By Elisha Rhodes, interim CEO and COO of YWCA
The fight for women’s rights is one that is ongoing, fraught with challenges, and intrinsically tied to the struggle for racial justice—and now we are even more so reminded of this in the annual celebrations marking women’s suffrage in the U.S.
Today is Women’s Equality Day, which commemorates the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote in 1920. The reality is that this historic milestone was only granted to white women—state laws, violence, and discrimination actively prevented women of color from accessing this right for many more decades. And to this day, far too many women, particularly Black, Indigenous, and women of color, immigrant women, LGBTQ+ women, low-income women, and disabled women, face barriers not only to the ballot box, but to the resources, support, and opportunities they need to help them live thriving, healthy lives.
This has been made even more painfully clear over the past year and a half. With a community-based network of approximately 200 local associations across the country delivering critical services and programs to over 2 million women, girls, and their families, we at the YWCA have seen first-hand the severe and profound impact the ongoing pandemic is having on women and communities of color in this country.
COVID-19 has laid bare realities that many of us have long known, including critical racial and gender disparities in access to health care, safety, social services, and more. Moreover, women of color—and Black women in particular—who experience the compounded impact of multiple pandemics, from racism to misogyny to state violence, are also bearing the economic and caregiving brunt of this latest pandemic. In the midst of this, state legislatures and leaders across the country continue insidious voter suppression efforts that disproportionately target people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ+ people, low-income people, and disabled people, including many women who exist at the intersection of these identities.
In this moment, what does it mean to commemorate the women’s equality movement? First, it is important to lift up and honor the many Black women who have led the way to ensuring our right to vote, and who continue to lead the way to not only fighting for our basic voting rights, but for critical issues like health care, education, and housing. From Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman to Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells, Black women have long been at the forefront—and the beneficial impacts of Black women-led organizing and advocacy efforts are felt by all communities. In recent memory, look no further than the incredible record voter turnout in elections held during the pandemic, much of which was led by Black women organizers and outreach, or the current fight to prevent a massive national eviction crisis.
Time and time again, history has taught us that uplifting the leadership, expertise, and lived experiences of Black women and centering racial justice in our policy, advocacy, and organizing efforts are critical to addressing pressing issues and building a better world for all women, girls, and their families. As one of the largest and oldest women’s organizations in the country, we at YWCA know this all too well: there is no gender justice without racial justice.
From domestic violence services and housing to child care and educational programming, our ability to effectively meet the unique needs of people in our communities and work towards changing society for the better hinges on centering and incorporating racial justice into every aspect of our work. To truly achieve a world where all women are equal and free requires that each of us—whether you are an individual or organization or business—commit to racial justice learning and unlearning, investing in Black women’s leadership, and working to challenge and disrupt barriers that prevent women and girls of color from living long, thriving lives.
As we commemorate Women’s Equality Day this year, I am reminded of just how precarious these hard-won rights are and to celebrate the many Black women – who were and continue to be—at the center of the struggle to not only protect our voting rights to build a world that is equitable and safe for all. While the passage of the 19th Amendment was certainly historic, I invite you to use this day as an opportunity to honor Black women leaders and deepen your commitment to racial justice. At YWCA, we are unwavering in our commitment to doing the ongoing, hard work necessary, both internally and externally, to realizing our mission to eliminate racism and empower women. I hope you join us.