“Women’s Equality Day is … Today! Sort of.”
Today is no ordinary Friday, and not because the last weekend of August is a seesaw between the loss of summer and promise of autumn. No; in1971, the US. Congress designated August 26 as Women’s Equality Day, commemorating the certification of the 19th Amendment, which, after a century of agitating, finally granted women the right to vote in 1920. Representative Bella Abzug — noted wearer of fabulous hats — led the recognition of this nation-changing event. Those righteously energized, “I am Woman, Hear Me Roar” advocates in the early 70s couldn’t have guessed how slow the road to equality would be.
Here we are, 45 years later, and the numbers do not add up to “Women’s Equality.” Not even close. Only 20 percent of Congress is women, and only 12 percent of governors. In Indiana, only 20 percent of our legislators are women. The U.S. lags behind scores of countries who have had female heads of state for decades. What’s taking us so long?
Whatever happens on November 8, Hillary Rodham Clinton is helping this slow-poke nation envision a woman in the highest office. We can finally retire the rally buttons that say, “A woman’s place is in the house … and the senate!” — because those slogans don’t go far enough. (Did you know, though, that women weren’t allowed to wear pantsuits on the Senate floor until 1993? Seriously!)
At our house, election season has coincided with a sudden mono-mania for the musical Hamilton. And while the story of the so-called “founding fathers” may seem an unlikely soundtrack for Women’s Equality Day, the musical is as much about who is left out of “the narrative” of history. In the late 18th century, a man like Alexander Hamilton — born into poverty, but full of ambition — could literally write his way into power in no small part because he was a man. The many women in this inventing-a-nation story — writers, and brilliant thinkers, too —can only exert their powers in private letters and conversations, hobbled by assumptions of women as weaker vessels, mothers, and helpmeets. Yet: like the woman in Maya Angelou’s poem, still, they rise.
So many women have already taught us what leadership can look like: I think of steely Madeline Albright wearing a lapel pin made of shards of a smashed glass ceiling. I think of Hilary Clinton in 2008 stoically ignoring men who jeered, “iron my shirt [expletive].” I think of the bespectacled, dignified Shirley Chisolm, who in 1972 became the first African-American and woman to run for president as a major party candidate, and of the many women who were the Civil Rights movement’s backbone. I think of the suffragists who chained themselves to the front gates of the White House, standing for years in snow and rain and withstanding prison beatings and torture as they called on wartime President Wilson to defend democracy at home. I think of writer Ida B. Wells, who in the 1890s called out racism in the early women’s movement and published blistering articles on lynching. I think of the women of Seneca Falls New York, who in 1848 were bold enough to rewrite the Declaration of Independence to include women, casting men as more oppressive than King George. And, yes, because of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s musical, I think of Eliza Hamilton, who lived to age 97, long after Alexander Hamilton died of toxic masculinity (Oh, the stupidity of that duel!). Eliza dedicated her decades to hard work, becoming a behind-the-scenes player in Washington and starting the first private orphanage — using her life experience to see that power must transform all corners of our lives.
Fundamentally, our bodies shape the way we move through the world, and those experiences and insights add up to wisdom that makes a difference at the leadership table. We need all kinds of diversity of insight.
Tonight, you can celebrate Women’s Equality Day in South Bend at the opening of the “Celebrating Michiana Women Leaders” exhibit, at 5:30 at the Civil Rights Heritage Center on West Washington Street, and on display all month. Meet local women who have transformed our community with visionary leadership combined with unglamorous hard work.
So, it is, and it isn’t Women’s Equality Day. We’re not yet equal, but there’s still plenty to celebrate. Then: let’s get right back to work.
For Michiana Chronicles, this is April Lidinsky