorted us to do, “#MarchOn!”

Aniston-O’Reilly Tiff Mirrors Gender Disparities on Women’s Equality Day 2010

Posted today on Truthout:

Jennifer Aniston sparked a classic Bill O’Reilly firestorm when she said a woman doesn’t need a man to have children and a perfectly fine life, thank you very much.

Defending not her personal situation but the character she plays in “The Switch,” her hit movie about a single woman who chose to be impregnated by a sperm donor, Aniston opined, “Women are realizing…they don’t have to settle with a man just to have a child.”

O’Reilly retorted that Aniston trivialized the role of men, saying  she was “throwing out a message to twelve and thirteen-year-olds that ‘Hey, you don’t need a dad,’ and that’s destructive.”

It’s no accident that this pregnant pop culture moment occurred near the 90th anniversary of women’s suffrage, Women’s Equality Day, August 26. The Aniston-O’Reilly tiff highlights both the progress women have made and how far we are from reaching parity from the bedroom to the boardroom. We might be able to make babies on our own, but according to the White House Project, only 18% of leadership positions across all sectors are held by women.

That includes women like Mary Cheney, either clueless or co-opted or both, who even as she endorses anti-choice, anti-gay candidates, claims her own same-sex relationship and pregnancy choice are private matters.

It includes women like my Pilates instructor who spent her life savings on achieving a high tech pregnancy at age 42 and told me, “If men would step up to the plate, women like me wouldn’t be in this situation” of deciding solo whether or not to experience motherhood.

Exceptional Conceptions Mask Other Gender Justice Issues

But the focus on these 50,000 or so exceptional conceptions overshadows the concerns and needs of the six million American women who become pregnant the old fashioned way in any given year.

Besides, separating biology from destiny is just one of many expansions of freedoms women have aspired to as far back as 1776 when Abigail Adams urged her husband John to “remember the ladies,” threatening that the women would rebel if excluded from the Constitution. (Yes, the same document Sarah Palin and the Tea Partiers want restored to its original state when enslaved African-American men were counted as 2/3 of persons and women were ignored completely.) The Founding Fathers did not heed Abigail’s plea, the women did not rebel, and as a consequence it took until 1920 for women to achieve ratification of the 19th amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing them the right to vote.

And just as those against women’s suffrage alleged it would trigger the demise of the patriarchal family, what sets off the O’Reilly factors of the world isn’t so much concern that high tech turkey basters will replace the penises they hold dear. It’s terror that the power over others–hegemony they’ve assumed as their gender’s birthright–diminishes in proportion to the rise in women’s power to set the course of their own lives.

Gender Equality Grows the Power Pie Only If It’s Used

Nothing could be further from the truth of course. Power isn’t a finite pie where a slice for you makes less for me. It’s an abundant resource. The more it is shared, the more the pie grows, and the more everyone thrives.

But if men have not yet figured this out, neither have women decided it’s time to use their power to make the rest of the changes needed to reach full equality.

A recent Harris Poll found three out of five Americans say the U. S. has a long way to go to reach gender equality.  Not surprisingly, there’s a gender difference: half of men feel inequality remains whereas 74 percent of women agree. But the startling finding is that both men and women across the age spectrum downplay the importance of rectifying gender inequality, saying there are more pressing issues to fix.

That kind of self-abnegation to which women are still acculturated is why AOL’s electronic greeting card selections celebrated August 26 as National Toilet Paper Day as recently as 2007, yet the company had no card for Women’s Equality Day. Popular culture will continue to imitate what we talk about and what we pay attention to in our daily lives.

And while it’s relatively easy for a celebrity like Jennifer Aniston to get attention for any subject, it’s much harder for the rest of us to shine the public spotlight on other important issues impinging upon equality. Today’s challenges to reaching a fair gender power balance are rooted not so much in legal barriers as in eliminating lingering constrictive cultural narratives, such as assuming mothers are less competent workers, thus paying them less than men or than women without children. http://www.examiner.com/working-moms-in-national/motherhood-penalty-working-moms-paid-less-than-women-without-children

Equality Can’t Wait

Women can’t wait for a Jennifer Aniston to lead the charge for change, and we don’t need to.

It took just one woman, unknown to the paparazzi, calling AOL’s oversight to the attention of ten of her friends, asking each to forward the message to ten more, to start a viral protest to AOL. An avalanche of complaints ensued, and Women’s Equality Day cards magically appeared.

Assuring that attention is paid by media, decision makers, and policy makers—and by women ourselves—to social and perceptual barriers standing in the way of a fair shake has become the women’s equality issue of these early decades of the 21st Century. If we can accomplish that, women’s possibilities will indeed be unlimited.

O’Reilly will continue to be offended. But isn’t that just another sign of progress?

A Brief History of Women Becoming Powerful

Women’s Equality Day–celebrating the anniversary of women’s suffrage–is coming up next month, August 26 to be exact. Lynne Shapiro found this well-done historical retrospective video and posted it on Facebook. It’s prompting me to think about what I might want to write for the upcoming little-heralded day.

Maybe you’ll be inspired to use the power of your voice, pen, mouse, or video camera to increase public awareness of major milestones in women’s advancement, too, on August 26?


All eyes will be on Hillary Clinton when she speaks tonight at the Democratic National Convention.

Media pundits and McCain loyalists will be parsing her every word, scrutinizing her every nuance, analyzing every element of her body language for quite a different reason. They love a political food fight. They’ll pounce on any whiff of tepidness, real or imagined, in her support for Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy. The Republicans have even set up a “Happy Hour for Hillary”,  lying in wait to whip up animosity toward Obama, whether their spin is real, or if all else fails, conjured up by their Rovian attack dogs.

But while talking heads will strain to see any shred of conflict between the Democratic nominee-to-be and the second-runner, some of us will be looking at the occasion with what the Tohono O’Odham people call “long eyes”.

The historic significance of the first time a woman came close to winning a major party’s presidential nomination gives special meaning to the serendipity that today, August 26th, is Women’s Equality Day –the 88th anniversary of American women’s right to vote. And the fact that Thursday, when Barack Obama will deliver his acceptance speech, will mark the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, gives the Democrats powerful symbolic bookends unmatched by any convention in recent memory.

In her own elegant speech last night, Michelle Obama observed that she herself resides in the intersection of advances that have been made for both women and African Americans, acknowledging Hillary’s “18 million cracks in the glass ceiling”
and Dr. King’s dream.

On Women’s Equality Day, it is important to note that history always has long eyes.  The movement to get women the right to vote began during the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY. It took 72 years of diligent organizing, continuous campaigning, and courageous speaking out before the 19th amendment to the Constitution was adopted. Only one attendee of the Seneca Falls convention—Charlotte Woodward—was still alive by then; she cast her first vote at age 81. I thought of her when Senator Ted Kennedy spoke so movingly about his long quest for universal health care in his extraordinary “season of hope” speech that brought the convention to cheers and tears just before Michelle spoke.

In the face of charges that women were too emotional to be entrusted with the serious act of voting (or alternately that women would just vote like their husbands, so why bother giving them the franchise), the suffragists persisted until they prevailed, and female citizens of our nation achieved that basic right of free people: to have an equal voice in electing those make the laws and policies that govern our lives.

Because of the suffragists, and all the courageous activists like Clinton who’ve taken up the torch and run with it to ever-greater height, women have reached a power point unparalleled in our nation’s history.

Sure, Hillary must feel a sense of disappointment that she’s not breaking that “highest and hardest glass ceiling” in politics. So do I and many of the women who ached to see a woman president in our lifetime. There’s no substitute for a clear win. But Hillary Clinton is a great leader precisely because she sees with long eyes that, while history is important, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams,” in her mentor Eleanor Roosevelt’s words.

Women in years past couldn’t have even dreamed of Hillary’s candidacy, let alone more subtle advances: Ted Kennedy mentioned gender as one of the divisions our nation must overcome so that “the dream lives on”; the Democratic platform for the first time highlights sexism as an injustice that must be rooted out; even greeting card companies are putting out Women’s Equality Day cards these days.

And everyone says that because women vote in greater percentages than men and are more likely to be swing voters, women will determine the outcome of the general election.

There’s much to celebrate this Women’s Equality Day. But John McCain’s inherently anti-woman agenda places in sharp relief that there is ever so much more unfinished business we must still act upon every day going forward. I anticipate Hillary Clinton’s speech will urge us convincingly to see our way clear to do exactly that.