In recent years, my social media feed fills with images of dogs on Aug. 26, in honor of what a popular website has proclaimed National Dog Day. I love dogs and recognize the warmth and companionship they bring to our lives. Our golden retriever Chester Brown lived to age 16 and is buried in front of our house, where dogwood forms a thick blanket every summer.
Yet I’ve never celebrated National Dog Day on Aug. 26 and never will. To me, the date will always be Women’s Equality Day — the date in 1920 when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was certified, granting most women in the U.S. the right to vote. In 1973, Congress officially designated Aug. 26 as Women’s Equality Day to honor the anniversary of women’s suffrage and the dawning of the modern women’s rights movement. Every U.S. president since has issued proclamations recognizing the date.
American women struggled long and hard, and suffered through many setbacks, to achieve the right to take part in our democracy. I have the full life that I have — one I’ve had the freedom to steer and shape myself — because of their courage, persistence, and tireless work. It’s hard to imagine today, but there was a time not so long ago when a woman could be ostracized for speaking in public. Or wearing her skirt above the ankle. Or seeking any life for herself outside the home. Those who fought to end this oppression faced hostility and contempt — even violence — and many were jailed for their peaceful protests. The effort took decades, and success was hard-fought and never inevitable.
For non-white women, the challenge continued well beyond 1920. Native American women were not enfranchised until 1924, with the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act, and Black women did not effectively gain the vote until 1965, when the Voting Rights Act barred discrimination at the polls. The 19th Amendment was only the beginning of the enactments to secure women’s full enfranchisement, but without it all American women might still be on the sidelines of public life.
There is no national holiday in the U.S. that honors the achievements of women, or any individual woman, and efforts to recognize notable women with national observance days have failed to gain traction. While the United Nations endorses International Women’s Day on March 8 as a time to celebrate women’s rights, this date has never been officially adopted in this country. In 1987, Congress designated March as Women’s History Month to commemorate women’s contributions and achievements in a variety of fields. But Women’s Equality Day is the only day officially dedicated to the 19th Amendment and the sacrifices and struggles that have steadily broadened women’s freedoms.
Like many national observances that are memorialized by Congress and proclaimed by the President each year, Women’s Equality Day comes with no built-in celebration. National, state and local governments and organizations can treat the observance as they see fit, by elevating it or brushing it aside. Key groups like the National Women’s History Alliance help sponsor commemorative activities across the country, and some have campaigned to make it a national holiday. But Women’s Equality Day is not on most Americans’ radar. Even the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment in 2020 passed with little fanfare, overshadowed by the pandemic and a general lack of awareness.
Today women enjoy rights and privileges that our mothers and grandmothers hardly could have imagined. The past teaches us that these advancements didn’t just materialize but were gained through the vision and tenacity of generations before us. The past also teaches us that complacency about our rights and privileges lays the groundwork for their erosion. In these times when women’s rights remain under attack both at home and abroad, it’s more important than ever to understand what women stand to lose if we forget our history.
Women’s Equality Day offers a valuable opportunity to acknowledge both how far women have come on the road to equality and how far remains to be traveled. This Aug. 26, I plan to remember and honor — with deep gratitude — those who secured my right to vote and those who continue to champion my freedom. And all those adorable dogs on my social media feed? I’ll “like” them on Aug. 27.
Barbara Hood is a retired attorney and businesswoman who lives in Anchorage.
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