In honor of August 26 -Women’s Equality Day and the 94th anniversary of the 19th amendment—granting women the right to vote, I had the pleasure of delivering the keynote at Homeland Security’s US Border Protection Agency’s Women’s Equality Day Program.

And in this blog, I’ll highlight a few of the pioneers that fought for justice and equality so that women were afforded the same rights and privileges of men.

Long before women had a right to vote, they had a vision; they had a voice and they were visible.

  • They had a commitment to the cause.
  • They possessed a courage of their convictions;
  • And they were conduits for change.

The foundational principle of the Declaration of Independence is that “we hold these truths to be self-evident—that all MEN are created equal.” But did it include women? For years and years a silent voice became louder and louder challenging the notion of whether “ALL MEN MEANT WOMEN too?

Abigail Adams, wife of the 2nd president of the United States John Adams wrote letters to her husband frequently sharing her political views. She had a vision for this new country as we declared freedom from England’s rule. Her vision was simple: that women should have rights too.

In one of her most famous letters to her husband, Abigail writes:

“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.” In other words, “by any means necessary, women will fight and prevail.” And thus the birth of the women’s rights movement.

She was one of many others with a vision and a voice.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton:  In 1840 Elizabeth married the lawyer, Henry Bewster Stanton. The couple both became active members of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Later that year, Stanton and Lucretia Mott, travelled to London as delegates to the World Anti-Slavery Convention.

Lucretia Mott, become a leading social reformer spoke widely for both women’s rights and the abolition of slavery. Her book, Discourse on Women, published in 1850 discussed the educational, economic, and political restrictions on women in Western Europe and America. After slavery was abolished in 1865, Mott supported the rights of black Americans to vote.

At the World Anti-Slavery Convention, both women were furious when they, like the British women at the convention, were refused permission to speak at the meeting. Stanton later recalled: “We resolved to hold a convention as soon as we returned home, and form a society to advocate the rights of women.”

However, it was not until 1848 with Lucretia Mott and several other women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton held the famous Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls. At this meeting, the attendees drew up its “Declaration of Sentiments” and took the lead in proposing that women be granted the right to vote. She continued to write and lecture on women’s rights and other reforms of the day.

In 1866 Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone established the American Equal Rights Association. Susan B. Anthony founded the National Women’s Suffrage Assoc with long time friend Staton. She was the first woman to be arrested, put on trial, and fined for voting on Nov. 5, 1872.

Other suffragette sisters (Lucy Burns and Alice Paul) long before the civil rights movement of the 1950’s, were chaining themselves to rail stations and hosting hunger campaigns in the 1910’s, but always in the most ladylike manner. Alice Stokes Paul (1885 –1977) was an American suffragist and activist. Along with Lucy Burns and others, she led a successful campaign for women’s suffrage that resulted in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920.

In 1912 Alice Paul met up with her friend, Lucy Burns, and they took over the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) Congressional Committee, trying to get a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. By 1916, she formed the National Woman’s Party (NWP) that demanded a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote.

Women started demonstrating in front of the White House for women to have the right to vote. By July, President Wilson was tired of all the demonstration going on and arrest started. Finally, President Wilson gave up fighting and said that he would support a woman’s right to voting.

After the amendment passed in Congress, Alice and Lucy and others began working for the amendment to be ratified by each state. That finally happened in 1920. That was the first year that women were allowed to vote in the Presidential election. Alice Paul just kept studying and earned a law degree from Washington College of Law in 1922 and a Ph. D. in law from American University in 1928. Alice wrote the first Equal Rights Amendment and in 1923 it was introduced in Congress. It was supposed to prohibit discrimination based on sex.

Gloria Steinem: an American feminist, journalist, and social and political activist who became nationally recognized as a leader of, and media spokeswoman for, the women’s liberation movement in the late 1960s and 1970s. A prominent writer and political figure, Steinem has founded many organizations and projects and has been the recipient of many awards and honors. She was a columnist for New York magazine and co-founded Ms. Magazine. In 1969, she published an article, “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation” which, along with her early support of abortion rights, catapulted her to national fame as a feminist leader.

  • Other notable women who had a significant impact on women’s rights and participation in the political process included:
  • Victoria C. Woodhull was the first woman to run for president in the United States. She was selected by the Equal Rights Party to be its candidate in the 1872 election.
  • The Equal Rights Party platform supported women’s right to vote and work, among other issues, but Woodhull was soundly defeated in the election by Ulysses S. Grant.
  • Margaret Chase Smith was the first woman to run for the Republican presidential nomination.
  • Shirley Chisholm also deserves recognition. In 1972, she became the first major-party black candidate for President of the United States and the first woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
  • Elizabeth Dole is another woman who ran for the Republican presidential nomination during the 2000 elections. She campaigned for the position for several months in 1999, but dropped out of the race before any of the primaries due to a lack of funding.

We continue to hold on to the American fundamental principle that all of us were created equal. We celebrate those who suffered and made the sacrifices necessary for all women to enjoy the pursuit of life, liberty, and the American Dream. We commit to continue the fight for equality, inclusion, and justice for all women today and for generations to come. If we are to continue the fight for greater equality, we must possess the same traits and qualities of these pioneers and trailblazers:

a commitment to the cause;

a courage for our convictions,

and be conduits for change.

Yes there remains some backlash; yes there will be resistance; and yes there will still be blood, sweat and tears. But there will be progress and reward.