Today is Women’s Equality Day, a day to commemorate the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote on an equal basis with men.
This week also marks the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, the setting of Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic I Have a Dream speech. The March on Washington is widely credited with having pressured Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, legislation that prohibits discrimination in voting, intended to create equal access to the polls for all Americans.
Both Women’s Equality Day and the anniversary of Dr. King’s appeal for equal rights were supported by the efforts of female activists, fighting for decades and advocating on behalf of equality for all. But the majority of the women of the civil rights movement were neither seen nor heard during the historic march.
Although we know women played an important role in the civil rights movement, they were nearly left off the official program. Organizers faced criticism at the lack of female speakers scheduled and as a result, they acquiesced and created the “Tribute to Negro Women Fighters for Freedom”. Myrlie Evers, Medgar Evers’ widow, was invited to introduce the tribute to the crowd, but she was unable to attend.
When Myrlie Evers cancelled, Daisy Lee Bates, the editor-in-chief of the Arkansas State Press, president of the Arkansas NAACP, and known leader of black community efforts to force integration into schools, was asked to make a statement to the crowd, she became the only woman to address the attendees, speaking just 142 words.
Most of the female civil rights activists were relegated to behind the scenes activities. In fact, there was a separate march for women, where civil rights icons such as Rosa Parks, Ella Baker and Dorothy Height marched down Independence Avenue, while men walked down Pennsylvania Avenue. Although often forgotten, their leadership was a critical force in the success of the march and the movement’s overall achievements.
The 1963 March on Washington was considered one of the most important moments for equal rights in American history. And while the largest civil rights groups were run by men many of the organizers, thinkers and volunteers were women. Today, as we celebrate Women’s Equality Day, we remember all of the women who struggled for equal treatment, acknowledgment and respect.
Lead photo: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons