Ninety years ago, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified and women finally got the right to vote. It wasn’t an easy struggle – in fact, between the convening of the first Women’s Rights Convention and enactment of the amendment allowing women to vote almost three decades passed. But when women finally achieved what should have been an inalienable right on August 26, 1920, our nation was forever changed for the better. The 90th anniversary of women’s suffrage offers a special opportunity to pay tribute to the courage, determination, and tenacity of the suffragettes and to their lasting achievement.
The call for women’s equality began far earlier than the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls. It is not a stretch to suggest that this narrative began with the plea by Abigail Adams to her husband John Adams who was serving in the Continental Congress at the dawn of our nation’s independence in 1776. “In the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would ‘Remember the Ladies’,” Abigail wrote, “and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.”
From the launch of the formal movement in 1848, it took 72 year for suffragists to achieve their goal. So long, in fact, that the three pioneers of the movement, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, did not live to see the first women lawfully cast her ballot in 1920.
In the years since, women have continued to make strides in American life to achieve more access, more participation, more rights, and more equality, and they are doing at an increasingly faster pace.
Women’s participation in politics has accelerated rapidly in recent years. In 1987, there were only 16 women serving in the House of Representatives and only two women serving in the Senate. Today, that number has jumped by a factor of nearly five in the House, with 76 female members, and over eight times in the Senate with 17 sitting women Senators.
In January 2007, history was made when Rep. Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as the first woman Speaker of the House of Representatives – breaking the glass ceiling after more than 200 years into our nation’s history. As Speaker Pelosi has mentioned on several occasions, she and all of America’s women who have succeeded in achieving public office stand on the shoulders of the brave suffragettes and the sacrifices they made.
As women’s participation in politics has made gains, so has women’s participation in the judicial branch. For almost the first 200 years of our nation’s history, no woman served on the Supreme Court. Sandra Day O’Connor was confirmed by the Senate as the first woman Supreme Court Justice on September 25, 1981. Now, there are 3 women serving on the Supreme Court at the same time – for the first time in history: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.
Though there is much to celebrate in the fight for women’s rights, there is still significant work to be done. Women still earn 77 cents for every dollar men make, violating the fundamental value of equal pay for equal work.
Gaining the right to vote was only the first step in the fight for equality for women. For our grandmothers, our mothers, our sisters, and our daughters, we must continue to act on behalf of women across the country, until the dream of true equality and civil rights becomes a reality for all women.
Rep. James Moran (D) is Virginia’s 8th Congressional District Representative in the U.S. House of Representatives.