August 26th, 1970 marked the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, granting American woman the right to vote. On that date the National Organization for Women called on women to demonstrate in a nationwide “strike for equality.” More than 100,000 women responded to that call and participated in demos and rallies in over 90 major cities and towns across America, making this the largest, gender-equality protest in US history.
I was among the estimated 50,000 women who marched down Fifth Avenue in New York City in support of the women’s movement and equal rights under the law. Among the leading marchers were women of achievement: Bette Friedan, strike organizer , first president of NOW, and author it The Feminine Mystique; Gloria Steinem, political activist and founder of New York Magazine; Kate Millet, author of Sexual Politics; and straight-talking, peppery, Congresswoman Bella Abzug, tireless champion of women’s rights. I felt honored to be among them.
I was a twenty-six-year-old housewife then, and leaving my husband home with our two sons to join the march was a personal declaration of independence. I’d been married for eight years to a man who espoused equal rights and justice for all — but at home, as the assumed head of our household, he felt entitled to be in charge. He was okay with watching the kids three evenings a week while I went to art school — as long as I did the shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry, and the balance of child care, in addition to my schoolwork. But he wasn’t pleased when I joined NOW. Or when I read The Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir and began questioning the male/female status quo. Or when I told him he’d be feeding his kids dinner that evening, because I was striking for equality.
My husband shook his head at that. “If you women had to deal with the serious issues men do, you’d stop complaining fast. Well, be home before dark. The streets aren’t safe.”
I sighed. His comments irked me, but I kept silent, not wanting to argue. I kissed my family good-bye and left the apartment., promising to be home before dark.
But how can we be equal, I wondered, if half of us can’t go out alone at night?
Filled with excitement and sense of resolve, I rode the subway downtown. Approaching Fifth Avenue, I looked out at a sea of female faces: women of all shapes and sizes, all colors, all ages, married and single, gay and straight. Some held signs bearing messages: Women Unite! Equality Under The Law! We Are The Fifty-One Percent Minority, I Am Not A Barbie Doll! And the slogan of the day — Don’t Iron While The Strike Is Hot!
“THE TIME IS NOW!” someone yelled, and the mass of women began moving forward. The march monitors passed along that we would be taking the entire width of the street — not the half we’d been allotted by the city — and we surged forward, arms linked. With cheers of victory we took 5th Avenue from curb to curb, unchallenged by the police.
For me, the highlight of the experience was meeting a silver-haired woman. Somewhere along the way we fell into step together. I smiled at her, impressed that a woman of her age would be marching. Linking arms, we walked side by side. The woman told that a half century ago, when she was twenty, she had marched with Susan B. Anthony to win women the vote.
“I was scared to death by my own daring. the woman said. “The world didn’t take kindly to uppity women back then. My family was scandalized and my gentleman friend left me over it. But I marched anyway.”
And in that moment, I realized I was in the presence of a living, breathing, direct link with history — and that this brave woman and others like her had put themselves on the line for something they believed was simple justice for everyone.
I felt overwhelmed with emotion. “Thank you for my right to vote,” I whispered. “I won’t ever take it for granted — or any other right.
Our eyes met. An understanding passed between us. We hugged good-bye when the march ended at Bryant. Intending to head straight for the subway, I began weaving my way through the throngs of women who stood listening to the speaker. In spite of my promise to be home before dark, I felt compelled to stop and listen. My husband was going to have to understand.
The experience of meeting this woman on the march has stayed with me all my life. Portions of this posting have been quotes from my story, The Day I Met The Suffragette, written by the person bearing my real name, and published in the anthology Times They Were A-Changing: Women Remember the 60s and 70s.
So, happy Women’s Equality Day — we’ve come a long way baby, as the slogan for Virginia Slims Cigarettes used to say. But let us not forget our sisters around the world who are enslaved, genitally mutilated, and denied the right to an education, and even the right to show their faces outside their homes.
Let us not forget either, that although Congress officially recognized August 26, 1971 as Women’s Equality Day. the Equal Rights Amendment has still not been ratified in Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Oklahoma, Illinois Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama. Georgia, Florida, North and South Carolina, and Virginia. And that political; and religious factions, committed to stripping women of their hard-won right to choose and so many other rights are hard at work right now; so cast your vote wisely in the presidential election to come.
We’ve come a long way baby, but we still have far to go. @DorothyFreed1