Ninety-three years ago this week, on Aug. 26, 1920, American women secured the right to vote. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution became the law of the land following the dramatic ratification vote by the Tennessee Legislature. Though the amendment was expected to fail, one young legislator, Harry T. Burn, heeded his mother’s last-minute appeal and voted yes. We remain grateful to Harry and his mother.
Winning the vote simply provided women the right to participate in the democratic process. Voting should have been a birthright. The constitutional right to vote is the first, and the only, right that addresses equality for women and men. Recognizing that the 19th Amendment had a very limited scope, Alice Paul introduced the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1923 to expand that affirmation to all the rights guaranteed in the Constitution.
In 1971, when U.S. Rep. Bella Abzug designated Women Equality Day, the resolution poignantly expressed the long road ahead to achieve true equality. Declaring American women “have not been entitled to the full rights and privileges, public or private, legal or institutional, which are available to male citizens of the United States,” the resolution reiterated the need for further legislative action.
So what has 93 years of voting gotten us? Clearly, equality has not been achieved. The need for specific language in the Constitution affirming the principle of equal rights on the basis of sex is still needed. Although women continue to make progress (acceptance at military academies and greater representation in certain professions), a prevalent assumption remains that males hold rights by birth and females must prove they deserve equality .
Since the right to vote is the only equal right constitutionally guaranteed for women, we must exercise the vote to effectuate changes toward full equality. Electing women to political office is one way to achieve this goal. The current 113th Congress has the largest number of women (98) ever elected. Though a record-setting number, it is by no means an accurate representation of the American people. And that’s what matters in our democracy. Electing more women has proven to be not just good for women, but good for America.
Our vote is an undisputed power and it should be used wisely. The fact that women cast 53 percent of the votes in the 2012 election was noticed. Many “women friendly” laws and policies have been implemented as a result. The “gender gap” occupied more hours of campaign conversation than any other issue.
As we witness voting laws change, and as we commemorate another anniversary of the 19th Amendment, we must remain vigilant to defend historic gains. We must always be prepared to exercise our vote to advance the cause of equality. To continue the long march toward equality, we must not allow our power as voters to be eroded or undermined.
Events in recent months have proven that voting rights and protection are fragile. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, at least 25 laws and two executive actions designed to make voting harder were passed in 19 states between 2011 and 2012. And the shocking decision of the Supreme Court regarding the Voting Rights Act will have unprecedented consequences on voting rights. The courts declared that “current conditions require a new coverage formula.” Current conditions for women require a new formula for achieving full and equal protection under the Constitution.
We have to figure out the best way to collectively “lean in” at the polls and be the change for the future generations. We need to once and for all guarantee equality of women under the law. Passing the Equal Rights Amendment is the duty of this generation. We need only echo the words of Alice Paul: “We should not be safe until the principle of equal rights is written into the framework of our government.”
Maribel Balbin is president of the League of Women Voters of Miami-Dade County. Michelle Dunaj Lucking is chair of the Miami-Dade County Commission for Women.