Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Women's Equality Day is about the ongoing inequality of women

(Courtesy of

BY PAULA XANTHOPOULOU (Miami Herald 8-26-09)

If I hear of one more Women's Equality Day just celebrating suffrage, I am going to have to scream.

Not that we shouldn't commemorate with deep humility and gratitude the gallant fight waged by suffragettes like Alice Paul to win the right to vote. Ratification of the 19th Amendment came at last on Aug. 26, 1920. But Women's Equality Day is not just about voting. It was established in 1971 at the behest of newly elected Congresswoman Bella Abzug of New York. While symbolically designating the date as Aug. 26, the resolution accentuated the fact that women were still, fifty years later, fighting for full equality:

``WHereas, the women of the United States have been treated as second-class citizens and have not been entitled the full rights and privileges, public or private, legal or institutional, which are available to male citizens of the United States; and

``Whereas, the women of the United States have united to assure that these rights and privileges are available to all citizens equally regardless of sex; and

``Whereas, the women of the United States have designated Aug. 26, the anniversary date of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, as symbol of the continued fight for equal rights: and

``Whereas, the women of United States are to be commended and supported in their organizations and activities,

``Now, therefore, be it resolved, the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that Aug. 26 of each year is designated as ``Women's Equality Day,'' and the President is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation annually in commemoration of that day in 1920, on which the women of America were first given the right to vote, and that day in 1970, on which a nationwide demonstration for women's rights took place.''

``That day in 1970'' referred to the ``Women's Strike for Equality,'' organized on Aug. 26 by the National Organization for Women. Women nationwide joined together to demand equal opportunities in employment, education, etc. It was the largest protest for equal rights for women in U.S. history. Demonstrations and rallies took place across the country in 90 cities/towns in 40 states, and 50,000 women marched down Fifth Avenue in New York City. The continued fight for equality was duly noted and memorialized.

It should also be noted that Alice Paul did not exactly let the grass grow under her feet following her grueling suffragette years. She authored the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and proposed it on the 75th anniversary of the first women's rights Convention of Seneca Falls in 1848. The ERA was subsequently introduced in every Congress from 1923 through passage in 1972 and then from 1982 until today, where it languishes uncomfortably after the biannual, pro-forma hoopla of the filings and the photo-ops have faded. Paul died in 1977 after fighting the good fight for 50 more years, but not seeing her dream of equality fulfilled.

Meanwhile, U.S. women are still not equal under the U.S Constitution in 2009. The ERA is seen by some -- from closeted sexists and weak sisters, to politicians always with something more important to do -- as anachronistic and unnecessary. But is it?

In an article written for the Harvard Women's Law Journal in 1976, now Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg clearly demonstrates that our Founding Fathers never intended to provide for equal rights. ``Without the Equal Rights Amendment,'' she wrote, ``the judiciary will continue to be plagued with a succession of cases challenging laws and official practices that belong in history's scrap heap.'' Thus women continue to be unfairly saddled with the burden of proof of discrimination, including expensive lawsuits.

Any piecemeal anti-discrimination gains on any level, moreover, can be taken away in a heartbeat. Just think about what Title IX did for girls/women in sports and the scary chatter about repeal. Just think about what could women do for common good with all the time and money spent on fighting against discrimination. Maybe that's the point: keeping women down and out of other endeavors, while we keep slogging away for equality.

Paul's ERA bill was passed once by Congress in 1972, but not ratified -- coming up three states short when the time frame was capped and ran out in 1982. Now because of passage of the Madison Amendment (Congressional Pay Amendment) 203 years after being first filed, ratification by three more states could lead to passage of the ERA as well. That is for Congress and potentially the courts to decide; it should not negate our efforts to do the right thing and ratify this constitutional amendment once-and-for-all. Equal Rights for women -- nearly 52 percent of the U.S. population -- is a nonpartisan issue and a moral imperative. And Florida is one of those states that did not ratify the ERA back then and keeps on not doing so now.

Florida voters -- by a margin of 65 percent to 35 percent -- approved a similar amendment to the Florida Constitution in 1998 when they approved Revision 9. Therefore, ratification of the federal ERA would be fully consistent with the will of the voters of Florida. ERA bills reintroduced in the Florida Legislature every year since 2003, however, have gone nowhere -- not given even one committee reading in the state House in seven years.

Just because Barack Obama was elected president does not mean racism is dead. And just because Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the House and Hillary Clinton ran for president does not mean that sexism is dead, either. Yes, there have been many great individual achievements by women, duly noted and celebrated. But we ignore some very basic and appalling facts: The United States is tied with Turkmenistan at 68th in the world for electing women to parliaments, assemblies and congresses. Women hold about 17 percent of seats in the U.S. Congress 233 years after the country's independence.

If you think there is no correlation between lack of anything remotely resembling parity in Congress and no equal rights for women under the Constitution, please think again. We used to hope for 50/50 by 2020, but that will never happen. Women, moreover, seem to lack the political will to push that agenda as their counterparts have done in so many other countries. And where are women's voices in the congressional healthcare reform debate, when 19 states have no women in either house of Congress? Meanwhile, a NASA debate centers around landing astronauts on the moon again in 2020. What is wrong with this picture?

Women's Equality Day is a day for rededication, not simply celebration. We should encourage every citizen to vote. It is conveniently feel-good to see the glass half full and walk away. But, in fact, the glass is still half empty. As my late friend Gene Boyer would say, ``Forward!'' This is about the future, not the past.

(Paula Xanthopoulou is a former president of the National Women's Political Caucus of Florida and a member of the Miami-Dade Commission for Women.)