Women’s Equality Day

The_Childrens_Museum_of_Indianapolis_-_Votes_for_women_pennantVotes for Women Pennant. (The Children's Museum of Indianapolis, via Wikimedia Commons)

August 26 is Women’s Equality Day, a day Congress designated on the heels of the 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality and at the start of a decade of intense battles over the Equal Rights Amendment. The date was chosen to commemorate the day in 1920 when Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed the proclamation granting American women the constitutional right to vote. The advocates of Women’s Equality Day saw it as a mark of legitimation to the renewed struggle for women’s equal rights and every year since the sitting U.S. President has issued a proclamation reaffirming Women’s Equality Day. As we move closer to the Nineteenth Amendment’s 100th anniversary, we can expect an increased public interest in the history of the women’s rights movement. It is long overdue. The recent appearance of popular icons like Beyoncé proclaiming feminism and Hillary Clinton’s bow to both suffragists and feminists in her campaign videos shows that Americans are finally ready to examine the history of women’s political activism in America.

This year as in past years, there are numerous community celebrations of Women’s Equality Day. The Susan B. Anthony House in Rochester, New York has coupled its annual celebration commemorating Anthony’s pivotal role in building the woman suffrage movement with a voter registration drive. The Women’s Intercultural Network is hosting events in San Francisco and Los Angeles to honor contemporary social justice activists. Some states are focusing on the future. Wyoming, the first territory to grant women the right to vote (in 1869), has established a Wyoming Women’s Suffrage Celebration committee to plan a yearlong celebration beginning in December 2019. You should expect to see more announcements about state plans for suffrage celebrations in the near future.

Organizations have already been formed to coordinate a national centennial celebration of the Nineteenth Amendment and the fiftieth anniversary of Women’s Equality Day in 2020. We should expect to see some competition between these groups as we get closer to the centennial. The most active is Vision 2020, a project of Drexel University and the National Constitution Center. It has designated Philadelphia as the key site of the national tribute and its chair, Lynn Yeakel, makes clear that this effort is about remembering the suffrage struggle and finishing the battle for women’s equality. “Achieving the right to vote a century ago inspired the ongoing effort to correct inequities in other areas of life,” Yeakel has stated, and Vision 2020’s celebration “will reflect our progress all across the nation.” It remains to be seen what the federal government will do for this historic commemoration. There is, after all, an election or two between now and then.

Some people celebrate the woman suffrage victory on August 18, which marks the day Tennessee became the thirty-sixth and final state needed for ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. They call this Ratification Day. Why this date has emerged as a day for celebration is not completely clear, but maybe it emerged as part of a concerted effort to separate women’s voting rights from women’s equal rights, and the suffragists from the liberal and radical feminists of the 1970s. Americans have long been more comfortable with suffragists than with feminists.

Reducing the Tennessee story to a day obscures its dynamic story of political struggle. The legislature’s fight over suffrage began on August 18 and it didn’t end until August 24. President Woodrow Wilson set things in motion when he asked Governor Albert H. Roberts to call a special session of the Tennessee Assembly. When the special session opened on August 9, members of the state, neighboring state, and national suffrage and anti-suffrage associations came to Nashville to lobby. Suffrage supporters wore yellow roses. The antis wore red roses. The Senate went yellow but the House was evenly divided. The Speaker Seth Walker, wearing red, entered a motion to table the resolution. This resulted in a tie vote. Another vote. Another tie. When the Clerk began the third roll call vote, this time about the resolution itself, one man who had been wearing red changed his colors. This is the famous story of Harry Burn, a 24-year-old from East Tennessee who had received a letter from his mother, Phoebe E. Burn, telling him to put the “rat” in “ratification.” The story of the vote on August 18 is told beautifully by historian Marjorie J. Spruill in Ruth Pollak’s 1995 documentary film “One Woman, One Vote.”

The Tennessee moment was not over. Speaker Walker also voted in favor in an attempt to set up a vote to reconsider the resolution. The antis tried to build support for their side in anticipation of a reconsideration vote. When that did not occur, thirty-eight legislators crossed the border into Alabama to prevent the Assembly from having a quorum on any future vote. Both sides engaged lawyers to look into the legal issues. A judge issued a temporary injunction restraining the governor from transmitting certification of ratification to Secretary of State Colby and the antis declared “no women will vote for a year and a half at least.” The governor said he would use the power of his office and sign the certification. He did and on August 25 it was sent to Washington, arriving just before 4 a.m. On August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment became part of the United States Constitution.

Tennessee’s suffrage history deserves its place in the larger story of the struggle for women’s equal rights, as do the other state histories, because they emphasize just how difficult it has been to achieve women’s political equality. The centennial anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment that will be celebrated in 2020 needs to uncover the complicated twists and turns of that journey. There are many online resources to help communities and teachers learn more about the history of women’s rights. The National Women’s History Project is one of the best clearinghouses for information and the web exhibit Click! The Ongoing Feminist Revolution provides historical essays and a timeline full of links to many historical resources. Digitized newspapers documenting what happened in 1920 are readily available. Thinking about how these events are connected to 1970 and the present is up to us.

About the Author

Melanie Gustafson

Melanie Gustafson teaches at the University of Vermont and has written about the woman suffrage movement and women in partisan politics.

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