Thomas N. Bethell, National Academy of Social Insurance
In 1875 the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution did not grant women the right to vote. It then took women 42 years to win that right — from May 16, 1878, when Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton persuaded a few members of Congress to introduce a women’s suffrage amendment, until August 26, 1920, when the 19th Amendment was finally adopted.
Two years later the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the amendment, demonstrating that the laws of the land can be changed — for good cause. And on August 26, 2012 — officially Women’s Equality Day, observed every year on August 26 — Americans of both genders once again honor those who devoted their lives to that cause.
“Really,” the National Women's Law Center notes, “we honor them every time we go to the polls.” True, but the right to go to the polls can never be taken for granted. In this presidential election year, many states have adopted stringent voter-ID and other measures that could suppress voter turnout. The League of Women Voters, a nationwide Election Protection Coalition, and other groups are working to protect the right that was won at such cost 92 years ago.
Among the many issues at stake is the future of Social Security — and the stakes are especially high for women. Changes to Social Security that would strengthen its protections for women include revenue increases that could make possible the payment of benefits to caregivers; improving benefits for low-paid workers, widowed spouses, and the oldest-old (who are predominantly women); and adopting a cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) that accurately reflects the high out-of-pocket healthcare costs borne by aging Americans. In contrast, there’s considerable support in Congress and among candidates for measures that would cut Social Security in the name of fiscal austerity.
The abiding lesson of the women’s suffrage movement is that the fight for justice, fairness, and equality never ends. In the 1930s that same struggle, spearheaded by Frances Perkins, finally led to enactment of the Social Security Act in 1935 — on August 14. Which makes August an excellent month for celebrating, this year and every year.