On this day, in 1920, one hundred years ago, women were written into the U.S. Constitution with the ratification of the 19th Amendment, granting them the right to vote. But in reality, the struggle goes back much further and continues even today.
In a letter dated March 31, 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John Adams, “I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
It took another 144 years for Abigail Adams’ “rebellion” to become law. Herstory records that an amendment giving women the right to vote was first introduced in 1848, 72 years before it was finally ratified. And still, the victory was imperfect. As a practical matter, the 19th Amendment did not result in universal suffrage for Black women, due to a coordinated and well-documented campaign of intimidation, poll taxes, so-called literacy tests and state sanctioned statutes and customs. My own mother, who was born in 1920, did not vote until 1948 when the Whites-only primary in our home state of South Carolina was finally outlawed.
Beginning in 1972 and continuing today, there is an effort to adopt the Equal Rights Amendment as a way to strengthen the effect of the 19th Amendment. After all, the point of voting is not just to be admitted to the polling place. The end result of voting should be public policy that facilitates access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, or as political scientists sometimes say, the allocation of scarce goods and resources. The Equal Rights Amendment would guarantee equal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex. It seeks to end the legal distinctions between men and women in terms of divorce, property, employment, and other matters. The ERA has so far failed to achieve ratification by ¾ of the states.
It should not be surprising that those states that have failed to ratify ERA are many of the same states that enslaved Black people and were covered for mandatory “pre-clearance” of all proposed changes in voting laws, practices and procedures under the Section V of the Voting Rights Act: Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana and Mississippi. There is remarkable consistency between discrimination based on race and discrimination based on sex.
The nation has made progress in many areas of sex discrimination. The nomination of Kamala Harris to be Vice President of the United States is surely a sign that many Americans are ready for equality. A couple of examples make the point that there is still work to be accomplished. According to the American Bar Association, the percentage of U.S. Lawyers who are women steadily rose from 31% in 2010, to 37% in 2020. In other words, representation of women among lawyers rose 25% over the decade since 2010. By comparison, the percentage of lawyers who are Black remained steady at 5%, showing no increase at all. But perhaps most telling is what is missing from the ABA statistical report. It does not indicate specifically how Black women are represented in the profession.
Data USA reports that 51.7% of engineering degrees were earned by White men in 2012. By 2017, white men earned 46.3% of engineering degrees. White women earned 10.9% of engineering degrees in 2012, a number that increased to 11.7% by 2017. Black men earned 2.8% of engineering degrees in 2012 and in 2017, with no increase or decrease. Black women saw a decline in engineering degrees earned – from 1.04% in 2012 to .93% in 2017.
Lean In, whose mission is to “help women achieve their ambitions and work to create an equal world,” reports that “Black women are paid less than white men—and white women. On average, Black women in the U.S. are paid 38% less than white men and 21% less than white women.” To paraphrase Frederick Douglass’ famous 4th of July speech, what does Women’s Equality Day mean to Black women? Celebration of the 19th Amendment should spur us to continue to work assiduously to close the remaining opportunity gaps – not only to improve the quality of individual lives, but to form a more perfect union, where all talent is recognized and rewarded.
Janice L. Mathis, Esq.
Executive Director, NCNW