August 26, 2023
The 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote nationally on August 18, 1920, so why is Women’s Equality Day on August 26th each year?
The simple answer is that even when a constitutional amendment has been ratified it’s not official until it has been certified by the correct government official. In 1920, that official was U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby. On August 26, 1920, Colby signed a proclamation behind closed doors at 8 a.m. at his own house in Washington, D.C, ending a struggle for the vote that started a century earlier.
Colby had been asked by women’s suffrage leaders Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt to allow groups in Colby’s office for the document’s signing and to film the event. Instead, Colby told reporters that “effectuating suffrage through proclamation of its ratification by the necessary thirty-six States was more important than feeding the movie cameras.”
“Inasmuch as I am not interested in the aftermath of any of the friction or collisions which may have been developed in the long struggle for the ratification of the amendment, I have contented myself with the performance in the simplest manner of the duty devolving upon me under the law,” Colby said.
A package of documents from the state of Tennessee had arrived by train in Washington around 4 a.m. It included the official ratification document from the state legislature.
How Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment on August 18, 1920, was a story in itself. Congress had passed the proposed amendment a year earlier, and it was supported by President Woodrow Wilson.
By the middle of 1920, 35 states had voted to ratify the amendment, but four other states—Connecticut, Vermont, North Carolina and Florida—refused to consider the resolution for various reasons, while the remaining states had rejected the amendment altogether.
So, Tennessee became the battleground to obtain the three-fourths of states needed to ratify the amendment. Harry T. Burn, a 24-year-old legislator, was set to vote against the amendment, but switched his vote on the Tennessee state house floor at the urging of his mother, assuring the 19th amendment’s ratification.
In 1971, Representative Bella Abzug championed a bill in the U.S. Congress to designate August 26 as “Women’s Equality Day.” In 1972, President Richard Nixon issued Proclamation 4147, which designated August 26, 1972, as "Women's Rights Day" and was the first official proclamation of Women's Equality Day. On August 16, 1973, Congress approved H.J. Res. 52, which stated that August 26 would be designated as Women's Equality Day and that "the President is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation in commemoration of that day in 1920 on which the women in America were first guaranteed the right to vote".
The same day, President Nixon issued Proclamation 4236 for Women's Equality Day which began, in part: "The struggle for women's suffrage, however, was only the first step toward full and equal participation of women in our Nation's life. In recent years, we have made other giant strides by attacking sex discrimination through our laws and by paving new avenues to equal economic opportunity for women. Today, in virtually every sector of our society, women are making important contributions to the quality of American life. And yet, much still remains to be done".