From Suffrage Day to Women’s Equality Day: A Brief History of Celebrating August 26

Typewritten form with an image of fist in the center of the female gender symbol at the top of the document.

“National Women’s Strike Coalition” membership letter, circa August 1970, including supporters such as Congresswomen Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, and Patsy Mink; former Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin; and future Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. Folder 1, Box 566, Patsy T. Mink Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

While second-wave feminists of the 1970s reclaimed August 26 as their own and restyled it as Women’s Equality Day, the origins of the holiday actually reach back to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920.  Over the years, August 26 has been known variously as Suffrage Day, Woman Suffrage Ratification Day, Women’s Emancipation Day, and other similar names. The original purpose of the day was to celebrate women gaining nationally the right to vote and the certification of the Nineteenth Amendment on August 26, 1920, by U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby.[1] During the first half of the twentieth century, August 26 celebrations were primarily championed by feminists associated with the National Woman’s Party (NWP), whose records are found in the Manuscript Division.[2] After the ratification of the hard-fought Nineteenth Amendment, NWP leader Alice Paul turned her focus to another federal amendment, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), but support for the ERA was fiercely divided, and its history, even today, is still being written.

While some women of color in the United States were enfranchised by 1920, African American women in the South, Native American women on reservations, and women in the U.S. territories, had less cause to celebrate on August 26. African American women’s calls for assistance to the NWP to address voter suppression of African Americans in the South, especially right after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, went unheeded. Struggles for voting rights and civil rights continued into the twentieth century, influencing women’s fight for equality.  Feminists associated with the NWP, however, celebrated August 26 from the 1920s to the 1950s and beyond in many different ways. Celebrations evolved to fit the needs of the women’s movement, and technologies, over the course of the century.  In 1936, for example, Equal Rights, the journal of the NWP, offered “suggestions for celebration meetings for Wednesday, August 26th 1936, Anniversary of Woman Suffrage Amendment.” The article noted that the “new” Susan B. Anthony commemorative postage stamp would be available for purchase on August 26 and suggested rallies with “NWP banners, American flags, speakers, prominent speakers, etc.” on the steps of post offices. Other recommendations included radio speeches, editorials, and dramatic performances.[3] In 1943, former Delaware suffragist and previous NWP chairman Florence Bayard Hilles gave an August 26 radio address, outlining the history of the laws discriminating against women in the state of Delaware and the importance of the ERA.[4] In 1950, the thirtieth anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment inspired widespread observances throughout the United States, including nationwide radio and television broadcasts by the National Broadcasting Company, a week-long exhibition at the Library of Congress featuring women’s suffrage documents, and various state celebrations.[5]

Typed flyer with image of women dressed as suffragists marching with banners.

“March Again for Equal Rights” broadside, circa August 1977. Box V: 314, National Woman’s Party Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

By the Nineteenth Amendment’s fiftieth anniversary in 1970, the women’s liberation movement, specifically the newly formed National Organization for Women (NOW), called women to commemorate August 26 with a “strike for equality.”  NOW organizers noted that, “The strike has a twofold purpose . . . to commemorate the date 50 years ago that Tennessee ratified the suffrage amendment and assured its adoption and also to celebrate the rise of the new feminist movement.”[6] The nationwide strike called for women to leave their work responsibilities, including those women working in the home, and to refrain from all shopping in order to protest the continued inequalities that women faced in the workplace, in education, and throughout society. Some women also held “baby-ins” in government offices to demonstrate the need for day care. Prominent strikes occurred in New York, with Eleanor Holmes Norton and Bella Abzug as speakers and with Gloria Steinem leading a parade; in Boston, where Betty Friedan was a participant; and in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, San Diego, Rochester, Berkley, Olympia, and Denver.[7] The strikes were an overwhelming success with thousands of participants nationwide. Women re-imagined August 26 not just as a day of commemoration, but also as a day for action on current women’s issues.[8]

After the death of feminist leader Alice Paul on July 9, 1977, the NWP organized an August 26 march later that same summer. While reminiscent of suffrage days, that August 26 was also a way to honor Paul’s legacy and to stress the continued need for action on equal rights. Once Congress and the president officially began to acknowledge August 26 in the early 1970s, after pressure from Congresswomen such as Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, and Patsy Mink, the day became solidified as a national celebration of women’s achievements and a time to evaluate the progress of women’s equality in the U.S. and around the world.[9]  Although the complicated history surrounding this day is critical to our understanding of women’s, gender, and civil rights history in the United States, August 26 remains as much about remembering the history of these movements as it is about looking toward a future where current divisions in our society no longer hold sway.

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[1] The Nineteenth Amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920, by Tennessee, the 36th state to ratify, and some Nineteenth Amendment celebrations occur/occurred on that day as well.

[2] Founded in 1913 by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, the NWP broke away from the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) to focus on fighting for a federal suffrage amendment.

[3] “Woman’s Emancipation Day, August 26,” Equal Rights 22, no. 15 (August 1936): 2.

[4] “Radio Address of Florence Bayard Hilles, August 26, 1943, Over station WDEL,” Equal Rights 9, no. 8 (September-October 1943): 68.

[5] “August 26 – Thirtieth Anniversary of Suffrage Observed Throughout Nation,” Equal Rights 36, no. 5 (September-October 1950): 37.

[6] Elizabeth Shelton, “Women’s Strike Planned for Aug. 26,” Washington Post, May 5, 1970, newspaper clipping in Folder 1, Box 566, Patsy Mink Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[7] Staff correspondents, “U.S. women plan ‘Strike for Equality’ Day,” Christian Science Monitor, August 24, 1970, newspaper clipping in Folder 1, Box 566, Patsy Mink Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[8] The success of the march inspired an influx of a younger generation of women into the women’s liberation movement, but also created more homogeneous membership in NOW. Some black feminists criticized NOW for not addressing racial issues. See Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America, (New York: Harper Collins, 2006): 303-306.

[9] Representative Bella Abzug (D-NY) first introduced a joint resolution to Congress in 1971 to proclaim August 26 as “Women’s Equality Day,” but the bill initially failed. Abzug reintroduced the bill in 1973 and it was eventually passed by the House and the Senate.  In 1972, Richard Nixon became the first president to issue a proclamation designating August 26 as “Women’s Rights Day.” Every year since, the president has declared August 26 “Women’s Equality Day.”