Since 1971, Women’s Equality Day has been celebrated in the United States on August 26. This day, set into motion by Representative Bella Abzug (D-NY), commemorates the 1920 adoption of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the states and federal government from denying the right to vote (suffrage) to citizens of the U.S. on the basis of sex. According to the National Women’s History Alliance, “The observance of Women’s Equality Day not only commemorates the passage of the 19th Amendment, but also calls attention to women’s continuing efforts toward full equality.”
Junior Leagues were at the forefront of suffrage work
The Junior League of St. Louis was the first to join the fight for women’s suffrage. After suffrage for women failed to pass in 1914, Junior League of St. Louis Members decided to combine their passion for service with the necessity of advocacy. When St. Louis hosted the 1916 Democratic National Convention, suffragists, including women from the Junior League of St. Louis, staged a “walkless, talkless parade.” More than 7,000 women wearing yellow sashes and carrying yellow parasols lined the route delegates had to pass to reach the hall. It was a memorable statement, and the Democrats voted to include a plank for women’s suffrage—the first time a national party had declared support for the issue.
The 19th Amendment only prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex
Unfortunately, the 19th Amendment did not protect other intersections of identities from being discriminated against. It would be decades before Women of Color could vote—and yet many still played a valuable role in the suffrage effort. For Black women, the struggle for suffrage continued until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. American-born Native women did not even gain citizenship until 1924, four years after the 19th Amendment was adopted. While Native-born Asian Americans did have U.S. citizenship in 1920, Asian American immigrant women weren’t permitted to vote until the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act allowed them to gain citizenship.
Even after gaining the right to vote, all of these groups faced voter suppression tactics including literacy tests, voter ID requirements, poll taxes, and intimidation. A 1975 extension of the Voting Rights Act aimed to prohibit discrimination against citizens who have limited proficiency with the English language, but voter suppression tactics are still alive and well today.
Ways to honor the women who fought for the right to vote
You can recognize the fight for the 19th Amendment and celebrate Women’s Equality Day, while holding space for those it failed to include. Virtual events surrounding Women’s Equality Day are a fun way to expand your education on the women’s suffrage movement. The National Women’s History Museum is hosting a virtual discussion, Disability Justice and the Vote, on August 28, about how the fight for the right to vote continues today for women in the disability justice community. They are also holding a virtual salon, Mapping Suffrage, The Push for the 19th Amendment in Washington DC, on August 17, which explores the people and places in DC that bring the story of suffrage to life.
As a Junior League Member, you can join Public Affairs Committees (PACs), State Public Affairs Committees (SPACs), and Legislative Issues Committees (LICs) to amplify your voice. These are individual, apolitical Junior Leagues or coalitions of Junior Leagues within a state that form to educate and take action on public policy issues relevant to The Junior League Mission. SPACs, PACs, and LICs were developed in order to influence public policy on specific issues within a particular geographic area, such as a state, a county, or a city.
Most importantly, get out the vote! For decades, Junior Leagues have partnered with non-partisan organizations in their communities to get citizens registered and ready to vote. There’s no better way to increase the power of women’s voices and to honor the suffragists who fought for your right to vote. Continue the legacy by encouraging others to vote.