By Susan Cochran
On Aug. 26, 1920, Congress certified passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing all women citizens the right to vote. The jubilant day — since proclaimed "Women's Equality Day" — climaxed a long persistent half-century campaign for women's suffrage and led to the creation that year of the League of Women Voters.
But equality did not automatically come along with the right to vote. And today, nearly a century later, there is still much work to be done. While significant progress has been made through legislation and court action in reversing laws and practices detrimental to women — including those by banks and lenders denying women mortgages on homes and care loans — inequities remain.
More than half of Maryland's working women don't have access to paid sick leave, requiring many of them to choose between their health and that of their children and putting food on the table. Legislation to mandate paid sick leave was proposed this year in the Maryland Legislature and supported by the League of Women Voters of Maryland, but it failed. We hope that it will be reintroduced in the next session and pass.
Single women and their children too frequently suffer from poverty. Nearly six in 10 poor adults are women, and more than half of all poor children live in families headed by women. This poverty is due to many factors, among them a lack of quality, affordable child care options. Increasing the availability of good programs would help more women become self sufficient.
Equal pay for equal work is not yet reality. Estimates range for women's pay from 77 cents on the male dollar to 84 cents on the male dollar — either way, women are decidedly on the short end of pay equity. Congress should strengthen pay equity laws.
Women also deserve non-discriminatory health care support. They deserve effective protection from domestic abuse. Women and girls should be encouraged in science and engineering studies leading to better jobs and a realization of their talents to contribute to society.
From the beginning, social issues were important to the woman's rights movement. Most of us know that the long campaign for the vote for women started in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Not so many know that the call to the convention described itself as "a convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman." Soon the movement centered on the right to vote for women as a way of getting legislation to improve life on many fronts.
It took civil disobedience and courage to succeed in winning the vote in the face of great adversity. Suffragettes picketing the White House in 1917 were imprisoned in a work house and tortured through force feeding after initiating a hunger strike there. The publicity nudged a reluctant President Woodrow Wilson to back a constitutional amendment granting suffrage to all women, and Congress voted for the proposed 19th Amendment on June 4, 1919. The amendment was ratified and certified by Congress on this date 94 years ago (Maryland did not ratify the amendment until 1941, and it was not certified until 1958).
The 19th century and early 20th century women leaders who secured the vote for all citizens, regardless of sex, are an inspiration, and their spirit can keep us going to achieve a better society in the 21st century. The message of Women's Equality Day is that the vote is precious and we should use it to continue to pursue the goal: full equality.
Women's Equality Day is not just a celebration; it is a call to action.
Susan Cochran is president of the League of Women Voters of Maryland. Her email is email@example.com.