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Women's Equality Day

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Dawan Woods
  • 6th Air Mobility Wing Equal Opportunity
Every year Aug. 26, Americans celebrate Women's Equality Day.

Instituted by Rep. Bella Abzug and established in 1971, the date commemorates the passage of the 19th Amendment, the Woman Suffrage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave American women full voting rights in 1920. This year, as we celebrate this major milestone in American history, let us not forget the struggles and sacrifices made by so many before us to make equality for women a reality in this country.

In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton began the 72-year battle for the 19th Amendment when she first presented the notion for women's right to vote at the Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y. She presented a Declaration of Sentiments, which was modeled after the Declaration of Independence and addressed issues that "troubled" women.

Women wanted the right to own property, to keep their own wages, to divorce, to gain custody of their children, to attend college, to vote, and to serve in the professions of theology, medicine and law. Of the issues presented, women's suffrage was the most controversial. For 30 years, activists like Stanton fought without success to reconstruct the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to allow women the right to vote. In 1878, Stanton and Susan B. Anthony drafted the 19th Amendment and presented it to the U.S. Senate. The amendment stayed in the Senate for nine years and was rejected by a vote of 34 - 16 in 1887. Despite the decision, activists continued to fight for the cause.

Over the years, several organizations were founded to continue the push for women's equality. In 1890, the National American Woman Suffrage Association was created. In 1913, the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage was founded, though the name was later changed to the National Woman's Party. Members of the NWP were the first group of women to picket in front of the White House for women's rights. In November 1917, picketers were arrested. Here is an excerpt of what these brave women endured while in prison:

"The women were innocent and defenseless...and by the end of the night, they were barely alive. Forty prison guards wielding clubs and their warden's blessing went on a rampage against the 33 women wrongly convicted of 'obstructing sidewalk traffic.

"They beat Lucy Burn, chained her hands to the cell bars above her head and left her hanging for the night, bleeding and gasping for air. They hurled Dora Lewis into a dark cell, smashed her head against an iron bed and knocked her out cold. Her cellmate, Alice Cosu, thought Lewis was dead and suffered a heart attack.

"Additional affidavits describe the guards grabbing, dragging, beating, choking, slamming, pinching, twisting and kicking the women. Thus unfolded the "Night of Terror" on Nov. 15, 1917, when the warden at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia ordered his guards to teach a lesson to the suffragists imprisoned there because they dared to picket Woodrow Wilson's White House for the right to vote. For weeks, the women's only water came from an open pail. Their food--all of it colorless slop--was infested with worms. When one of the leaders, Alice Paul, embarked on a hunger strike, they tied her to a chair, forced a tube down her throat and poured liquid into her until she vomited. She was tortured like this for weeks until word was smuggled out to the press."

This year, as we reflect on the accomplishments made by the pioneers of women's equality, we must also remember the sacrifices and pain they endured in the pursuit of full equality. Women's rights activists refused to take no for an answer. Let us use the bravery and experiences exhibited by these pioneers of women's rights to expand our vision of social justice and equality for all. Whether male or female, get out and vote. Use this right, which courageous women fought so hard to achieve. The right was not given freely; women earned their constitutional right, though blood, sweat, and tears.