While August 26 wasn’t given the title of Women’s Equality Day until 1971, the significance of this date can be traced back to 1920. For amendments to be passed at that time, three-quarters of the 48 states that existed needed to support the decision. The question at stake: should women be given the right to vote? Indeed, since as early as 1848, women recognized that their inability to participate in political decisions was significantly hindering gender equality. Fast-forward to 1920, and Tennessee, the 36th state to pass the 19th amendment, was gridlocked.
It wasn’t until 24-year-old representative Harry T. Burn reached into his pocket that everything changed. Planning to vote against the amendment, he found a note from his mother, Febb, asking him to “be a good boy” and give her the opportunity to vote so she could continue supporting legislators like her son. According to the National Constitution Centre, Burn said, “I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification… I appreciated the fact that an opportunity such as seldom comes to a mortal man to free 17 million women from political slavery was mine.”
From that significant date in history to today, women have continued to make tremendous accomplishments. Amelia Earhart flew solo across the Atlantic in 1932. Women served in the armed forces 10 years later. Rosa Parks was arrested for making the powerful, symbolic choice of refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in Alabama in 1955. Sally Ride became the first woman to go to space in 1983. More recently, the House of Representatives welcomed their first female speaker, Nancy Pelosi, just 12 years ago, and Hilary Clinton became the first woman to receive a presidential nomination in 2016.
So, how we can continue to support women today? And how can we “do equality” better?
I used to be someone who thought that it was about not seeing difference and treating everyone the same. However, I am intrigued by Génesis Luigi’s definition now—that it's is about “recognizing and embracing diversity.” He adds, “Equality not only means that opportunities should be available to everyone; it means that everyone can have the chance to develop their potential.”
There’s so much more nuance to this definition than simply seeing sameness, as I have tended to do in the past. This is about acknowledging that differences do exist, but that they don’t have to be associated with fear, inconvenience, or defensiveness. For example, as a woman, I believe I experience the world in a way that’s inherently different from a man. I have to hold keys between my fingers if I’m walking around the city at night. I have to make sure I hold my drink by my side at the bar so I don’t get roofied. These are experiences many men cannot fully understand, so to say that we are “the same” seems simplistic and inaccurate. But what difference might it make if we started saying, “Yes, you have a different experience than I do, but let’s create a world where those differences can be acknowledged, understood, and acted upon in a helpful way.”
Equality = Men Bashing?
I’ve noticed that when many women talk about feminism or equality, some people automatically assume that this must go hand in hand with the oppression of men. Here, I’m reminded of a quote by Desmond Atanga:
“To me, equality underscores the fact that men and women as intrinsic human beings have the same opportunities and human rights. Equality stresses the truth that no one of them is supposed to deprive the other of these rights and opportunities. Let’s play a little with the word equality: take out the ‘e’ in equality and you have ‘quality.’ It means men and women have the same standards, and the standard of measurement is that they are all human beings.”
In other words, the point of being an equalist isn’t about suppressing one group to empower another. Rather, the point is to empower every group in a way that takes their unique experiences into account and bring people together.
So, how can we be better equalists?
1. Educate yourself.
For me, equality means learning about differences with a genuine curiosity so that we can live as more mindful, thoughtful citizens. This does not just mean asking any woman in your life about how she experiences the world. No. Do some of the work yourself. Research significant moments in women's history. Watch documentaries. Read memoirs, essays, online forums, and more. (Note that this applies to racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities as well, not just women.)
2. Shut your mouth, open your ears.
When you do have the opportunity to hear about a woman's experience, try your best to not get defensive. As a heterosexual white woman who holds quite a bit of privilege, I have to say that this, unfortunately, can take some practice. I'm embarrassed to admit that there were many moments in my past when someone of a racial, ethnic, or sexual minority would tell me about their experiences and I would become defensive, as if they were making a personal attack at me. Looking back, I realize that I was missing out on a phenomenal learning opportunity because I was stupidly worrying about my own ego. Be open-minded, non-judgmental, and compassionate and truly listen. This isn't your time to have the floor, it's theirs.
3. Believe her.
As a couples therapist, a very common complaint I get from heterosexual women is that they feel as though their partners don't trust their intellect. Believe me when I say that this can take very, very subtle forms but have extremely hurtful repercussions. Here are some seemingly "harmless" examples that I hear about every single day:
Joe asks his wife to check if his keys fell under the table. She checks, only to see him immediately checking himself after because she mustn't have done it well enough.
Jane tells Joe an interesting fact and watches him Google it afterwards to make sure she’s right.
Jane gives Joe some advice about his finances since she's worked as an accountant for 20 years, yet he says he needs a second opinion.
On the surface, these might not seem like a “big deal,” but add each and every one of these frustrating moments up and all women hear is, “You think I'm an idiot." In more extreme cases, this takes the form of emotional abuse in the form of gaslighting, where a person tries to gain more power by making the victim continually question their reality.
The antidote to gaslighting, even in its subtlest forms, is approaching women’s comments, opinions, and reasoning with respect and belief.
Now, don't be ridiculous and assume that I'm saying you always have to agree with women or never doubt a word they say. (If you just jumped to that conclusion, you're engaging in something called the Straw Man Argument, which is a tactic used during debates where someone exaggerates or distorts the other person's argument so it seems completely ridiculous and unbelievable.) I am saying that in general, don't assume that women have messed up, done something wrong, not been thorough enough, or don’t know what they're talking about. Take what they say at face value. This isn't rocket science.
4. Share the emotional labour—and don't expect a trophy for it.
According to Everyday Feminism, “emotional labour” is the process of exerting energy for the purpose of addressing people's feelings, making people comfortable, or living up to social expectations. Psychologist Alicia Grandey puts it very well:
“[Emotional labour] is kind of like when you get a gift and you don’t really like it, and you have to still smile and act nice because otherwise your Aunt Bernadette would be offended. But you have to do that all day long. Not only that, but it’s explicitly part of your job.”
Here are different forms of emotional labour that women are often expected to do, as described by Reddit users:
Arranging details of an upcoming outing
Buying the gifts and cards during the holiday season and signing them off
Sending out thank you cards
Being the one to notice everything like when the dog needs to go to the vet, when your kids need their annual check-up, etc.
Booking appointments for everyone in the family
Asking your partner if they’re okay if they seem a little “off"
Being the one to continually initiate difficult conversations about your relationship
Unfortunately, tasks like this usually go completely unnoticed, which means they're often unacknowledged and/or unappreciated. However, a funny thing I often witness is that when men do complete any of these tasks, you’d think they'd just done an Iron Man. They want all the praise, all the acknowledgment, and all the recognition. Meanwhile, women are simply "expected" to do such things on a daily basis. It’s this inherent difference in expectations and praise that defines gender inequality.
For men, the antidote to this is to do more of the emotional labour yourself without expecting a parade and noticing and appreciating all of the commonly “unseen” tasks your partner does on a daily basis.
For women, the antidote to this is to ask for help more rather than silently and resentfully doing everything yourself.
5. Be an advocate for gender equality.
Both women and men can be participants in this! If you notice subtle or overt signs of gender inequality, say something. If a woman is continually being asked to get everyone coffee in the morning, say you'll take care of it that day instead if you're a man. Ask your guy friends to help clean up the kitchen instead of watching the sports game. Don't stay silent, say something.
6. Support women.
This is mainly a point for my fellow female-identifying friends out there. If you see a woman succeeding, celebrate this rather than being jealous and nasty. If a woman is wearing a lot of makeup and provocative clothes, consider that that’s how she wants to express herself that day, not that she’s “looking for male attention.” Collaborate with women rather than being competitive. And if you, yourself, identify as a woman, stand up for yourself, too. Speak up more. Don’t be afraid of “sounding bossy.” Let people hear all of the wonderful thoughts you might be keeping to yourself.
The Bottom Line
Women’s Equality Day is about recognizing all that women have gone through and all that we continue to go through to get closer and closer to gender equality. It's also about appreciating the men and women who have helped along the way, from Harry Burn in 1920 to Chaz Bono today (and so many others). Finally, it's about remembering that recognizing women does not have to be synonymous with discounting or suppressing men. It is about simply reminding ourselves that when we truly work together, we are stronger.
I would love to hear from you! If you have tips on how to catalyze gender equality or want to share your personal experiences, please leave a comment below. Let's support and inspire each other!