Opinion: Commentary: Women’s Equality Day

Opinion: Commentary: Women’s Equality Day

Today, August 26, is Women’s Equality Day commemorating the 1920 adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution which prohibits the federal and state governments from denying the right to vote to citizens of the United States on the basis of sex. August 26, 1920—just 100 years ago—was the day when Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed the proclamation that the required number of 36 states had ratified the amendment.

From the 1776 idea that “all men are created equal” to allowing women to vote was a long time coming with the real push for women’s suffrage coming about fifty years before it happened. The first women’s rights convention in the history of the United States was held in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, but it took many marches, petitions, and protests outside the White House, imprisonments and hunger strikes before the amendment passed Congress and was ratified just as the country emerged from another pandemic. The dedication of the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial at the location of the former Occoquan Workhouse in Northern Virginia where 120 women protesters were imprisoned was to have been dedicated this month but has been delayed with the pandemic. (https://suffragistmemorial.org/)

Virginia turned down an opportunity to be part of ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment by the General Assembly voting against it on February 12, 1920 but did get around to ratifying it on February 21, 1952. The Virginia Association Opposed to Woman’s Suffrage actively worked against the amendment using a familiar argument—“Woman Suffrage: The Vanguard of Socialism.” A 1910 broadside of the organization now in the collection of the Virginia State Library used the argument that “If you hold your marriage, your family life, your home, your religion, as sacred, dear and inviolate, to be preserved for yourself, and for your children, for all time, then work with all your might against Socialism’s vanguard—Woman’s Suffrage.” In another publication by the same organization the argument was made that “Women cannot have the franchise without going into politics, and the political woman will be a menace to society, to the home and to the state.”

Virginia was late also in ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment whose provisions include a guarantee that "equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." Congress approved the amendment in 1972 with a deadline for ratification by 1979, later extended to 1982. Numerous attempts by me and others to get Virginia to ratify the ERA failed until the outcome of the elections in 2019 resulted in enough new members elected to make Virginia the 38th and last state needed to make ratification a part of the Constitution, but the issue of the deadline remains to be resolved.

Virginia has been too slow in responding to issues of human rights in the past, but I look forward to reporting to you in coming weeks on the progress being made in erasing racial inequalities in the Special Session of the General Assembly now underway.