I'm very pleased to have the opportunity to speak with you today on this occasion of Women's Equality Day. This is an opportunity to honor one of the most significant events in the history of our nation - women receiving the right to vote. Women's suffrage was a huge step in the movement for women's equality.
In the words of Maureen Reagan, daughter of president Ronald Reagan, "I will feel equality has arrived when we can elect to office women who are as incompetent as some of the men who are already there." Women's Equality Day commemorates the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Before that, it's hard to imagine, but women could not participate in one of the most basic freedoms we have. It's the right to make your voice heard. Half of the people in our nation were silenced and not allowed to participate in making decisions for our democracy. It's truly shocking to imagine today.
Before we get into that, I want to make it a little more realistic for all of us sitting here. I want to go back to the beginnings of our nation and review who was allowed to vote historically. Do you think you were included? Many of us, I would even say most of us, would not have been allowed to vote in the early days when we were a young nation still figuring out how we would build our democracy. If you will, I ask you to play along with me for a few minutes as we explore who would have been allowed to vote.
(NOTE TO SPEAKER - AT THIS POINT, YOU MAY ASK YOUR AUDIENCE TO PARTICIPATE BY STANDING OR BY RAISING THEIR HANDS OR SIMPLY READ THEM THE INFORMATION).
Everyone please put your hands up. Go ahead and put them up high so we can see. We're going to pretend the people here today are going to elect the next president, and the only ones allowed to vote are the people who could have voted in early America. Let's get started.
If you are younger than twenty one, please put your hand down. You would not be able to vote.
If you are a woman, please put your hand down. You would not have been allowed to vote.
If you are of any other racial background other than white, please put down your hand. You would not be allowed to vote.
If you do not own the land your home stands on, and I don't mean if the bank owns it! If you personally do not own land, please put your hand down. You would not be allowed to vote.
Finally, if you have ever been judged criminally insane, you can put your hand down. (PAUSE FOR LAUGHTER) You would not be allowed to vote.
Thank you, you can all put your hands down. Only the people with their hands up until the end could have voted if we were in early America - Only white, wealthy males over 21. In fact, in the first election at Jamestown, only six percent of the people were allowed to vote! Imagine if that was still the case in America today - if six percent of the population decided our fate and ninety four percent of the citizens were excluded from voting. We would have a very different country.
Thank goodness that's not the case. America has gotten greater with time as we have extended the vote to more people and recognized that freedom and inclusion are part of our strength. But women's right to vote didn't come easily, just like drastic social change never comes easily. The women's suffrage movement had its formal beginnings in the first women's rights convention in 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York. Anyone who has read about the women's rights movement knows the names of Susan B Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sojourner Truth, but we must remember that while a movement may be led by a few, it is made up of many.
Social change comes like a great rising wave on the ocean - powerful, unyielding, sweeping history along in its path. Great social change comes about because of a vast movement of many, courageous people, both men and women, who refused to back down. Many of their names are lost to history, but we will never forget their actions. They were the people who marched day after day. Despite the fear of violence or verbal attacks, they returned again and again to continue fighting. They were women who were arrested and went to prison willingly to stand up for what they believed in, and once there, went on hunger strikes and endured beatings and forced feedings. They were the men who were mocked and laughed at when they spoke to other men of the need for women's equality. They were the women who fought for their daughters' right to vote and to be treated like an equal citizen.
All of these people are responsible for the changes to women's rights that made our country stronger, greater, and gave more meaning to the words "one nation undivided". It is in moments like that, when we as a nation were challenged by change when we become truly great. We chose to embrace the change and grow as a people because it reflected our true values of respect for equality and the right for everyone's voice to be heard.
We must remember today that although we have come a long way towards equality, there is still much to be done. Today should remind us to support women's struggles for equality throughout everyday life - from the glass ceilings in our workplaces to the evolving roles in the home; from opportunities on the sports field to female leadership in upper echelon boardrooms; from the images representing women in videos and magazines to the way women view themselves; from empowering young mothers to supporting women preparing to retire; from encouraging greater female involvement in the science and technology fields to promoting women's campaigns for public office and leadership in government institutions. As long as women are underrepresented or misrepresented in these places and other places in our society, there is still work to be done. And as long as women around the world fight for equal rights, the struggle continues.
I'd like to close with a thought from a modern day leader of the women's rights movement, Malala Yousafzai. Malala is the Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban for fighting for girls' right to access education. She is also the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel prize.
Malala said, "I speak not for myself but for those without voice... those who have fought for their rights... their right to live in peace, their right to be treated with dignity, their right to equality of opportunity, their right to be educated."
We are fortunate to live in a place where women have a voice and that voice is counted in our democratic process. That opportunity didn't come free, and many struggled for years in order to get that right. Many around the world still struggle to secure that right for themselves and for their daughters. As we celebrate today, remember those women who still struggle for their voices to be heard and for their right to be treated with dignity.
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