Women in the United States were granted the right to vote on August 26, 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was certified. To mark that milestone, in 1971 Congress passed a resolution designating August 26 as Women’s Equality Day. The original legislation was introduced by U.S. Representative Bella Abzug of New York, certainly a woman who knew something about fighting for equal rights.
“It’s kind of like women’s July Fourth,” said Joan Bradley Wages, president and CEO of the National Women’s History Museum, who pointed out that the fight to obtain voting rights for women went on for 72 years. “There were women who spent their entire adult lives working for women to get the vote and they didn’t live to see it.” (For the record, American women working on the vote wanted to be called suffragists, while the British were called suffragettes.)
Three of those suffragists—Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott—are depicted in “Portrait Monument,” a 7.5 ton statute that once gathered dust in the basement of the Capitol and now stands proudly in the rotunda. It was the battle to give that statute a more prominent place that first energized Wages who has now spent 17 years overseeing the online National Women’s History Museum while lobbying Congress for a brick and mortar presence on the National Mall.
“The mall represents what our nation honors,” said Joan. “It represents the nature, values, and character of our nation. We think that it would be appropriate that the majority of the population be represented on the National Mall.”
The proposal for a National Women’s Museum has strong bipartisan support, said Wages. Legislation (H.R. 863 and S. 398) calls for a commission that would make a recommendation for a site, if not on the mall then near it, and explore how the museum would be funded. Private contributions would pay for the commission.
Having more women in the U.S. Senate and in Congress “absolutely” helps, said Joan. “You can see the difference now with having 20 women in the Senate,” she said. “There’s a tipping point where we don’t even have to have half before we can really empower the women who are there. I think that’s beginning to happen in the Senate and we hope in the House.”
The bill’s co-sponsors include, in the Senate, Susan Collins (R-ME) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), and in the House, Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). “We have strong bipartisan leads on both sides,” Wages said.
Until an actual building exists, people can visit NWHM’s virtual one with 23 online exhibits and more than 300 biographies. One of the site’s most popular exhibits is on the Progressive Era which spanned the late 1800s to the early 1900s and includes the suffrage movement. “There were so many efforts that women were involved in even before they got the vote,” said Joan. “They were lobbying that we should have sewage systems, vaccination programs, pasteurization of milk, and public libraries. By the late 1800s, in what was often called the club movement, women would come together in groups and take on an issue, whether it was cleaning up the neighborhood or advocating for food for the underprivileged. Women had begun to take on a civic responsibility even before they got the vote.”
Before Wages became involved in the fight to relocate “Portrait Monument,” she had limited knowledge about many of the women who had fought for the vote. “We don’t learn much about women’s history at all in our textbooks,” she said. “Men, on the other hand, have the benefit of knowing about the men who have come before them. We know about our nation’s forefathers, we know about the heroic and the courageous acts of so many men from our history. We don’t know about the equally courageous and heroic acts of the women who kept the families and the communities intact while the men went off to war. If it weren’t for what the women did, there would have been nothing for the men to come back to.”
Older women may have heard stories from their mothers and grandmothers about the suffrage movement and leaders like Stanton (above). “For younger women, it’s harder for them to identify with and it’s harder for them to accept that there was a time when women didn’t have the vote,” she said. What it all gets down to is education for women, a struggle which we now see happening around the world. “If women are living in a country where they have few rights, they are actually living in the same framework that women here were living in the 1800s. They see at every turn that there is a prejudice against them because they are women. They are far more attuned to how important it is to have voting rights.”
Wages hopes that Women’s Equality Day will cause women—young and old—to pause, thank those women who came before and look ahead to what other battles are still ahead. “The key is to make all of this relevant to our lives today,” she said. “[Getting the vote] has been a building block in our history that has created this foundation. It’s important to connect what happened in the past and how it impacts us today.”