Growing Up Girls: Women’s Equality Day Is This Week

As the League of Women Voters prepares to celebrate Women’s Equality Day on Friday, Aug. 25 (5-7 p.m. in Mural Alley), it’s worth reflecting on the state of equality in 2023.

In her book 18 Months, Shannon Thrace recounts a conversation with her female friends about growing up as a girl – the peeping toms spying into her bathroom window as a teenager, invasions of her body by strangers while swimming and gropings. Then in her blog Speaking the Ineffable, Thrace penned an open letter to Jordan Petersen, a popular – and pop – psychologist, about his assertion that women just aren’t biologically created to pursue careers in many STEM fields. Good at math since her childhood, Thrace fought a life-long steering to the arts, to become a software engineer and IT professional. In her mid-fifties now, she lamented the numerous positions where she eagerly sought new challenges, took up the slack for co-workers and exceeded job duties to earn opportunities to prove her engineering skills, only to be maneuvered into project management roles, or roles “you’re more likely to enjoy” because she is a woman.

This lifelong conditioning and deferential treatment signals there is still much work in the long slog toward women’s equality. To be sure, much has improved over the past century, as Claudia Goldin outlines in Career and Family. Goldin attempts to trace the changing cultural expectations for middle-class girls and women regarding their educational and career achievements. The trouble with focusing on a narrow subset of the population, Goldin leaves a wide gap that allows the “biological determinism” argument to persist, even as the work toward equality has progressed. Beginning with the suffragists and the League of Women Voters (and its progenitors), the right to vote shifted the rules of the game. Though only white women gained the right to vote in 1921 – such rights were withheld from Native American, Asian American and African American women until later – women began the slow, persistent work of influencing perception and policy.

The evidence shows up in mundane places, like the class portraits on the walls of the Indiana Medical History Museum, where classes in the early 1900s had no women, then one or two (and one or two black men), which blossoms into a handful before the school was shuttered. The portraits at other schools surely look the same. When a 14-year-old penned “To the University of Cambridge, in New England” in 1773, she made the case for the humanity of both black people as well as demonstrated that she belonged in those hallowed halls as much as those white men, after all she was an enslaved girl who had learned English, Latin and Greek, as well as their poetic styles in order to write and deliver that poem.

180 years later, when Ruth Bader Ginsburg began law school at Harvard, she and the other nine women in her class of 500 were invited to the dean’s house for dinner, where he reportedly asked “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?” Ginsberg finished her degree at Columbia in 1959 at the top of her class, only to be declined jobs at the 12 firms where she first interviewed because she was a woman. Now women no longer have to plead to be admitted to universities; they’re actively recruited – mostly by fellow women – into STEM fields and can attend the likes of Rose-Hulman, a top-rated Hoosier engineering school that didn’t admit women until 1995.

A mere 21 years earlier Congress passed the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which finally allowed women to open bank accounts and lines of credit without a male co-signer. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of that right. If that seems old, it isn’t old enough to be so codified and entrenched not to be overturned. Fifty-year-old rights have been overturned, repealed or weakened frequently – the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Roe Vs. Wade, Plessy Vs. Ferguson. Some of those should have been overturned, but others are needful. It’s the work of the people to ensure that laws reflect their democratic will.

The ubiquitous legalization of the birth control pill in the U.S. was decided by another Supreme Court decision, Eisenstadt v. Baird in 1972. The pill not only improved women’s health – it’s often used to help medical conditions – but created more flexibility for women and girls when it came to education, marriage, career and childbearing and prevents unwanted pregnancies. More women now graduate from high school and college than ever before. Thanks to that and Title IX, women’s sports teams have national audiences. More women serve in Congress now than ever. (Maybe someday we’ll have a longer, more diverse list of presidents and vice presidents, as other Western democracies do.) Women’s equality is proven to elevate economies and stabilize nations.

In a 2009 article, “The Women’s Crusade,” Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn reported extensively on the evidence that educating women, giving them financial independence and allowing them to make financial decisions in the household improved health, educational levels and socio-economic conditions for the entire household, reduced poverty in whole regions and also reduced terrorism and violence. Kristof and Wudunn have reported extensively on the role that women’s equality has had on universally better outcomes for all in the U.S. and around the world. Time and again, elevating conditions and improving equality prove to break trauma cycles that keep people in poverty and ill health.

Unfortunately, women still do not have a constitutionally protected status in the U.S. though the Equal Rights Amendment was proposed in 1923. If people create an outcry and compel Congress to listen, it has the votes to be ratified. For this year’s Women’s Equality Day, celebrated on Aug. 26, the League of Women Voters is reminding citizens to call loudly for the ERA, for expanding not restricting voting rights and to pay attention to reproductive freedoms. Close attention to the strategies of many large conservative groups shows that restricting the right to birth control is a goal, as is prosecuting women who pursue abortions. Some even want to go further and overturn Obergefell v. Hodges, which grants equal marriage rights. Defending rights requires diligence, grit and persistence.

It helps to do this work together. We are stronger together. The League of Women Voters of Montgomery County invites you to find out more and join us for our Women’s Equality Day Friday in the Mural Alley with a mixer. All are invited to join us from 5-7 p.m. for live music, refreshments, trivia, a panel featuring women business owners and a chance to network.

-The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan, multi-issue political organization which encourages informed and active participation in government. For information about the League, visit the website; or, visit the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, Indiana Facebook page.