Updated: Aug 27, 2020
Since 1973, August 26 has been celebrated nationwide as Women’s Equality Day to commemorate the ratification of the 19th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which granted women the right to vote. This year’s celebration is particularly noteworthy because the year 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the women’s right to vote.
Since Abigail Adams famously wrote to her husband (and founding father) John Adams, “Remember the ladies” when writing the Declaration of Independence, people have advocated for women’s equality. A number of important events occurred in the years preceding the ratification of this amendment (including the Seneca Falls Convention), and continued after to ensure that all women in the United States were eligible and able to vote. The Amendment states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Even though the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, not all women could exercise this right due to obstacles outside of their sex. It wasn’t until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that women of all races were able to vote.
History of Women’s Equality Day
Although the 19th Amendment is now 100 years old, it was only in the 1970s that the idea of Women’s Equality Day came to be. Among many factors, the second-wave feminist movement in the 1960s caused many women to acknowledge that even though they could vote, many institutions they encountered in their daily lives—unions, professions, and universities, e.g.,—were focused on men. They wanted to change that, and they did.
On August 26, 1970, fifty years after the passage of the 19th Amendment, Betty Friedan and the National Organization for Women launched the largest protest for gender equality in the history of the United States in what would be called the Women’s Strike for Equality. With between 10,000 and 50,000 participants in New York alone and others nationwide, this demonstration helped visibilize the growing feminist movement. (Read Time’s article here and the New York Times’ piece for more information on the March.)
One year later, New York Representative Bella Abzug introduced a bill that would declare Women’s Equality Day an official holiday. The following year, in 1972, President Richard Nixon issued Proclamation 4147, which designated August 26th, 1972, as Women's Rights Day. On August 16, 1973, Congress approved H.J. Res. 52, which stated that August 26 would be designated as Women's Equality Day. The same day, President Nixon issued Proclamation 4236 for Women's Equality Day. Day. Nearly fifty years later, the remembrance is still not a federal holiday.
How it’s Celebrated
In accordance with the H.J. Res. 52 in 1973, the president of the United States “[is authorized] to issue an annual proclamation in commemoration of the day in 1920 on which women were first guaranteed the right to vote.” Here is a link to Barack Obama’s proclamation in 2016 and Trump’s most recent one.
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment and women’s constitutional right to vote, buildings and landmarks nationwide will light up in purple and gold as part of the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission’s Forward Into Light Campaign. According to the National Park Service, both purple and gold were used by the National Woman’s Party in the United States. A newsletter published by the organization in December 1913 stated that purple represented loyalty, constancy to purpose, and unswerving steadfastness to a cause and gold served as “the color of light and life... as the torch that guides our purpose, pure and unswerving.” Gold was also “the only color used by all US suffrage organizations.” (The National Park Service has described other symbols of the Women's Suffrage Movement here.)
100 Years Later
Although numerous women were granted the right to vote in 1920 as a result of the passage of the 19th Amendment, not all women gained suffrage on this day. Numerous women were excluded from the suffrage movement and barred from voting simply due to their race.
Women’s Equality Day serves as a celebration of how far women have come through resilience and determination and a reminder that there is still work to be done to ensure all women truly have equal rights.