Today is Equal Pay Day. It marks out just how much extra time the average woman employed full-time would have to work to equal the pay of the typical man. Four months, 12 days. That’s how much difference remains in a single year of work. This is a day that sets out to aspire toward a level of fairness and decency that doesn’t yet exist, and also to celebrate those who have brought us this far.
… President Obama will designate a new national monument at a historic location in Washington, D.C., to honor the movement for women’s equality. The new Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument will protect the iconic house that has served as the headquarters for the National Woman’s Party since 1929. From this house... members of the Party led the movement for women’s equality, authoring more than 600 pieces of federal, state and local legislation in support of equal rights.
The house is named to remember Alice Paul, who founded the National Woman’s Party and plotted its strategy through its first decades. Paul traveled to England, where she joined the suffrage movement. Despite her Quaker upbringing, she was a believer in militant action, wasn’t above throwing an insult or a rock, and was jailed 10 times for both vandalism and agitation. Returning to the United States, she led huge marches on the Capitol and conducted endless organizing and planning. Despite years of protests, both Congress and the president remained committed to fighting suffrage. Paul then brought a mere dozen women to stand silently in the first picket aimed directly at the White House. It was a turning point.
As is too often the case when an established system faces a challenge to its authority, the response was brutal—suffragettes were derided as traitors to a war-time president, Paul was jailed and immediately went on a hunger strike, both children and elderly women taking part in protests were beaten down the streets, dozens were thrown into dank cells in horrible conditions, and prisoners on hunger strikes suffered force feedings that were nothing short of torture. Paul herself was eventually dragged away to a sanitarium, where officials tried to have her declared insane. However, the ugliness of the response was seen as a national embarrassment. Three months after Alice Paul led her movement to the gates of the White House, Woodrow Wilson announced his support for woman’s suffrage. Two years later, it was signed into law.
If that was the end of Alice Paul’s story, she would still be among America’s greatest figures. But it’s not. She kept fighting for women’s rights through the decades, drafting legislation, lobbying for its passage, bringing more women to the movement, and convincing men of the injustice written into law. In 1923, she and Crystal Eastman wrote the Equal Rights Amendment. She fought for its passage for the next 50 years. Why is sex discrimination a part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act? Because Alice Paul, that’s why.
“It is incredible to me that any woman should consider the fight for full equality won. It has just begun. There is hardly a field, economic or political, in which the natural and unaccustomed policy is not to ignore women…Unless women are prepared to fight politically they must be content to be ignored politically,” — Alice Paul.
She said that in 1920. From 1920 until her death, Alice Paul saw women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights Act, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, and a steadily increasing role of women in every aspect of society. When she died in 1977, the Equal Rights Amendment she helped to author had been ratified in 35 states. It needed only three more to pass. But that didn’t happen, and here we are 40 years later with women still working an extra four months, 12 days.
President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act as his first act in office. That was good. It’s not enough. We still need the Paycheck Fairness Act. We still need the Equal Rights Amendment. We still need women and men willing to agitate, protest, and fight.