History, History Column

‘Remember the Laidies’

By ©2019 Sarah Becker

‘Remember the Laidies’

In 1920 the United States, as per the 18th Amendment, prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors;” the U.S. Supreme Court concluded the United States Steel Corporation was not an illegal monopoly, and the Virginia General Assembly voted not to ratify the Woman’s Suffrage Amendment.  Yet Virginia’s Equal Suffrage League [ESL]—“most likely the largest State Association in the South”—claimed 32,000 members.

“In 1901 the Virginia General Assembly authorized a convention to draft a new constitution that would, among other things, restrict the vote to white men,” the Library of Virginia explained.  The State constitution remained mostly in effect until 1971.    

Also in 1920: The Red Scare took root, and five members of the New York legislature were expelled for being members of the Socialist party.  The Socialist Party nominated labor leader Eugene V. Debs for president; women comprised one-fifth of the nation’s work force, and outgoing two-term President Woodrow Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

“Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us dare to do our duty as we understand it,” Wilson then said.  Duty, as defined by The American Heritage dictionary:  “moral or legal obligation; responsibility.”

Is it not the duty of the 2020 Virginia House of Delegates, the Virginia General Assembly to finally ratify the Equal Rights Amendment [ERA]?  Harry F. Byrd Sr.’s conservative Virginia did not ratify the 1919 Woman’s Suffrage Amendment, Amendment 19 until 1952.

Women obtained the right to vote only 100 years ago; a contested right unanimously upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court on February 27, 1922.  Newspaper woman, Mrs. Dolly P. Shepperson was “the first [Alexandria] woman to pay her poll taxes [$1.50] and vote.”  Still Virginia waits for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

“In 1619, the Virginia Company secured the King’s permission for the colony to establish a representative government,” 7th grade Virginia textbook author Francis Butler Simkins wrote in 1957.  “In the same year the need for labor was partly solved by the coming of Negroes to Virginia.  Also in 1619 many young women came to the colony to help establish homes.”

“By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law,” British jurist Sir William Blackstone said in 1765, “that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs everything.”

From the Massachusetts Historical Society. Not to be reproduced without permission.

“I desire you would ‘Remember the Laidies’, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors,” Abigail Adams wrote husband John in 1776.  “Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.”  In 1776 Mrs. John Adams—a femme covert—was husband John Adams’ property.

“Females [are] the patronesses of liberty,” Revolutionary War General George Washington wrote in 1781.  Liberty: “The condition of being free from restriction or control; freedom.”  Martha Dandridge Custis Washington realized legal individuality only when widowed.

This month the Virginia State Legislature again considers ratification of the 1923, more accurately the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment.  The Equal Rights Amendment, Section 1: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”  Much has changed in 97 years but Alice Paul’s reference to; her definition “of sex” has not.

Suffragette Alice Paul first introduced the Equal Rights Amendment in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1923—on the 75th anniversary of the 1848 Woman’s Rights Convention.  The amendment then read: “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.”  Her text was simple, the mission nearly impossible.

Paul’s Equal Rights Amendment was reintroduced in Congress annually.  Title VII of the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964; Congress passed the ERA on March 22, 1972, and Women’s Equality Day, as per the 19th Amendment became law in 1973.  In 1977 twenty-three Virginia Unions, ranging from the Teamsters to the Bicycle Messengers, “pushed” for State ratification of the ERA.  Unsuccessfully!

Last year the Equal Rights Amendment failed to pass the Virginia General Assembly’s House of Delegates by one vote.  The ERA has thus far failed because supporters have secured only 37 of the required 38 state votes needed to ratify.  The 2010 census claims women are 51.9% of Virginia’s population and fingers are crossed 2020 is Virginia’s ratifying year.  The so-called deadline was June 30, 1982.

“Equality is an easily abused word,” the Alexandria Gazette penned in 1923.  “Interpreted to mean an even chance for health and happiness and opportunity for self-support and self-respect…there is evidence that it is making progress.”  Progress: “Movement, as toward a goal.”    

“Those involved in what has come to be known as the Women’s Liberation Movement do not necessarily agree on all the objectives, but…the word ‘equality’ is powerful,” The Washington Post reported in 1970.

“U.S. Senator Birch Bayh [D-Ind] advocates a constitutional amendment that would guarantee equal rights to all sexes,” The Post continued.  “He ticks off a list of legal inequities.  These include a California statute that requires special approval of a woman before she can go into business; state laws that forbid a woman to own property in her own name, and three states that don’t permit women to serve on juries.  Bayh also notes that a woman doing work identical to that of a man is often paid less than the man.”

“He [Bayh] sums up the responsibility of government as being ‘to give all of our citizens, whether they are male or female, black, white, yellow or brown, the opportunity to realize their total talents as they want to use them, to the ultimate of their ability,’” The Post concluded.

Most state versions of the Equal Rights Amendment, approximately 20, were adopted amid the turmoil of the 1970s, between 1971 and 1978.  Virginia’s state constitution, revised effective July 1, 1971, includes such a declaration.  Article 1, Section 11: “The right to be free from any governmental discrimination upon the basis of religious conviction, race, color, sex, or national origin shall not be abridged, except that the mere separation of the sexes shall not be considered discrimination.”

To discriminate, as defined by The American Heritage dictionary: 1. “to make a clear distinction.  2. to make distinctions on the basis of preference or prejudice: accused of discriminating against women.”  Democrat Eileen Filler-Corn, the newly elected Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates is the first woman in 400 years to function as such.  Black House Majority Leader Charniele Herring also.

“Capitol Square drew a step closer to being more reflective of Virginia with the groundbreaking on the first phase of the Virginia Women’s Monument,” The Richmond Times-Dispatch wrote in December 2016.  The 2019 monument, Voices from the Garden provides “the setting for 12 bronze statues depicting significant women selected from 400 years of Virginia’s history…[It is] the first time that a monument  of its type representing many different centuries of women’s contributions to our great commonwealth will ever have been put on Capitol grounds of any of the 50 state capitols.”

“To what extent does the woman’s struggle for equality continue?” I asked in June 2019.  “On March 25, 2019, NASA cancelled its first All-Female spacewalk.  It did not have two spacesuits in the women’s size.”  Thankfully, the all-women’s spacewalk was completed on October 18, 2019.

That said the World Economic Forum estimates that “at the current rate of change, the global gender gap will take 108 years to close.”  Of the 149 nation-states analyzed, the Forum’s 2018 Global Gender Gap Report ranked the United States 51st (72%),down two spots since last year, with modest improvements in economic opportunity.”  Women for example are only 22% of the Artificial Intelligence work force, a “gap three times larger than in other industry pools.”  The four pillars measured: economic opportunity, political empowerment, educational attainment, health and survival.

“When character begins to be admired, then the true palace of beauty is approached,” Harriet Stanton Blanch, suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s daughter said in 1880.  Bottom line: now is the time for Virginia to ratify the ERA, to become the 38th state to do so.  The matter of the 1982 deadline may prove problematic but remedies are allegedly in the works.

According to Thomas Jefferson women were excluded from politics “to prevent…ambiguities of issues.”  Ambiguous, as defined by The American Heritage dictionary: “open to more than one interpretation; doubtful or uncertain.”  While the Smithsonian’s Molino Family Latino Gallery donors, with the help of the Latino Congressional Caucus lobby for a Smithsonian Latino-only facility on the national mall, the online National Women’s History Museum grudgingly prepares to open a “new physical home” at D.C.’s Union Station.

“We are tired of asking and waiting,” the NWHM’s 2019 fundraising letter explained.  “The National Women’s History Museum just couldn’t wait on Congress to do the right thing and give us the last site on the National Mall.  We aren’t willing to wait 100 years for them to come around like they finally did for the National Museum of African American History and Culture!…For 23 years they have kept us hanging.”

Women per se are not ambiguous.  As for the ERA, let Virginia set the record straight; tell Thomas Jefferson how it really is.  Here’s hoping the 2020 Virginia General Assembly acts quickly and the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment is in fact ratified.

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007. 

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