Through our Wise Women Collective, we invite conversation and celebration. Today marks 101 years since the U.S. designated August 26 “Women's Equality Day” to commemorate the certification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote. We’ve invited our guest blogger, writer, historian, and Wise Woman Claudia Keenan to join us in recognizing the day.
Women's Equality Day
by Claudia Keenan
Surprisingly shaky, we mark one hundred years plus one since women leapt forward with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted them the vote. But did the triumphant suffragists in their white dresses ever believe that the vote would be enough to ensure equality?
Most certainly not. In 1923, the National Woman’s Party announced its quest for an equal rights amendment to the Constitution. And fifty years later, as the states began the process of ratification—which ultimately would fall short, thanks to scare tactics—Congress designated August 26 “Women’s Equality Day.”
Yet as we commemorate this day and celebrate such landmarks as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (now more than a decade behind us), social equality remains out of reach for many, many American women and girls, particularly those whose race and gender keeps them outside looking in. By now, marginalization and discrimination should be buried in the past. Of course, we know them to be alive and well because opportunity is denied hundreds of times each day.
Women’s work to advance democracy has long been suspect, perhaps never more so than in 1923 when the infamous Spider Web Chart came to light. A dense, crisscrossed diagram, it showed the connections between women activists and the organizations that championed their convictions. Created by a woman, no less, an intelligence officer who worked in the U. S. Chemical Warfare Department, the chart seemed to reveal a plot wherein women’s advocacy—suffrage, pacifism, social welfare, trade unions, etc.—would eventually destroy the Federal Government, not to mention culture and society.
Frightened by the insinuation of radicalism, politicians backed away from proposed legislation that would have banned child labor as well as public health programs for women and other new policies necessitated by the increasingly complex demands of the twentieth century. It would take many years to rebuild “a female dominion in American reform,” in the words of historian Robyn Muncy.
In a way, the Spider Web Chart continues to shadow the quest for full women’s equality. It does so by making “full rights and privileges, public or private, legal or institutional,” appear to be a radical proposition that an astonishing number of Americans continue to oppose. They are driven by fear.
In the course of my research, I come across hundreds of human stories. Many of them touch me, and one in particular resonates. In 1936, the American Federation of Arts sponsored a contest to encourage young designers to enter the profession. Hilda Jones, an eighteen-year old Black student who attended Girls Commercial High School in Brooklyn, submitted a pattern for a fabric: dark green leaves and purple flowers. Hilda’s print won first prize and a $75 pot. On top of that, Eleanor Roosevelt chose Hilda’s design for a chiffon dress that she later wore at a public event.
Many newspapers, including the African-American press, covered the story. “I’ve liked to draw for as long as I can remember,” Hilda told a reporter. Her ambition, she said, was to become a textile designer. That never happened.
Perhaps Hilda changed her mind, but she surely was discouraged by the prospects for success. Today, women and girls still feel discouraged, or they persist and find the door locked. That is why we must continue to push for full equality.
Claudia Keenan is a writer and historian of American education and author of Waking Dreamers: Unexpected Lives, 1880-1980. She writes about American culture at www.throughthehourglass.com.