Women's Equality Day honors the anniversary of the date the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was made official. The amendment made it illegal for state and federal governments to deny any citizen the right to vote based on their sex. Although this historic date was August 26th, 1920, Women's Equality Day was not officially recognized until 1973 when the House approved congresswoman Bella Abzug's resolution. This resolution led to prompting President Nixon to issue a proclamation commemorating the day. The 19th Amendment is an essential milestone in U.S. History; however, the racism and classism that intertwined with American women's suffrage are often overlooked.
This legacy of racism remains--many adults can remember learning about Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton as children, but the contributions of Ida B. Wells or Mary Church Terrell to suffrage did not make it into many of our history books. The reality that women of color faced life-threatening hurdles when attempting to vote for many decades after the Amendment was ratified should remind us that equality is a contentious term that is relative to where one stands.
What does women's equality mean today, ninety-nine years after the 19th Amendment was ratified, and ninety-six years after the first version of the Equal Rights Amendment was proposed (yet never ratified)? Women in the U.S. today still face threats to their human rights, and these threats are even more complex for many as the concept of gender is now understood as a spectrum rather than a binary in which men alone held more privilege than women. Recognizing that the successes we celebrate today were often achieved by excluding marginalized people, perhaps Women's Equality Day could be a day to remember that while we honor the battles won in the past, we still must continue to strive for intersectional human and civil rights for all.
I recently gave a presentation at a conference with several women colleagues about a few of the issues that we encounter in the higher education workplace today, including bias, sexism, ageism, and racism. Women from many generations made up our audience, and some of the women who had been in the higher ed workplace several decades ago remarked that things today had significantly improved compared to that time. This is true, as women in the past faced many barriers beyond how their sex affected their experiences in the workplace. It is worth remembering that it was not until the 1970s that American women could not legally be fired for being pregnant, get their credit card, or legally obtain birth control if they were not married to a man.
Those involved in the women's rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s fought for so many of the things we take for granted today. Undoubtedly, life for women in the U.S. is better than in the past because of the work of the women from prior generations who struggled for their rights to be recognized.
If we take the time to be vulnerable and to examine how our identities may have placed us in positions of privilege and power, we begin to see more easily who have been left behind even as we make strides towards progress. Higher education professionals who engage in this work are poised to make a lasting impact on institutional practices, policy, and culture. Considering that many of our oldest and most prestigious institutions of higher education were created with the intent only to educate white men, higher education professionals today have an obligation to investigate who is still being left behind by upholding "the way things have always been done."
There are myriad opportunities for this type of reform, but a few options include: asking a third party to remove the names of institutions where candidates earned their credentials from application materials in order to reduce the bias that a degree earned at an elite college always carries more weight than other institutions; challenging the assumption that institutional documents such as diplomas or transcripts should only list the legal rather than chosen name; or providing alternatives when food or housing insecure students miss classes or administrative deadlines when they have to prioritize their basic needs.
When we acknowledge that many institutional policies and practices assume a level of privilege based on various facets of identity, we can identify ways to move forward more equitably and examine which communities were not considered as these foundations were created.This Women’s Equality Day, we may still honor those who came before us to fight for recognition of women’s rights. Consider commemorating the day by reading about a suffragist or civil rights activist of color who was left out of your school’s history books.
However, it is critical to acknowledge that the gap is still wide between fair and equitable treatment for people identifying as women, trans, and nonbinary. As we build upon the progress that we celebrate on Women’s Equality Day, may we reach beyond equality and strive for an equitable future where all gender identities have adequate resources, opportunities, and recognized rights that will allow each person to reach their highest potential. We have plenty of work ahead of us for the next ninety-nine years.
Ewa Nowicki (she/her/hers) is an Education Policy and Leadership Fellow with the Institute for Educational Leadership and Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, and a doctoral candidate at Northeastern University. Ewa has more than a decade of experience as a practitioner in higher education, and she is passionate about advancing access, equity, and inclusion for all members of higher ed learning communities. Ewa is the founder and chair of the AACRAO Women’s Caucus, a group dedicated to women’s issues with a goal to advance scholarship and career development for women-identifying, trans, and nonbinary members of the professional organization. Connect with Ewa via LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/ewanowicki and Instagram: @dr.worldworthexploring.
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