The City of Wilmington’s Equity & Inclusion Office Offers a Brief History of the Historic Day
The City of Wilmington completed a small project interviewing women and creating a video for Women’s Equality Day. A few brave volunteers spoke to us about their work here at the city, things they have experienced in their careers, and how their work improves the city and the lives of people in Wilmington. Thank you to our folks in Communication, and their newest and very talented videographer, Scott Walls, for their work.
WOMEN’S RIGHT TO VOTE
On August 26, 2022 America celebrates Women’s Equality Day. It is the anniversary of the date in America when some women’s struggle for suffrage was finally rewarded. The 19th Amendment allowing women to vote had been ratified on August 18, 1920, when Harry T. Burn, a Tennessee state legislator, cast the deciding vote for ratification. The amendment officially became law on August 26 when U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed the proclamation into law. As of that moment, “The right 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,” became official law. North Carolina did not vote to ratify the 19th Amendment until 1971. Only Mississippi voted to ratify it later than that in 1974.
The struggle for suffrage was long and often violent. The final years of the struggle involved women being imprisoned in the Occoquan Workhouse, where many experienced abuse and force feeding, culminating in the Night of Terror. While the 19th Amendment disallowed discrimination based on sex, it did not deal with the racial and ethnic discrimination faced by many women in America. African American, Native American, Asian American, and Latinas would have to continue to fight for their suffrage. Learn more about the fight for suffrage in North Carolina with this episode of Cape Fear Unearthed.
STRUGGLES FROM WITHIN
African American women faced vicious racism within the suffrage movement. Black women such as Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells were excluded from white suffrage organizations and parades, and racist rhetoric was commonly employed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as they opposed passage of the 15th Amendment which would give Black men the vote before white women. Additionally, African American women were met with brutal opposition when attempting to vote. Florida educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune spent 1920 travelling across the state encouraging Black women to register despite the opposition. In 1922, the night before the 1922 elections, the Klan terrorized the women on the campus of Bethune’s women’s boarding school. Bethune stood her ground, and she showed up at the Daytona polls along with more than 100 other Black women. Black women’s fight for the right to vote, which began in the early 1800s, and continued with the efforts of women such as Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Unita Blackwell helped win passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This law makes discrimination at the polls based on race illegal.
Barden, Albert. [The headquarters of the North Carolina Equal Suffrage Association, Raleigh, NC]. Photograph. c.1910s-1920s. Raleigh, N.C.: Barden Collection, State Archives of North Carolina
In 1920, Native Americans were not even considered citizens. However, the activism of Native women such as Zitkála-Šá lead to the passage of the Snyder Act in 1924, granting citizenship to Native Americans. However, it would take a state-by-state battle for Indigenous Americans to win the right to vote. In 1962 Utah became the final state to grant Indigenous people the right to vote.
Puerto Rican suffragists like Luisa Capetillo fought to get all Puerto Rican women the vote in 1935. Meanwhile in California, Latina suffragist Maria Guadalupe Evangelina de Lopez fought for women’s access to the vote without literacy tests and other language requirements designed to stop Latinas from voting. It took a 1975 extension of the Voting Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination against language minority citizens, to expand voting access to women who rely heavily on languages other than English.
While American-born Asian Americans were considered citizens by 1920, Asian populations such as the Chinese were barred from voting because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Activists such as Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee worked to end the Chinese Exclusion Act, and in 1943, the act was overturned and Chinese Americans were granted the right to vote. In 1944 Tye Leung Schulze became the first Chinese woman to cast a vote in America.
THE WORK CONTINUES
While on August 26 we celebrate the ratification of the 19th Amendment, it is important to also remember those whose struggle continued long past 1920, and honor and celebrate their legacies. In 1971, New York Representative Bella Abzug called for a national proclamation declaring August 26th Women’s Equality Day. In 1973 that call was honored, and we have been celebrating Women’s Equality Day for 49 years. In those years women have continued to fight for full equality by battling for equal pay and fair policies in employment, the right to wear pants in public, the end of the practice of having to sign “baby letters” upon employment, the right to have credit cards and mortgages in their own name, the right to control their own bodies, an equal share of political power, and universal childcare, to name just a few. These efforts for equality continue today. To learn more about this history, check out Gail Collins’ wonderfully anecdotal book When Everything Changed.
WOMEN IN THE CITY OF WILMINGTON
The City of Wilmington is proud of its employees who identify as women. However, we know we have room to grow. The city employs 1,052 active employees, of those 266 identify as women. If we view those numbers through an intersectional lens, we see we only have 39 women who identify as African Americas, 12 who identify as Hispanic, and 7 who identify as Asian/Pacific Islander/Indian/Indigenous. While the numbers are not as large as we would like, their impact is huge, especially in budget, finance, planning and development, and human resources, where the number of women employees are higher than those of men. However, women are to be found in departments all over the city. Their jobs range from public administration at the highest levels to frontline workers in predominantly male fields. Take a moment to listen to a group of them share their stories.
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