Women’s Equality Day: Celebrating the Past and Working on the Future

Behind the celebrations of August 26th – Women’s Equality Day – stand more than 100 years of women’s rights actions. Here is the brief timeline of the making of Women’s Equality Day in the US, from New York, via Tennessee, to Washington, DC.


The year 1848 is considered as the official starting date of the US suffrage movement.
The Seneca Falls convention of 1848 was not the first gathering of its kind, but in the historiography, it became a landmark in the US suffrage journey.
Only one of the 300 participants of the Seneca Falls convention, Charlotte Woodward Pierce, lived to see the day women got the right to vote, 70 years later.


The call to give women the right to vote nationally was first introduced to the US Congress by Senator Aaron A. Sargent in 1878, thirty years after the Seneca Falls convention.
Sargent’s wife, Ellen, was known as an active suffragist, and he was making the move on behalf of her fellow activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The suggestion was called Susan B. Anthony Amendment to the Constitution.

It took more than forty years for the amendment to be ratified. Sargent did not live to see the day, as he died in 1887.


What came to be known as the 19th Amendment was passed in May 1919 in the House, and in June 1919 in the Senate.
But there was still a way to go to full ratification: the amendment had to get the approval of two-thirds of the states.


By March of 1920, the 19th Amendment was approved by 35 states – missing only one state to reach the two-thirds mark to pass. Tennessee became the crucial state.
It is said that the Tennessee state legislature was divided 48-48 on the matter, and the decision was made in favor of the amendment by the 24-year old Harry Burn. According to the popular story, Burn received a letter from his mother urging him to “be a good boy”, and hence he voted for the approval of 19th amendment.

From Tennessee the journey continues to Washington, D.C for the final step towards ratification. And it is here in DC where the date 26 August became significant. Ironically the day itself was pretty much uneventful.

On August 26th, 1920, at 8 AM, the Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed the required proclamation. He did so at his home – 1507 K Street Northwest, after drinking “one-half cups of coffee” and before having breakfast. It was then when the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was officially adopted.

Colby declined requests by women’s suffrage leaders, such as Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt, to allow them to witness the document’s signing. And so none of the leaders of the Suffrage Movement was present when the proclamation was signed.
There was no ceremony. The signing took place behind closed doors, with no cameras to document the historical moment.

Colby did congratulate suffrage leaders for their achievement, and declared that the day “marks the opening of a great and new era in the political life of the nation.”

Alice Paul was quoted saying that “August 26th will be remembered as one of the great days in the history of the women of the world and in the history of this republic.”

On November 2nd, 1920, more than 8 million American women voted for the first time.


When the 19th Amendment finally passed, it was only paving the way to the ballot for white women.
Women of color, mainly in the South, were effectively prevented from exercising their constitutional right to vote by Jim Crow laws.

Only once the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965 did all women in the US get their right to vote.


On August 26th, 1970, more than 50,000 women marched down New York City’s Fifth Avenue, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment.
They were also protesting the remaining signs of gender inequality, in fields such as abortion policies. It was called Women’s Strike for Equality March.


Inspired by the march, Congresswoman Bella Abzug championed the Congress to pass a resolution designating August 26th as Women’s Equality Day.

Abzug was one of the most famous and influential female politicians at the time.
She was an activist her entire life, worked as a civil rights lawyer, took public office for the first time at age fifty, and was the first woman to run for the US Senate from New York; and the first woman to run for the office of Mayor of New York City.


In 1973 the US Congress designated August 26th as Women’s Equality Day. The date was selected to commemorate the 1920 certification of the 19th Amendment.
When this was approved by the Congress, President Nixon issued Proclamation 4236, and since then, every president has issued a proclamation for Women’s Equality Day.


Since 1980 women have been consistently practicing their right to vote for presidential elections more than men.
For example, in the 2012 elections, 64% of eligible women voted compared to 60% of men. The difference is between 71.4 Million female voters and 61.6 Million male voters.


The observance of Women’s Equality Day is marked both by the commemoration of the achievement to pass the 19th Amendment and by calling to do more for full equality.

Cultural, community, and political organizations use this day to facilitate programs to bring into awareness the ongoing fight for women’s rights.
Those are working in various ways to make change through policy, education, protests, marches, and support of women-owned businesses.

The calls are also present on social media. For example, this petition to make Women’s Equality Day into a federal public holiday.

Many activists use this day to call for attention to the gender wage gap – the average woman earns about 80 cents for every dollar that the average man makes. The gender pay gap is worse for women of color – 63 cents for every dollar that a white man makes.

In recent years there is an increased focus on general inclusion in Women’s Equality Day celebrations.
Feminism is developing into a call to recognize different forms of discrimination and prejudice.

The public celebrates the anniversary of the 19th Amendment ratification to the Constitution in the above-mentioned options, through educational actions such as those listed on National Women’s History Alliance website, by attending special related events (that you can find on WWP calendars), and more.
You can also browse through our shop and choose a t-shirt with a printed design that states the demand for equality and wear your agenda to spread the word, like in the following examples:


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