The theme for this year’s National Women’s History month comes from the response of Senator Mitch McConnell after Senator Elizabeth Warren was rebuked during the confirmation hearing for U.S. Attorney General.
“Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech,” McConnell said, defending the move. “She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
The persistence of women over the course of U.S. history has brought about change through decades of struggle. Women have been showing up for generations taking unpopular, even dangerous positions in an effort to effect change for the purpose of visibility, access, equality. From the Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina, who came from a slave holding family in the south, and after being influenced by the Quakers, became early activists against slavery, to Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton who, while attending the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London, were not permitted to speak or stand alongside men during the Convention meetings. Their segregation to the women’s section following the debate over whether or not women would be permitted to speak, engendered a secondary focus on Women’s Rights.
Born was the Seneca Falls Woman’s Rights Convention, a convergence designed to address the “social, civil and religious condition and rights of woman.” One of the resolutions attached to the declaration was the vote for women, which caused contention from its inception. Women’s suffrage was tied to these nearly annual conventions from the beginning. But the time between Seneca Falls in 1848 and the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 giving American white women the right to vote was nearly 70 years of conventions and multiple iterations of leadership within the movement.
It is owing to the persistence of women that change is wrenched out of socially and lawfully intransigent thinking and practice. During high school, a keenly smart and vocal peer wore an ERA NOW button that read 69 cents, the money earned by women for every dollar a man earned. Thirty five years later and our wages have grown to 81 cents on the dollar–twelve pennies, 35 years.
The Equal Rights Amendment, like the 19th Amendment has had a long, tumultuous history since it was first introduced before Congress in 1921. Early opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment initially came from Labor organizers, who feared working class women would not find equal protection and had been supported mid century by the Republican Party which had added it to its platform every four years from 1940 until 1980. When it was close to ratification by 35 of the needed 38 states, the conservative Republican activist Phyllis Schlafly argued in support of traditional gender roles, contended that the ERA would not protect women in cases of child custody and alimony, would result in the draft for women and would enable same sex couples to marry.
Her successful campaign to stop ratification has endured, but the ERA remains an unfinished effort that continues to galvanize activism. On March 22, 2017, the Nevada legislature ratified the ERA, the first state in 40 years to do so. And on February 10 of this year, women from the League of Women Voters and Liberal Women of Chesterfield County demanded, albeit unsuccessfully, that legislators of the Virginia General Assembly debate the ERA in an effort to ratify. There are currently four ratification bills before the 115th Congress, 2017-2018.
The inexorable expansion of rights for women has certainly been a multiple lifetime process and still so much remains to be done. The rising American electorate–single women, people of color and millennials–may compress the interval into our single lifetime. As a current tweet making the social media rounds contends, the number of millennials age 18 and over exceeds the number of living baby boomers. “IF YOU VOTE, YOU WILL OUTNUMBER THEM.” The possibilities for the midterm elections and 2020 can transform the resistance of 2017 into a reckoning for 2018 and beyond. Of course, this reckoning will only come about through our participation and our persistence.
Today we stand in recognition of the many women who stood before us. And we stand for the women who continue to do the work. I stand for my single mother. I show up for my daughter. The totality of our persistence will effect change. If the young high school students who inaugurated March For Our Lives are the indication of our legacy of struggle and power, we have much to look forward to.