Do you remember the day women across the country went on strike? Me neither. I was four months old when it happened, but it was the largest protest for gender equality in U.S. history.
Betty Friedan and the National Organization For Women organized the nationwide Women’s Strike for Equality on August 26, 1970. Ninety major cities and small towns held rallies that brought together women from across the political spectrum to demand equal opportunities in employment and education. In New York City alone, 50,000 women marched down Fifth Avenue.
The strike achieved its goal of bringing attention to the status of women in the United States. The New York Times even published their first major article on the feminist movement due to the events on that day.
A year later, Congress approved a bill, introduced by Bella Abzug (D-NY), declaring August 26 of each year as Women’s Equality Day. That day is not only the anniversary of the Women’s Strike for Equality; it is also the anniversary of the day women got the right to vote with the signing of the 19th Amendment by Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby in 1920.
The strike and the creation of Women’s Equality Day marks a turning point in the efforts of women in the U.S. to be treated fairly under the law. For those of us who were born around 1970 and later, we do not know a time when women were not allowed to vote, were not in the workforce in large numbers, or were not in the halls of Congress or state legislatures. We have always worked in an environment where the 1963 Equal Pay Act held employers accountable for paying us equally. We have always had women ahead of us proving that we could be anything we wanted to be when we grew up.
We watched women storm the boardrooms in the 1980s with big shoulder pads and even bigger hair. We watched Sally Ride fly into space on the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1983. We watched as women like Carly Fiorina took the helm as CEOs of major corporations and as Madeleine Albright took the post of Secretary of State becoming the top diplomat of the U.S. government. We watched as Sandra Day O’Conner was appointed the first woman on the U.S. Supreme Court. Just last week, we watched as the first two women graduated from U.S. Army Ranger School. There are still more firsts to conquer, but we are getting there.
Now we watch Mad Men and giggle at the blatant sexism of the 1950s and 1960s as we cheer for Peggy Olson breaking down barriers in the advertising industry. The idea that a woman needed to be a pretty office ornament as well as a competent typist seems so quaint.
Today women make up more than half of the work force. Women earn more than 57 percent of the bachelor’s degrees, and 60 percent of the master’s degrees. Women are small business owners and executives in large corporations. It is no longer novel to have a female doctor. Here in Georgia, we lead the nation in the growth of women-owned businesses. The suffragists who fought for our right to vote and the women who stood up for equality in the workplace have created a culture where today’s young women have a world of opportunities available to them.
Even with all the victories we have witnessed, there are still barriers to break down so all Georgia women can take advantage of these opportunities. Women are woefully underrepresented in the lucrative STEM fields. Women and girls are trapped in poverty at higher rates than men are. Georgia is at the bottom of the heap in the number of women in elected office, and women’s access to healthcare in the state is just as bad. We rank 49th or 50th in maternal mortality and 45th in low birth weight babies. Forty of our 159 counties have no obstetrical care providers. Atlanta also makes a dubious list as one of the top places in the nation for Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking. We still have much to do.
Today as we remember the debt we owe to the women who came before us, let’s dedicate ourselves to creating a better world for the women coming behind us. We may not need to take over the Statue of Liberty and hang forty-foot banners from her crown or stop the American Stock Exchange ticker tape as women did in New York during the Women’s Strike for Equality in 1970. However, we can encourage young women to consider careers in STEM, identify talented women for elected office, or advocate for better health care for the women of our state.
Happy Women’s Equality Day!
Karla Jacobs is a member of the Georgia Commission on Women. She lives in Marietta with her husband, two kids, a dog, and some fish.