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Equality Day 2020 | Recognizing 100 Years of a Woman’s Right to Vote in the US

August 26, 2020 Susie Kelleher

One hundred years ago this year, white women were legally given the right to vote in the United States with the passage of the 19th amendment. This week, we celebrate Equality Day to recognize this milestone.

The Activists

This historic enfranchisement of an entire population of people was hard fought and hard won. In the end, the right to vote was given to white women by white men in power, but the cause was advocated for by activists for decades leading up to 1920.

Generations earlier, women came together at Seneca Falls Conference in 1848, which was organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, and set the narrative for the women’s rights movement for generations to come. But, historians write, it wasn’t the start of the women’s rights movement.

The hard work of equality activism was already being done by Black women, often within their own organizations and communities.

I must admit that I did not know their incredible stories, among them:

Ida B. Wells, born enslaved in Mississippi in 1862, who went on to become a pivotal leader in the anti-lynching movement. She famously confronted white suffragists who did not denounce the abhorrent practice and was at the forefront of the Black suffrage movement.

Mary McLeod Bethune, who, born to former slaves in South Carolina, founded Bethune-Cookman University in Florida, and was a prominent voice on civil rights, women’s rights and the rights of children.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, author of one of the first novels by an African American woman, Iola Leroy, who gave speeches in the south advocating for voting rights for all, including Black women.

And many, many more.

Such incredible achievements from visionary and driven women, who persevered despite being legally and societally treated as inferior. Why don’t I know their stories in detail?

I checked in with my 17-year-old daughter to see what she has learned about these women in school. She takes advanced-level history, and she was aware of the Seneca Falls Convention and Stanton, but she didn’t know the stories of these incredible Black female leaders. Why is this youngest generation still not learning these stories?

Understanding their contributions and highlighting them during this historic year could not be more important, as we reflect on where we have come from—and where we are headed.

The Barriers for Women of Color

The year 1920 seems like a long time ago, but it is not. My grandmother waited four years after turning 21 before she could legally cast her vote as a woman. Before gaining this right, she did not have an active role in shaping the future for her daughter and granddaughter.

If she had been born a woman of color, she would have remained disenfranchised for another five decades. Not until 1965, when racist barriers like poll taxes and literacy tests were removed, did Black women finally realize their full right to vote. Even then, they still faced intimidation and violence in exercising that right.

Today, white women have had generations of access to the polls to influence their communities and society. That is simply not the case for today’s Black women, whose grandmothers and mothers remained disenfranchised from this right. This profoundly impacts each generation that follows.

The Data Validates That Barriers Still Exist Today

The numbers are clear: Women are less likely to be promoted and are still not being paid the same as men for the same work. Analyzing the most recent Census Bureau data from 2018, women of all races earned, on average, just 82 cents for every $1 earned by men of all races. But, the gender pay gap is far more significant for women of color, with Black women earning just 62 cents to the dollar, Hispanic and Latinx women earning 54 cents to the dollar, and American Indian and Alaska Native women earning 57 cents to the dollar.

And Black women are much less likely to be promoted than white men are. Although they represent 7.4% of the US population, Black women represent just 1.6% of VP roles. White men represent 35% of the US population, but 57% of VP roles.

Within Fortune 500 companies, just 7% of CEOs are women, and as of last month, only three of these Fortune 500 CEOs are Black, and none of them are women.

These numbers are infuriating, but when we understand the history of disenfranchisement and the intersectionality of race and gender, it becomes clear why these trends are so pervasive.

Viewing History with Discernment

Celebrating those who came before us is the right step but embedded in this celebration must be a keen awareness of the limitations of the past. The racism and sexism that existed 100 years ago has carried through the generations and is still present today, albeit in more subtle ways that can be more challenging to identify and call out. Only when we acknowledge this can we address systemic inequalities and move toward true equality.

Today, we understand that women’s advancement relies on an understanding of and an acknowledgment of the intersectionality of race, gender, sexual orientation and class, and our approach to gender equity within our communities and our workplace must take all of these into account.

Allyship and Education for a Brighter Future

As we recognize Equality Day in 2020, much has changed. For the first time, a Black woman has been nominated as vice president on a major party platform. The wage gap continues to close each year. Representation for women of color is increasing in politics, media, and education—incrementally over time. But, simply not fast enough.

We can all do better, and the first step is to identify those visionary leaders who came before us who have set the example for what is possible, even when the stakes are high and the work is difficult. And, we must also do the hard work of understanding where we failed in the past and use those mistakes to inform our future work.

All of us have a personal role to play in the advancement of women. We need allies in this important work, and I am continually inspired by the white male leaders who are charting a course toward gender parity within their leadership ranks. I am energized by the activism of the youngest generation of diverse women in the workforce, who continue to support one another in their advancement, another thing we have not always seen in the past. And, I am moved by the courage of those who have never engaged with this difficult work before but who are coming to the table now.

There is so much to learn: This fall at the Women in Leadership Institute, leadership consultant Bev Wright will be hosting a moderated panel featuring three Black women leaders. They will be sharing their own unique perspectives and firsthand experiences. From their stories, we can inform our own strategies about how to be better allies to women of all backgrounds in the workplace. It is about listening, seeking out stories and perspectives, and evolving our views to erase biases.

Above all, I challenge each of us to learn more about the unspoken heroes of American history—Black women and women of color who have blazed trails toward equality. This fall, when I mail in my ballot for the general election and exercise my right to vote, I will be remembering and appreciating the sacrifices these women made so we may all realize that right.

 

*Special thanks to my daughter Keara Kelleher for her help in researching and writing this article.

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