American women won the right to vote 86 years ago. Now, August 26th-the date the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified-is observed as Women's Equality Day. This year's celebration focuses on encouraging women to fully practice that right.
The National Women's History Project is one of many women's groups keeping the suffragists' legacy alive. It was a 72 year campaign for women to win their right to vote. Molly Murphy-McGregor, NWHP Executive Director, says that campaign ended - in victory - on August 26, 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the constitution was ratified.
In 1971, Bella Abzug was in the U.S. Congress as a representative from the state of Yew York. She asked Congress to designate August 26 as Women's Equality Day, as a way to remember and honor the anniversary of women winning the right to vote.
Winning the right to vote gave women the opportunity to take control of their lives, and their communities, according to Mary Wilson, President of the League of Women Voters.
Of course that started slowly. We've probably seen the greatest achievements since World War II, in terms of women making a difference, in terms of being willing to stand up even at school board meetings and those kind of places - because indeed their vote counts the same as a man's does. So, women's lives have indeed changed because of the right to vote and because by having the right to vote, you feel more like you have a say in your life and in the way that government acts toward you in
your own life.
Wilson says women voters are interested in the same issues as men: "That's basically anything that contributes to our society. Yes, there may be some issues like what are come to be known as family issues that women have a little bit different slant on, but when it comes right down to it, men are interested in those issues, too. We really need to get away from the concept that there 'women's issues' and 'men's issues.' There are voters' issues, there are citizen's issues that we all need to turn our attention to and that we all need to be informed about before we go to cast our vote.
Although women's participation in public life has grown steadily throughout the last century, Murphy-McGregor of the National Women's History Project says more is needed, especially on the federal level. She says voting is key in bringing hope and change to local communities and the nation.
"I think that showing up and voting is so important because otherwise people become cynical and they don't think they can make changes. I think only 60% of the possible women voters voted in the last election. That's why we want to use Women's Equality Day as an opportunity to, first of all, register women to vote, and also to help them understand that the only way the laws get changed is by their participation.
One of the grassroots organizations that helps and mobilizes women candidates and voters is Emily's List. Executive director Ellen Moran says, these days, they're focused on encouraging more women to get out and vote in the upcoming election, on November 7.
"For this year, there is no presidential race on the ballot. That means fewer people are likely to vote. So they need a motivation to go to the polls this cycle. So we're going to be working with women who we call, 'drop-off voters' because they are less likely to vote. They tend to be unmarried, they tend to be maybe a little less educated. That's one group. There is another group of married women whom we'll be trying to persuade and outline the issues agenda for them.
Moran says voter recruitment campaigns provide women with what they need most: more accurate information about local, state and national political issues.
"Sometimes we do TV and radio advertising, but we're more likely to focus our efforts on the contact via the mail, or through telephone calls and through home visits where people actually go out and knock on doors and visit these women voters to actually give them more personalized information. We can talk to them in greater details about issues that are concerning their lives."
Moran says bringing younger women into the political process is another important goal of the campaign.
"They are also looking for information that's specific to their lives and addresses the concerns that they have about health care, education, how to get a good job, what America is going to do about the war in Iraq. They are also more likely to be on-line. In some ways, they are harder to reach because they move a little bit more. They are more transient. But we're always looking for new ways to involve them."
Involving those young voters is crucial for future progress. NWHP's Murphy-Macgregor says it will give their movement a life of its own. Young women become politically engaged when they are inspired by positive female role models, then they can become mentors to the next generation on the road to women's full equality.