Celebrate Women's Equality Day: Demand Equality!

By Alice Dahle, Women’s Human Rights Coordination Group

Friday, August 26 marks the 91st anniversary of the vote for women in the US.  On August 26, 1920,  Congress passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution after a 72-year campaign which began in 1848 at the world’s first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York.

The struggle for American women’s right to vote was long, difficult, and at times, divisive.  The Suffrage movement split after the Civil War over whether to support adoption of the 15th Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote, or to insist that women be included before they would endorse it.  One faction insisted on universal voting rights legislation at the federal level, while others approached the issue state by state.

Few of the original suffragists lived to see the successful results of the work they started.  As a new generation of suffragists joined the movement, they used more active tactics, including mass marches and hunger strikes.  As a result, they were arrested and sent to prison, where they were chained, beaten and force-fed.  In 1971, Rep. Bella Abzug introduced a proposal to commemorate their struggle each year on August 26 as Women’s Equality Day.

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Why Prop 8 Impacts All of Us

Until I attended law school, my strongest exposure to court rooms came from an old “L.A. Law” addiction.  (If you don’t know what that is, do me a favor and don’t depress me by asking.  Think “Boston Legal” for the 80s.)  One of my girlfriends in grad school came from a family with a strong legal tradition and was a lot savvier than me when it came to actual courtroom experience.  For years, her father argued cases in front of the Supreme Court and I listened with interest as she shared insider’s knowledge.  Jennifer said that one of the hardest things to explain to her dad’s clients was that by the time the cases reached the Supreme Court, they were not about them.  They had become cases about the law and the way the law is interpreted for everyone.

I’ve been thinking about that lesson this morning, as the California Supreme Court is hearing a challenge to Proposition 8.  It’s been a hard thing to explain to the people of California – and the country- that Proposition 8 is not just a case about same-sex marriage.  It’s a case about the rights of all minority populations in California.

If that doesn’t seem obvious, let me explain.  The California Constitution, like all constitutions provides fundamental rights for those under its jurisdiction.  Last year, the state Supreme Court ruled that marriage was a fundamental right and must be extended to same-sex couples.  When Californians voted for Proposition 8, they voted to take away a fundamental right of a minority group.  The case is really about whether we can allow fundamental rights to be taken away from citizens by majority vote.  Do the majority of voters have the power to take away constitutional rights from any group?  The answer must be no. Otherwise, every minority group based on race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender, is vulnerable.  Without the security of equal protection under the law, all minority groups are at risk of losing fundamental rights whenever the majority decides to take them away.