Women’s Equality Day, We’ve Come a Long Way

  • Published
  • By Tony Wyatt
  • 82nd Training Wing Equal Opportunity office
Sometimes change seems to take forever, and when it happens, we often find ourselves asking, "Why are we just now doing this?" To me, Women's suffrage in America is an example of just that; positive change that was a long time coming.

Since 1971, on August 26 of each year, we celebrate Women's Equality Day to commemorate ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the amendment granting women the right to vote. The fight for women's right to vote in America was a protracted constitutional battle that started in Congress on Jan. 10, 1878. It took almost 42 years after its introduction before the proposal would become the law of the land on Aug. 26, 1920. Today, women are exercising the right to vote in greater numbers than men.

This stands to reason when you consider the significant roles our commanders-in-chief have played in America becoming a more perfect union by pursuing equality for all. To top it all off, women's service in the military appear to have provided the most convincing argument that led to passage of the 19th Amendment.

This legacy is worthy of recognition, celebration and acknowledgement of the role it plays in our nation's vitality. Aptly named the 'Anthony Amendment' in honor of Susan B. Anthony, a leading figure in the women's suffrage movement in America, the amendment was not considered by Congress for a three-decade period after its initial introduction in 1878. During this period, also known as "the doldrums," many suffragists pressed individual states and territories to pass laws granting women the right to vote.

Long before women's suffrage was legal across the entire United States, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Washington, California, Oregon, Kansas, Arizona, Alaska, Illinois, Montana, Nevada, New York, Michigan, South Dakota, and Oklahoma (in that order) extended the vote to women. In addition, this was while women were actively involved in military service.

Women's selfless service to the military played a significantly important role in their achievement of suffrage rights. In fact, the involvement and actions of women in World War I provided President Woodrow Wilson a central theme and proof to support his argument for women's suffrage.

On Sept. 30, 1918, President Wilson addressed the U.S. Senate concerning women's suffrage and World War I. In that address Mr. Wilson proclaimed, "...I tell you plainly that this measure which I urge upon you is vital to the winning of the war ...We have made partners of the women in this war. Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of right?"

With the First World War waning and democracy emerging as the clear victor, President Wilson wanted to secure America's place as a leader in the free world. He was concerned about our global image and believed the status of women's suffrage reflected poorly on the United States. By 1918, 17 other countries were providing full voting rights to women. President Wilson knew women's suffrage had to become a reality in America.

Emphasizing the importance of such a reality, he further stated to the Senate, "They (other countries) are looking to the great, powerful, famous democracy of the west to lead them ...democracy means that women shall play their part in affairs alongside men and upon an equal footing with them." Two years after Wilson's presentation to the Senate, women's suffrage became a reality in America, changing and opening doors to historical first as never before.

Change began to come about more quickly once women received the right to vote. In 1920, Ohio voters elected Florence Ellinwood Allen as the first female judge in our nation's history. In 1924, Texas elected Hallie Ferguson as the nation's first female governor, and in 1932 Hattie Wyatt Caraway, an Arkansan, became the first female elected to the U.S. Senate. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women surpassed men as registered voters in 1980 and have voted at higher rates than men in every presidential election since. The gap between women and men voting has grown slightly larger with each successive election.

Interestingly, women also first graduated from our nation's service academies in 1980 after President Gerald Ford signed Public Law 94-106 in 1976. Votes in the House and Senate had previously set the course for women to enroll in the academies starting in 1976, underscoring the power, significance and importance of voting rights for all Americans. Not long after the 1980 academies' graduations, President Ronald Reagan appointed the first female U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O'Connor.

Today, President Barack Obama has appointed Sonia Maria Sotomayor as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, the third woman to assume such a position. In 1983, 24 women were serving in the House and Senate, and now there are 98. In the Department of Defense, 69 women were serving on active duty in the grades of brigadier general to general by November 2012, a sharp increase since the 1980 service academies graduations.

We have come a long way and achieved a lot since Aug. 26, 1920, and there is still much work to be done regarding women's rights. Without the leadership and perseverance of our commanders-in-chief, women's equality would not be as much of a reality as it is today. Let's celebrate Women's Equality Day while continuing to work towards a more perfect union every day of the year!