On August 26, 1970, over 50,000 women marched nationwide in the Women’s Strike for Equality. The date marked the 50th anniversary of the addition of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution: women’s right to vote.
The demonstration was considered the largest gathering for women’s rights since the suffrage protests at the turn of the century. Inspired by the rally, Congresswoman Bella Abzug (also known as “Battling Bella”) introduced a resolution to designate August 26 as Women’s Equality Day.
Today, on the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment in our country, women may be able to vote, but we are still not guaranteed constitutional equality.
History books often state that women were “given” the right to vote. In reality, women fought, marched, and organized for more than a century to obtain it. Even when the 19th Amendment was enacted, the right to vote was not available to all women. Laws restricted the vote for women of color, many of whom made the same sacrifices and contributions to achieve suffrage as their white counterparts, under greater hardship.
The historical documentary, These Things Can Be Done: Women’s Suffrage in Virginia, by Boedeker Films, was recently released by VPM, in association with the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, and highlights the fight for the 19th Amendment, as well as voter suppression in Virginia after the right to vote was won.
Like racial discrimination, gender discrimination is part of the systemic inequality that has existed in our country since its founding. While women’s rights have made great strides over the years, many Americans don’t realize the U.S. Constitution doesn’t guarantee equal rights for women.
The moment I learned this, it was something I couldn’t ignore, much less forget.
How can the U.S. be considered a world leader if all of its citizens are not truly equal? How can we succeed as a nation if this basic, fundamental right is not included in our foundational document? What can be done to rectify the status of women, including trans women, who continue to be treated as second class citizens in this country? Who is working on this issue and how does the general public not have more awareness of it?
When the U.S. Constitution was written, the majority of Americans were intentionally excluded; this institutionalized the racial and gender inequality we still experience today.
The promise of equal protection in the 14th Amendment has never been fully extended to women. The late Justice Antonin Scalia summed it up best, “Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t.”
To put this glaring disparity into context, let’s consider the facts.
Currently, 168 international constitutions (85 percent) include gender equality – the U.S. Constitution does not (source: Southern Legal Counsel). That means the United States is one of just 28 countries worldwide that does not recognize its citizens as equal under the law, regardless of sex.
This doesn’t play out well in our daily lives – or our international status. In 2018, the U.S. was ranked as the 10th most dangerous country in the world for women. We tied for third with Syria regarding risk of sexual violence, harassment and coercion into sex (source: Reuters). America is also one of only two countries in the world that does not guarantee paid maternity leave (source: Evoke). And our gender equality gap costs our economy a whopping $2 trillion per year (source: Fast Company).
Given these facts, it’s no surprise that we do not lead the world in gender equality.
Every year, the World Economic Forum (WEF) measures gender equality in countries around the world and America recently dropped below the top third. The Global Gender Gap Index 2020 reports that the U.S. is now ranked 53rd out of 153 countries.
At this rate, America will not achieve gender equality for another 208 years (source: Equality Can’t Wait). The Constitution is supposed to serve as the supreme law of the United States. This egregious “equality gap” not only negatively impacts our justice system, but enables continued gender discrimination.
According to Quartz, a global business news publication, most of the world’s constitutions guarantee more rights than America’s. Indeed, our national leaders spend time and money promoting gender equality abroad, but not at home. Why? Because they know gender equality is beneficial – economically, politically and socially.
Overseas, constitutional equality is served up as “American values,” but here, it’s considered too “controversial,” despite the fact that 97 percent of Americans say it’s somewhat, or very, important for women to have equal rights with men (source: Pew Research Center).
The notion of equal rights is not something new in our country.
The same year that Women’s Equality Day was established, the 28th Amendment (Equal Rights), commonly known as the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), was approved by both houses of Congress. First proposed in 1923 by American suffragist Alice Paul, the amendment was designed to provide legal equality to all American citizens. The text is simple:
The amendment immediately received wide, bipartisan support from both Republicans and Democrats.
By 1977, it had received 35 of the necessary 38 state ratifications to be enacted. However, that all changed when a group of conservative women, led by Republican Phyllis Schlafly, organized a scrappy campaign against the ERA in defense of traditional gender roles. The recent period drama, Mrs. America, starring Cate Blanchett, offers an interpretation of this pivotal moment in our nation’s history with repercussions that remain with us today.
Further complicating the issue of the 28th Amendment (Equal Rights) is the arbitrary deadline that Congress imposed on it when it was first introduced.
Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed a resolution to remove the ratification deadline. Before the onslaught of COVID-19, I had the privilege, with fellow equality advocates, of witnessing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi make a statement on the revival of the much needed amendment.
At the press conference, Pelosi declared that this was “not just about women; it’s about America” and that gender equality will strengthen our country, “unleashing the full power of women in our economy and upholding the value of equality in our democracy.”
It can’t be overstated, gender equality benefits everyone (see the $2 trillion statistic above).
On March 8, 2020, International Women’s Day, people from all over the country gathered in Richmond to celebrate Virginia becoming the 38th and final state needed to ratify the 28th Amendment (Equal Rights).
Currently, this amendment is the only fully ratified amendment ever kept out of the Constitution. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said, “Just like freedom of speech [and] freedom of the press, a fundamental tenet of our society should be the equal citizenship stature of men and women.”
Equality, diversity, and inclusion are American imperatives.
To dismantle systemic inequality, these values must be priorities for policy makers and candidates in 2020 and beyond. It will require everyone to take action. From increasing awareness and elevating these points in conversations to voting for leaders who support and champion gender equality, each of us has a role to play in fixing our Constitution and making equality for all Americans a reality.
Empty gestures do not create the change we need: a posthumous pardon, companies that promote gender equality in the press but have not built the infrastructure to ensure equal opportunity, or another “women’s employee resource group” (where women organize everything on their “free time”) from an employer who does not support the 28th Amendment.
As with the Confederate statues coming down on Monument Avenue, we cannot go through the motions of addressing systemic inequality without meaningful change.
It’s not enough to remove symbols or have a commemorative holiday. We must recognize that the fight for women’s equality continues to this day, and that it’s up to all of us – women and their allies – to keep fighting the good fight. As long as our Constitution is missing the 28th Amendment (Equal Rights), we fall short on our promise of “liberty and justice for all.”
For more information on the 28th Amendment (Equal Rights), or to join the fight for equality, visit VoteEquality.US. Internships and fellowships currently available.