In Case You Missed It: We Just Marked the 100th Anniversary of Suffrage
Felisa Schneider, Anne McCune, and Elizabeth Métraux
Exactly one week ago, we marked the centennial anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment. You’d be forgiven if you missed the occasion. As COVID-19 continues to govern our daily activities, and the political maelstrom characteristic of a presidential election year roils on, it’s unsurprising that our attention is diverted.
In many ways, there’s no more apt way for women to have marked the centennial than exactly as we did — juggling childcare, navigating work and life responsibilities, and relegating our own special moments in the interest of taking care of those around us.
And yet, it’s imperative we do mark these moments. Even as women struggle to meet the daily demands we so readily assume, we have to permit ourselves to pause and honor how far women have come. Because it’s in these moments of proud reflection that we rouse the passion, networks, and momentum necessary to advance gender equity.
When women earned the vote on August 18, 1920, the nation was emerging from the Spanish flu outbreak, which lasted from February 1918, to April 1920, and infected a full third of the world’s population. In the U.S., nearly 30% of the population fell ill, with a death toll exceeding 600,000.
As we now know with striking clarity, crises of such magnitude are both devastating and revealing, often serving as catalysts for change by exposing the deep fissures in our social and political ecosystems. Indeed, the 1918 pandemic is often cited as a defining moment for suffrage, as the nation witnessed women’s powerful and disproportionate contributions at the forefront of both the health and social response.
The Great Influenza isn’t the only catalyzing crisis for equity.
After the American Civil War, Susan B. Anthony and a group of women activists established the Women’s Loyal National League, successfully calling for the end of slavery and full citizenship rights for newly freed blacks. Shortly after WWII added millions of women to the labor force, the Equal Rights Amendment was proposed, and although ultimately failed in the Senate, paved the way for numerous states to develop protections for women in the workplace.
To be sure, the passage of the 19th Amendment was but a single step in the journey toward a more inclusive America. While the law granted suffrage to some women, Black and Indigenous women were excluded, even as they stood arm in arm with their White sisters in the picket lines.
But progress, however imperfect and incomplete, is still progress. And progress should inspire and be recognized.
As women who have spent our lifetimes working in advance of gender equity, we’ve been heartened by the acceleration of initiatives in recent years — compelled in part by the #MeToo movement — to cultivate greater workplace equity. As #MeToo exposed rampant sexism in traditionally masculine domains, institutions began more forcefully reckoning with wide disparities in compensation, Board and leadership representation, recruitment and promotion protocols, and family leave policies. Implicit bias training has become standard practice in many industries, and more and more organizations have elevated nascent diversity efforts into full-fledged Offices of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion within the C-suite.
Many advocates and practitioners in the field of equity are concerned about potential regressions in this progress as a result of new working conditions necessitated by the pandemic; we’d be wise to be vigilant.
We’d also be wise to look to history as a guide for the possible.
COVID-19 will undoubtedly make its lasting marks; the legacy it leaves on the realm of gender equity is largely up to us. We may have let the anniversary of suffrage come and go with only scant mention, but what better homage to the women on whose shoulders we stand than to take this moment to build a more equitable America — for every woman.
Felisa Schneider is the COO of The Carol Emmott Foundation; Anne McCune is the CEO of The Carol Emmott Foundation; Elizabeth Métraux is the CEO of Women Writers in Medicine, Inc.