Is women’s history and Women’s History Month still relevant today? Is the need for sisterhood activism over as some say? We look back at the first group to advocate for women’s right to vote nationally and see that it was ultimately successful. The Seneca Falls Woman’s Rights Convention was held long ago in1848. But the words of its organizer Elizabeth Cady Stanton still hold true and yet are still controversial, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.”
That right was opposed for decades by a well-funded anti-suffrage movement that argued most women really didn’t want the vote, and most were unqualified to exercise it. It took 70 years of women activists to convince the country on women’s right to vote.
For decades, these women were not deterred. They went to the states, especially the western states, where the pioneering spirit won voting rights for women beginning with Wyoming in 1869. Yes, progress was up and down. Utah gave women the vote and then it was repealed. But activists persevered and almost 50 years before Congress passed the 19th amendment, the Equal Rights Party nominated a woman candidate for US President.
The Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution became law in 1920, and women could vote, including in the Presidential election. But only after the victories of the civil rights movement did all American Women turn out to vote in the same numbers as men. That milestone was reached in 1980, more than a century after Seneca Falls.
What held women back and why does representation of women still range from meager to modest? The underlying reasons were beautifully express by Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American congresswoman in 1968 and the first major-party black woman presidential candidate. “The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says: It’s a girl.” “Tremendous amounts of talent are lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt.”
When the Women’s Liberation Movement reignited in the late 1960s, we had the vote but not economic equity in hiring, salaries, representation and promotions. The Feminist Movement did achieve gains for women regarding education, pay, and maternity leave. But critics succeeded in making Feminism synonymous with aggressive, angry, and other words I won’t repeat but you all know them. The goal of this stereotyping was to de-legitimize, marginalize, and render invisible the outspoken voices. As a result, many women distanced themselves from the Feminist label.
Those critics re-surfaced with a vengeance during the recent women’s marches. So-called pundits labeled the women activists as 1.) ugly & fat and irrelevant, 2.) old and irrelevant, and 3.) naive and irrelevant, 4) mean & unlikeable and irrelevant, or too stupid or ignorant to know that there’s no longer anything to protest and, therefore irrelevant. They their views gained a place in the national conversation demonstrates the depth of animosity in our society.
Are we surprised? Not when we remember the words of women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem (1934…) “Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke. That’s their natural and first weapon. She will need her sisterhood.”
We must stand together to counteract those who would render women invisible and irrelevant. Keep in mind that attempts to give women guarantees of the same rights as men was never adopted into the U.S. Constitution or any legal document or piece of legislation. The economic consequences of this invisibility embedded in our society continue today. It’s not surprising that only 20% of seats on Fortune 500 boards were held by women as recently as 2016.
- If protests against gender inequity are so irrelevant today, why do the statistics say otherwise?
- Only 17% of the seats in Congress are held by women.
- Although 48% of law school graduates and 45% of law firm associates are female, women make up only 22% of federal-level and 26% of state-level judgeships.
- Only 4% of our largest companies have women CEOs -and that’s a historic high!
- The World Economic Forum’s 2009 report on the Global Gender Gap ranked 134 countries for gender parity. The U.S. didn’t even make the top 10—it came in at number 31.
It’s time for a re-vitalized sense of activism and sisterhood. Be visible! Do not allow attempts to make us irrelevant to be successful. Do not be deterred by claims that we are too ugly to count, or fat, old, naive, stupid, or ignorant. The stakes are too high and the coming generations need our faith, perseverance, and determination. Social justice depends on us and our Sisterhood. Let’s stand together proudly as photos of White House decision makers on women’s health show a room entirely populated by men. Let’s protest loudly when belittled in newspaper editorials. Let’s support each other when we’re told “It’s not your turn” or “You lack the leadership credentials.” Above all, let’s change the statistics and let the world know that women can and do make this world a better place.