4 Lessons For Today’s Leaders On Women’s Equality Day

Almost 100 years ago in 1920, women won the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Today, on Women’s Equality Day, we commemorate that progress and are forced to reconcile how far we still have to go.

It’s easy to gloss over just how hard-fought a victory the 19th Amendment was. Of course men and women deserve the right to vote! It seems like a no-brainer now. But the history behind this momentous political battle shows just how fraught this victory was, and holds key lessons for today’s leaders that are as relevant as ever.

Lesson 1: Change Doesn’t Happen Overnight

Women had been advocating for the right to vote since the late 1840’s after the famed Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. By 1913, the National Woman’s Party organizers started fighting hard to elect more Members of Congress who pledged to support women’s suffrage. Six years later, the 19th Amendment was passed in both houses of Congress, stating “the rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

But the battle wasn’t over yet. It wasn’t until August of 1920 – after half a century of concerted political pressure exerted by activists and organizers – that Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, giving it the two-thirds majority of state ratification to make it the law of the land.

As leaders today, we cannot afford to martyr ourselves in pursuit of victory. Instead we must set ourselves up for sustainable success. We must stay focused, stay vigilant, and stay committed to these battles for the long haul in order to enact lasting change.

Lesson 2: Individuals Really Can Change History

In August of 1920, the battle for women’s suffrage all came down to Tennessee lawmakers, many of whom were dead set on on preventing women from gaining the right to vote. President Woodrow Wilson ordered the Governor to call a special session of the Tennessee Assembly to take up the issue and national attention flooded in from neighboring states.

Women’s suffrage supporters wore yellow roses as a symbol of their support. Those opposed donned red roses instead. The Tennessee Senate went yellow, voting to ratify, but the House was evenly divided. The first vote in the House resulted in a tie.  Another vote? Another tie. Days passed and the third roll call vote was finally under way when Harry Burn, a 24-year-old Representative from East Tennessee changed his colors and voted to ratify.

That day, he received a letter from his mother, Phoebe E. Burn, who ended her note with a rousing endorsement of the great suffragist leader Carrie Chapman Catt, imploring him to “be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.”

That’s right. One young lawmaker’s mother is to thank for our right to vote, ladies. Never forget that when you’re wondering whether or not to pen that op-ed or send that email. Your words alone might just change the course of history.

Lesson 3: Daring To Lead Doesn’t Always Make You Popular

The passage of the 19th Amendment was no small feat. But neither was the creation of today’s national holiday commemorating it, which didn’t officially become a thing until 1971, thanks to Congresswoman Bella Abzug (D-NY).

Abzug was a loud-spoken, Jewish woman who grew up in the Bronx and had a penchant for oversized hats. She fought tirelessly for women’s rights and civil rights on many fronts as an attorney and later, a lawmaker.

On August 26, 1970, over 50,000 women marched down New York City’s Fifth Avenue to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and protest the limits and expectations still placed on American womanhood. They demanded changes to childcare and abortion policies, and education and employment opportunities. One year to the day after the march, Congress passed Congresswoman Abzug’s resolution designating Aug. 26 as Women’s Equality Day, the holiday we’re still celebrating today!

But being an outspoken agent of change doesn’t always win you friends. Abzug was often considered brash and was described in the pages of TIME magazine as “truculent and courageous,” with a New York City accent Norman Mailer said “could boil the fat off a taxi driver’s neck.”

In 1976, Abzug lost a bid for US Senate by a margin of 1% to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and then went on to lose her bid for NYC Mayor to Ed Koch. But just like the time that Harvard Law School rejected her because they did not accept any women at the time, Abzug hardly let those setbacks slow her roll.

Leaders today – and especially women leaders – must acknowledge that being effective and being popular doesn’t alway go hand-in-hand. While those trade-offs can be painful to reconcile, it’s important that we cultivate resilience and stay focused on our leadership purpose.

Lesson 4: Even Champions For Equality Can Be Prejudiced

I would be remiss to gloss over the troubling relationship between women’s suffrage and race. From the very start of the movement to gain women the right to vote in the US, women of color were often marginalized and treated as second-class citizens.

In the late 1890’s, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) saw including women of color who lived at the intersection of sexism and racism as a liability — one that might turn away a broader base of support (namely, among white women in the south).

Even decades after the passage of the 19th Amendment, many women of color were unable to exercise their rights freely, especially in the Jim Crow era south. Black women were targeted by a number of disenfranchisement methods, including having to wait in line for up to twelve hours to register to vote, pay head taxes, and undergo new kinds of tests and exams. Many continued to face the risk of violence or unlawful imprisonment simply for attempting to register to vote well into the 1960’s and 70’s.

While these barriers have since been deemed unlawful, new voting restrictions like voter ID requirements have made a resurgence in state legislatures across the nation in recent years. While they proclaim to have the intent of preventing voter fraud (which has never been proven to be a significant issue in any election), the end result is that racial minorities, students, low-income Americans, and the elderly are disproportionately barred from freely exercising their voting rights.

For leaders today, it’s critically important that we recognize the consequences of unconscious bias, and do more to advocate for true equality. Even those who consider themselves to be “progressive” or are actively advocating for positive social change can learn from the movement for women’s suffrage and do more to check our privilege and listen to marginalized people in order to pursue a more intersectional approach to leadership.

Today more than ever, let’s make sure we’re putting our freedoms to good use.

We know the movement to win women the right to vote was no easy feat. Are you putting those hard-won rights to good use?

Today, let’s ask be sure to:

  • Register to vote! Make sure you’re registered and active not just in our Presidential elections every 4 years, but on the local level, as well.
  • Contact your Elected Officials. We know the power that one person’s voice can have in altering the course of history. Make your voice heard not just in the ballot box, but every day on the issues our leaders are taking up as priorities.
  • Run for office. That’s right – we need more women like Bella Abzug in our world, daring to lead even if we face resistance along the way.

This was originally published in my Forbes Leadership column and reposted here with permission.






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