In July 1848, hundreds of women poured into the small town of Seneca Falls, New York. They came to discuss the “rights of woman.” Among those rights, they asserted, was the right to vote. For 72 years, the women of the Seneca Falls Convention and their ideological descendents fought to secure that right.
Finally, on August 18, 1920 – 90 years ago today – they succeeded. That day, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, securing its place in our Constitution and guaranteeing women across the country the right to cast a ballot and choose their representatives in government.
Their moment of triumph was the product of an unprecedented campaign by tens of thousands of women who carried the fight for equality through the generations – from grandmothers, to mothers, to daughters.
Most of the women who began the campaign for suffrage never lived to see victory – only one of the original signatories of the Seneca Fall’s Declaration lived to cast a ballot in the 1920 election, the first election following the passage of the 19th Amendment – and many of the women who took up the cause of suffrage sacrificed their safety and security in the effort to earn the right to vote.
As the fight for equality in the voting booth gained national prominence, suffragettes faced arrests and beatings. In one of the most infamous examples of anti-suffragette action, more than 100 suffragettes were imprisoned in the Occoquan Workhouse in Fairfax County, Virginia in 1917 – their punishment for daring to picket the White House for suffrage. At Occoquan, those women were subjected to inhumane conditions, beaten, and force fed. Yet, from their suffering came progress. The plight of those women attracted national attention, and their arrest became a turning point in the struggle for the right to vote.
On this 90th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, it is important not only to pay tribute to the courage, determination, and tenacity of those suffragettes and others who helped to secure equal voting rights for women – it is also important to consider what we can do to carry on their legacy.
Today, women are an integral part of the electorate. Across the United States, there are 78.1 million registered female voters, nearly 10 million more than the number of registered male voters. And just as the Democratic Party has led the way for the full and robust participation of women in politics since the passage of the 19th Amendment, Democratic leaders are leading the way toward full equality for women in all spheres of American life.
President Obama has demonstrated a commitment to securing full equality for women in the workplace, in education, in health care, in support for military families, and in other important areas.
As a sign of that commitment, President Obama made it a priority to sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law, restoring workers’ rights to challenge illegal wage discrimination in the federal courts. In fact, it was the first legislation he enacted as President. Such legislation is more important than ever. With more women working today than men – for the first time in American history – it is critical that working women aren’t shortchanged for their work.
Other legislation enacted by this Administration – from the Affordable Care Act to the Recovery Act – is leveling the playing field for women by creating more equal access to health care and facilitating greater access to jobs and opportunities.
Despite women’s gains nationally and in the workplace, there is still room for improvement. “Women continue to earn less than men, and in 2008, 28.7 percent of households headed by single women were poor, according to a U.S. Census Bureau Report. So, President Obama, Democrats in Congress, and women’s activists and organizations across the country continue to fight for full equality for women.
One of those organizations is the National Federation of Democratic Women, a group that I lead. The National Federation of Democratic Women works to unite the wonderful diversity of devoted women behind one common goal – the support of our Party and the involvement of women in the political process. We are celebrating 40 years of service. Visit our web site www.nfdw.com to join our organization. We will be celebrating our 40th annual convention in Washington D.C. May 20-22, 2011.
Pat Hobbs, President
National Federation of Democratic Women