August 26 is Women’s Equality Day, which commemorates the 96th anniversary of the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote. We’re marking the occasion with a series of posts that touch on the importance and impact of women in politics. To dig deeper, pick up our latest issue featuring in-depth reporting and interviews on the gender gap and the ways feminism has shaped politics. You can also join the celebration by taking our feminist voting pledge!
The visionary pioneers who campaigned for decades to make it possible did not achieve the vote in their lifetime. Women’s Equality Day is our opportunity to think about how to honor the political power they won on our behalf.
Three quarters of a century after Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 32, wrote that “all men and women are created equal” in the “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments.” Stanton was the principal organizer and primary author who led the revolutionary first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848.
It would take 72 years before the Nineteenth Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution, giving all women in every state, the right to vote. The pioneering women activists persevered. It had taken 56 referenda to male voters, 480 efforts to get state legislatures to submit suffrage amendment and 19 successive congressional campaigns.
Many in attendance thought the Seneca Falls Resolutions should only focus on social, civil and religious issues, but deemed it too radical to demand suffrage. Stanton was adamant. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass convinced the congregation that women’s suffrage was essential. Sixty-eight women signed one sheet and 32 men signed a separate sheet. Much of the press coverage on the convention and the subject of suffrage was negative. Public reaction was so negative, many of the women signers withdrew their names.
Charlotte Woodward, at 91, was the lone original signer still alive by the time the Amendment passed in 1920. She had been a 19-year-old glove maker when she attended the Seneca Falls convention. The temperature reached 90 degrees outside. Imagine withstanding the heat and travel in horse-drawn wagons, carriages or on foot, on dusty roads. The women were clothed in heavy, restrictive dresses weighing 15 pounds or more. Fashions of the day required women to wear long, street-length dresses with binding, boned corsets and layers of petticoats, which impeded mobility. Then they had to sit on wooden pews for hours in the July heat during the convention.
Susan B. Anthony met Stanton in 1851. They developed a life-long political partnership that dominated the movement for more than 50 years. Stanton, mother of seven children and more homebound, wrote the necessary speeches, letters and articles. Anthony, who didn’t marry, served as the strategist and lecturer around the county organizing women’s rights conventions. Stanton and Anthony co-founded the National Women’s Suffrage Association in 1869, to achieve women’s suffrage through a federal constitutional amendment, not state-by-state campaigns. Stanton retired as president at 77 in 1892. Anthony succeeded her in the office for the next eight years, until she was 80.
As an act of defiance and civil disobedience, in 1866, Stanton ran for Congress in New York State, a first for women. She got 24 votes, although women were not eligible to vote. On November 5, 1872, Susan B. Anthony and 16 women voted in Rochester, N.Y. She was arrested and lost the case and appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1876, Abigail Adams admonished her husband, John, a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, “remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.”
In 1882, 34 years after Seneca Falls, the Senate and House appointed a Special Select Committee on Woman Suffrage. The women advocates had spoken before Congress for 15 years and submitted petitions for 19 years. The “Susan B. Anthony Amendment” finally reached the Senate floor for the first time in December 1886.
Stanton was honored at an 80th Birthday celebration in 1896 at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, attended by 6,000 supporters. She died in 1902 at 83. In a speech in 1906 at her 86th birthday celebration, Susan B. Anthony assured her followers: “Failure is impossible.” She died a month later, 14 years before her amendment was ratified.
The House passed the “Susan B. Anthony Suffrage Amendment on May 21, 1919. The Senate passed on June 4. Then the amendment went to the states for ratification. The Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote was added to the U.S. Constitution on August 26, 1920.
Rep. Bella Abzug introduced a bill in Congress to designate August 26 as Women’s Equality Day in 1971, as “a symbol of women’s continued fight for equal rights.” The date was selected to commemorate the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Women everywhere are still waging that fight for equal rights—on Women’s Equality Day, let’s commit to honor the women who gave us better tools to wage it.
Remember the Ladies at Seneca Falls and the pioneer women who sacrificed for years for your vote. Register and vote on Election Day November 8.
A version of this post originally appeared on Medium. Republished with author permission.
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