Women's Equality Day

Celebrating Women’s Equality Day

Eunice L. Burns, mother of IU First Lady Laurie Burns McRobbie, dressed as Susan B. Anthony on Women’s Equality Day in 2010.
Eunice L. Burns, mother of IU First Lady Laurie Burns McRobbie, dressed as Susan B. Anthony on Women’s Equality Day in 2010.

Whenever I’m asked why I’m passionate about gender equity, I have only to produce this picture of my mother, dressed as Susan B. Anthony on Women’s Equality Day in 2010. And as I reflected on the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment that enfranchised American women, it was this picture I held in my mind.

It surprises no one who knew her that my mother would dress up as Susan B. Anthony. She was an indefatigable champion for women, and particularly for women in politics, that having been her own path in the 1960s as a local councilwoman and mayoral candidate. She was also, as therefore am I, a very distant relative of Susan B. Anthony. Anthony’s paternal grandmother was a Lapham, as was my grandmother, and our family possesses a handwritten letter from Susan to a cousin, Josephine Lapham, soliciting a contribution to Anthony’s short-lived publication, The Revolution. Susan’s letter urged Josephine to “strike out of the old ruts, (and) welcome this advocate of woman’s (sic) using all the powers she possesses to her best possible purpose for her own and the world’s benefit.”

That letter was written in June of 1868, during another seismic chapter in American history. One month later, the 14th Amendment was ratified, granting citizenship to all persons “born or naturalized” in the U.S. – but explicitly not women.[1] Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and many other activists had fought a bitter fight to extend all rights of citizenship, including the vote, to women as well as Blacks, but they lost that particular battle. The suffrage movement splintered as different factions pursued different strategies to gain the vote, finally culminating in the sweltering heat of Nashville, Tennessee on August 18, 1920, when another mother, Phoebe (Febb) Burn, mother of state representative Henry Burn, wrote a famous letter exhorting her son to “vote for suffrage”.[2] He listened, and the rest is history.

100 years ago today, the 19th Amendment was officially certified in Washington DC, the final step in the process of amending the Constitution. Thus, today is celebrated as Women’s Equality Day along with August 18th. Like this year, 1920 was a presidential election year, but that November just 36% of the 26 million newly enfranchised American women cast ballots, compared to nearly 70% of men.[3] This was not just a matter of choice; Black and indigenous women as well as white women in some areas faced literacy tests, poll taxes, and other barriers erected by those on the wrong side of history. It took another 45 years for those barriers to recede. Recent history is far different: women’s votes have outnumbered men’s in every presidential election since 1980,[4] and women of color have one of the highest rates of voter participation.[5] Women continue to gain ground as a percentage of those holding elected office, including being on the presidential ticket in both major parties in recent elections, and most recently, including the first woman of color to accept the Vice-Presidential nomination. All these women follow in the footsteps of Margaret Chase Smith in 1964 and Shirley Chisholm in 1972, the first woman and first woman of color, respectively, to seek the presidential nomination on a major party ticket.

We need to remember and emulate these women and thousands of others who, for more than 80 years, simply did not stop advocating and agitating for that most basic of rights in a democracy – the vote. As IU alumna and curator at the National Portrait Gallery, Kate Clarke Lemay puts it, “This is not a boring history of nagging spinsters; it is a badass history of revolution staged by political geniuses.”[6] The suffrage movement is a history of women passing the torch of leadership over and over, persisting in the face of obstacles and setbacks. It teaches us that real change takes time, and that worthy causes are worthy no matter how long it takes.

My mother never missed an election. She understood the value of the gift our foremothers gave us all. Our duty is to pass it on to those who come behind us, by voting in every election and by continuing the hard work of ensuring equitable access to the levers of democracy. This one’s for you, Mom.


Citations

[1] The second clause of the 14th Amendment protects the right to vote for “male citizens”, the first time gender appears in the U.S. Constitution.

[2] Weiss, E. (2018). “The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote”, p. 306. Penguin Books, New York

[3] (2016). Counting Women's Ballots: Female Voters from Suffrage through the New Deal. Cambridge University Press.

[4] CAWP Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers University

[5] Center for American Progress

[6] New York Times, “In Her Words”, July 12, 2020