What does it say that 100 years after women gained the right to vote, their presence, their visibility as speakers, at a major political event should feel unusual? It says that our default mental image in too many parts of life is still male, a default that must change.
Women have always been here. They were able to vote in parts of colonial America. Native American women were full political participants in the Iroquois Confederacy. Property-owning white men wrote all of them out of the U.S. Constitution.
Syracuse University Professor Sally Roesch Wagner notes, “History is not what happened. History is who tells the story.” Too often, women’s stories have not been included in the American history that students are taught.
Parity has always been an elusive goal for women. Despite voting rights granted in 1920, laws across the board discriminated against women. Married women disappeared as individuals. Wives could not get a credit card or a mortgage on their own. Laws specifically allowed employers to fire a woman for a pregnancy.
Some progress has been made since those dark days, but there is far to go. Philanthropist Melinda Gates, whose work focuses on issues of women and girls, calculates that at this rate, women will have gender parity in 208 years!
A century of voting rights is something to celebrate. It will be marked today, Aug. 26, with the dedication of the first and only statue honoring women among the 23 in New York City’s Central Park that honor men.
In writing history, it is critical to tell the whole, often ugly truth. White suffragists often were also white supremacists. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass was willing to jettison women’s voting rights to win passage of the 15th Amendment, which gave African-American men the right to vote. Heroic women of all races have been overlooked consistently in the American story.
Acknowledging that ugliness does not negate the progress made. Facing America’s actual history, with all its faults, strengthens the social muscles needed to make the changes yet to come.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg quoted 19th-century activist Sarah Grimke about the future women want: “All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
The rise of women does not mean the fall of men. Instead it is a tipping point. Gender parity, like an end to all other types of discrimination, will benefit everyone.