Equality isn't just laws

On Aug. 26, 1920 — 90 years ago today — women became voting citizens of the United States. That was the day the 19th Amendment became law, finally writing women's suffrage into the Constitution. In remembrance of the occasion, Congress in 1971 designated Aug. 26 as Women's Equality Day. It's a name that never fails to provoke a reaction among women I know. "Equality Day?" someone will say, eyebrow raised. "Oh, so we're equal now?"

Well, are we?

It depends on what you mean by equal. Legally, women in the U.S. have come a long way. The 19th Amendment was the first big breakthrough, though it certainly didn't spell instant equality. Women were still discriminated against in wages and hiring, barred from many professions, denied credit and loans, and in some states prohibited from making contracts, serving on juries or controlling their own property. But by 1971, those restrictions were falling by the wayside. Through a patchwork of legislative victories and court decisions from the 1960s on, women's equality under the law was gradually established. It's still not complete, and the basic principle has still never been enshrined in the Constitution (that would be the late lamented Equal Rights Amendment), but most of the pieces are in place.

Equality isn't just a question of laws, though. There's legal equality, and then there's social equality. For women to have both, we need more than just legal rights. We need a culture that values women's full range of abilities and recognizes women's achievements. We need a social environment free of sexist double standards, in which women are routinely celebrated as leaders, thinkers, workers, scientists, artists and athletes. And in this respect, equality is still far away.

Our daughters know this, even if we adults like to tell ourselves otherwise. During the last presidential campaign, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham was shocked when his 3-year-old daughter informed him that "girls can't be president." But the child had made a perfectly rational deduction. She'd seen the portraits: 42 men, zero women. Clearly a trend.

In my own family, a young relative explained to me once that "girls can't be scientists." An acquaintance tells a similar story about her daughter playing a game of make-believe "office" with friends. The boys were the bosses and the girls were the secretaries. "Why don't you be a boss?" the woman asked her daughter. "Girls aren't bosses," replied the youngster.

Kids are smart. Job One for little humans is to learn how to be big humans, and to that end children are frighteningly keen observers. We can tell them all day long that men and women are equal, that girls can be anything they want — but that's not what they see.

Think about what the world looks like from a young girl's perspective. When she watches TV, she sees that almost all the serious talking heads belong to men and almost all the nearly naked bodies belong to women. Most of the movies she watches have male protagonists, as do most of the TV shows. She likely lives on a street named after a man, goes to a school named after a man, celebrates holidays named after men, and buys her lunch with money that has only men's pictures on it. And when her class takes a field trip to the U.S. Capitol, she learns that of the 100 great Americans fit to be honored in National Statuary Hall, all but nine are men.

That's the stuff we need to change.

If we want our daughters to have a chance at full equality — social as well as legal — we need to create a culture that sends the right messages. We can start by making sure that women's achievements are depicted and celebrated everywhere: in our media and monuments, our history books and holidays. Statuary Hall is a perfect example. One of the goals of my organization, Equal Visibility Everywhere, is to persuade state lawmakers to contribute more statues of women to the hall. We've just gotten sign-off from Kansas for a new statue of Amelia Earhart. Here in Maryland we're pushing for a statue of Harriet Tubman, the woman who rose from slavery to become "the Moses of her people."

Forget the old-fashioned argument that men are the ones who made all the history. Women played their part in the American story, whether men gave them credit or not. Women led tribes and founded towns, built factories and farms, plotted revolution and preached revival. They chased buffalo across the plains and hacked a living out of the soil. They flew airplanes and threw baseballs, mined gold and milled cotton. They were inventors and artists, poets and philosophers, soldiers and scientists.

And they still are. Women are everything, and it's time we shaped our cultural messages to reflect that. Only then will we be able to say, "Yes, we're equal now."

Suzanne Scoggins is chief operating officer of Equal Visibility Everywhere, a nonprofit based in Chevy Chase.

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