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The Women Behind the 19th Amendment Had a Grander Vision Than Just the Right to Vote

Jeannette Rankin and Crystal Eastman
Jeannette Rankin and Crystal Eastman
Lenora M. Lapidus,
Former Director,
Women's Rights Project, ACLU
Cristel Taveras,
Legal Assistant,
Women's Rights Project, ACLU
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August 30, 2016

Last week we commemorated Women’s Equality Day, a celebration of the anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Most people remember that the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. However, many people forget the Amendment’s original intent: to make women fully equal citizens to men in all respects under the Constitution.

On August 26, 1920, the United States adopted the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Throughout the 19th Century, women played a significant role in the abolitionist movement, writing articles for abolitionist papers, circulating pamphlets, and signing petitions to Congress calling for the demise of slavery. While some women became prominent leaders in the abolitionist movement, most still faced discrimination in society and within the movement. This exclusion led to their politicization on the issue of women’s rights. Two of these trailblazing abolitionists were Jeannette Rankin and Crystal Eastman.

In 1916, Rankin successfully ran for Congress becoming the first woman elected to the House of Representatives. In this position, she introduced a bill to allow women citizenship independent of their husbands and opened congressional debate on women’s right to vote. Crystal Eastman, a lawyer, antimilitarist, and journalist, worked on the 1912 Wisconsin suffrage battle and was one of the four drafters of the original Equal Rights Amendment. These two women championed the women’s suffrage movement, and in August 1920, their efforts culminated in the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Later that same year, Rankin and Eastman help found the American Civil Liberties Union.

In the decades since, countless other ACLU advocates (including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the co-founder and first director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project) have fought to further women’s equality at home, in society, and in the workplace, but that fight is still not won. Even as women have advanced and families have changed, our workplaces have not kept up. On average, women of all races earn 79 cents to every dollar that men earn, while women of color earn even less. Pay inequity not only affects individual paychecks, it compounds over time and compromises the financial stability of future generations.

Moreover, one-fifth of women workers report that they have lost a job or were told they would lose a job for taking time off due to personal or family illness. Pregnant workers and mothers still face discrimination that threatens their health and undermines their financial stability.

Today the ACLU Women’s Rights Project continues the fight for gender equality through impact litigation; federal, state, and local policy advocacy; and communications campaigns seeking:

  • Equal pay for equal work
  • Equal employment opportunities for women in male-dominated sectors
  • Paid family leave for mothers and fathers
  • Pregnancy and parenting accommodations at work and in schools
  • Educational equity for girls of color
  • Elimination of gender-based violence
  • Criminal and juvenile justice reform to address over-incarceration of women and girls

As a founding steering committee member of the Equal Pay Today! Campaign, which is composed of national and state-based women’s and workers’ rights advocacy organizations, the ACLU and its allies seek to end sex discrimination in the workplace and close the gender wage gap.

In 2020, we will celebrate 100 years of women’s suffrage. Let’s hope that by then we have tackled some of the remaining challenges still facing women and their families and that full equality for all women becomes a reality.

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