August 26th is Women’s Equality Day and marks the anniversary of national woman suffrage. Across the seventy-two years between the first major women’s rights conference at Senecca Falls, New York, in 1848, and the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, thousands of people participated in marches through cities like New York and Washington DC, wrote editorials and pamphlets, gave speeches all over the nation, lobbied political organizations, and held demonstrations with the goal of achieving voting rights for women. Women also picketed the White House with questions like, “Mr. President, what are you going to do about woman’s suffrage?” “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” This was the first time in history that a group of people picketed the White House.
The woman suffrage amendment was introduced for the first time to the United States Congress on January 10, 1878. It was re-submitted numerous times until finally in June 1919 the amendment received approval from both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Over the following year the suffragists spent their time lobbying states in order to have the amendment ratified by the required two-thirds of the states. On August 24th, Tennessee, the final state needed for ratification, narrowly signed the approval by one vote. The vote belonged to Harry Burn, who heeded the words of his mother when she urged him to vote yes on suffrage. The U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed the amendment into law on August 26, 1920.
Fifty years later on August 26th, 1970, Betty Friedan and the National Organization of Women (NOW) organized a nationwide Women’s Strike for Equality. Women across the political spectrum joined together to demand equal opportunities in employment, education, and twenty-four hour child-care centers. This was the largest protest for gender equality in U.S. history. There were demonstrations and rallies in more than ninety major cities and small towns across the country and over 100,000 women participated, including 50,000 who marched down Fifth Avenue in New York City.
Several other acts occurred on that day to help the cause and prompt more press coverage on the women’s movement. For example, women in New York City took over the Statue of Liberty. In preparation, several women climbed up to measure the wind velocity. Later they returned to the Statue with two forty-foot banners to hang from the crown. One read: “March on August 26 for Equality.” The other: “Women of the World Unite.” An organized group stopped the ticker tape at the American Stock Exchange, and they held signs with slogans like, “We won’t bear any more bull.” Another action taken during the day was a lawsuit filed against the New York City Board of Education to gain equality for women in educational administration. The case lasted about ten years and finally resulted in a larger increase in female principals.
While the strike did not halt the activities of the nation, it drew national attention to the women’s rights movement. For example, The New York Times published their first major article on the feminist movement by covering the events of the day. It even included a map of the route the marchers took through New York City.
The following year in 1971, Representative Bella Abzug (D-NY) introduced a bill designating August 26th of each year as Women’s Equality Day and the bill passed. Part of the bill reads that Women’s Equality Day is a symbol of women’s continued fight for equal rights and that the United States commends and supports them. It decreed that the President is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation annually in commemoration of woman suffrage and the 1970 Strike for Equality. Women today continue to draw on the history of these brave and determined women.