Though we’ve come a long way, women still face inequality in many ways. The ‘Pay Gap’, ‘Reproductive Rights’, ‘Body Positivity’ are some of the modern terms that come to mind when asked to think of women’s rights. Each is a valid concern, but there is another crucial piece of women’s rights that sometimes gets overlooked: our history.
We often fail to appreciate how fortunate we are now to have the rights we possess. Soren Kierkegaad phrased it elegantly when he said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” There are many things to be gained from emphasizing history, including inspiration for the future, appreciation for our current rights, and understanding the sacrifices that may be required of us.
As a recently inducted U.S. History teacher, I witness daily how much the younger generation isn’t aware of their shared past. I confess to being quite alarmed that my female students are completely clueless about the women who fought before them to give them basic equality. My high school juniors (age 16-17) didn’t know what women’s suffrage was. Has the school system failed them in their education, or is it part of a bigger problem? The media has a responsibility to inform the public of crucial issues, but most (including myself) only concentrate on the problems we face today. Yet, the battles fought in the 1900’s shape can inspire how people campaign for equal rights now.
Inspiration for Change
Women’s suffrage was the movement from the mid 1800’s-1920’s when women sought the right to vote. During that time, women tirelessly protested and demanded that they be treated as equals.
There were two main groups of female organizers, whose divergent approaches we can see echoed in today’s movements. The American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) focused on peaceful protesting and starting grassroots campaigns at the local/state level. These women believed legislative change would come from the bottom up. This evokes the grassroots techniques Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez used to gain office.
Working parallel to the AWSA but with a different approach, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NSWA) participated in confrontational methods of bringing attention to equality. They camped outside the White House for weeks, and interrupted a presidential inauguration day by leading a mass picket down the streets of Washington D.C. You see this disruptive approach mirrored today by the Hollywood protestors on the red carpet, the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement. However, the NWSA and AWSA were not largely effective at gaining traction until they united and formed one large coalition dubbed the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
The mixture of person to person campaigning and nationally visible protests led to the ratification of the 19th amendment and women getting the right to vote. Could we not gain inspiration from this alliance, and combine grassroots and protest tactics to have the largest impact on today’s rights issues?
Appreciation and Sacrifice
I was shocked when one of my students said “What do you mean women have unequal rights? We have everything now.” She took her hard-earned rights for granted. It hadn’t crossed her mind that the ballot she would fill in after her eighteenth birthday was given to her by women in 1920.
It is often said Generation Z (my students) doesn’t understand what they have because they grew up after technology became part of daily life. But I would challenge that Millennials, Gen Y and Gen Z have also become so accustomed to their rights that they take them for granted.
As an analogy, when a person works several months to save up to buy a new Samsung 10, it feels so much more valuable because the person recalls the labor and sacrifice of earning it. However, when a phone company simply gives us an upgrade to a new phone, it isn’t seen as an achievement but something we already deserved. That phone isn’t treated as carefully, looked at as proudly. The same holds true for the right to vote. Among Western countries, America has one of the lowest voter turnouts. Could one of the reasons be that most people have always been allowed to vote in recent history and thus don’t appreciate it?
We need to better educate our students to understand the freedoms they have today are the result of the hard work of others.
We have so much to gain by increasing public and educational focus on the history of feminism and women’s rights. We have holidays to honor our lost soldiers in war, who fought to protect America. We have holidays for many of our former presidents. Martin Luther King Jr., a hero of the Civil Rights Movement (which also benefited women) is honored and reported on in the media every year. By giving more attention to the history of women’s rights we will also honor the women who helped lift women up today.
National Women’s History Month is a positive step towards honoring our past female hero’s, but it isn’t enough. Until education emphasizes the battle for women’s rights as much as it does all other major movements in the US (Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War protests to name a few) we must push for more publicity and education about women’s rights.
A further additional step would be to create a holiday that honored one or all the women during National Women’s Month, like Martin Luther King Day. On that day all schools have plays, watch documentaries about him, and really understand the importance of what he accomplished. Women deserve the same.
Women’s rights and equality are finally making big leaps forward with AOC, the pay gap movement, and the group of women who are running for the Democratic nomination for president. I hope we can continue this forward momentum with additional focus on our past.
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Indigo Ferra, 25-year-old writer and educator, has lived all over the United States and the world. She has her BA in political science from Loyola University and an MA in international politics from the University of Warwick. She currently work as an EFL (English as a foreign language) teacher and as a temporary history teacher at a boarding school. An avid writer, she has written a few novels and is working on her first non fiction book. She’s passionate about spreading awareness about the female experience and empowering fellow women to overcome negativity.