Have you startled anyone lately?

If the officers of the “great suffrage army”, as Carrie Chapman Catt put it, were to call out the women of today for their accomplishments, how would we measure up?

While there have always been maverick women throughout history sticking their necks out for change, the first wave of organized feminist reformers began in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York at the first Women’s Rights Convention. Thus began the 72 year march toward equality. And what did equality mean to them? The first wave feminists knew that men and women are different long before the recent discovery that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. They wanted women to bring their own unique voices to the table to be considered alongside men’s voices. “It is right that a woman keep her home, but how can she keep it if she has no say in the conditions that influence it?” wrote feminist Katherine Anthony in 1908. Women saw equality as having their voices be complimentary to men’s voices. If only men’s voices and men’s points of view run the world, then only men’s perspectives will make the decisions. Their idea of equality was that both perspectives would be heard.

Fast forward to the 1960s. When the second wave feminists saw equality as something different. “Anything you can do, I can do and maybe better,” they said. “I’ll prove that I can be just like the men – I’ll burn my bra, disown my role as wife and mother, demand access to the board room, wear suits and I’ll show men I can be just like them.” (my words) Watching this behavior from the sidelines was embarrassing for many women, many who may have been feminists at heart but did not want to identify with this militant, anti-male and anti-family road to being heard.

So how’s that working out for us? When Jeannette Rankin decided to run for US Congress in 1916, she said since women are half the population, they should be half the Congress. Today they are 17% of the Congress, and about 24% of legislatures nationally. The US ranks 84th in the world for women in elected office, behind Mexico, China and Pakistan. Only three states – Maine, Connecticut and Hawaii – have gender parity in their US House representatives, even though the census reveals more adult women than men in the US.

Why? Rankin, who represented Montana as the first woman elected to Congress, said when you are first at anything, you don’t have anyone to follow. For women blazing those new trails into politics, the role models were men, and gender bias against women is so ingrained in our culture that creating authentic new role models has been a huge challenge. Pioneers in politics like Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisolm, Patsy Mink, and Geraldine Ferraro, along with today’s visible women – Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman – regardless of their politics, are they leaders modeling strong, authentic feminine behavior that we can be proud of and look up to? And what about the other voices out there – Phyllis Schafley and those opposed to the ERA, as well as the Rush Limbaughs of the world, referring to some women as femi-nazis. In a patriarchal society, creating an authentic female voice and perspective has been more challenging than early feminists may have counted on.

I found Emerge America which calls itself a “premier training program for Democratic women. We inspire women to run, we hone their skills to win.” http://emergeamerica.org Being the nonpartisan individual, when I first read this I glossed over the capital D – we’re all democratic women working for a better world, right? Wouldn’t it be great if there was an organization with the same agenda where the D was not capital? I did not find similar organizations in support of other parties – but in South Carolina, there is a non partisan organization seeking to help women run for office there –http://www.postandcourier.com/news/2011/sep/26/are-you-a-woman-who-can-lead/

One of the second wave’s icons is Gloria Steinem. This article in Forbes recaps second wave feminist experience and highlights some young, next generation feminists – could they be the third wave? http://www.forbes.com/sites/shenegotiates/2011/08/12/gloria-who-to-a-generation-of-women-she-was-martin-luther-king-jr-2/ –

Those early feminists had high hopes. In 1926, engineer and inventor of alternating electrical current Nikola Tesla, who did not care much to have women in his personal life, nevertheless wrote,” This struggle of the human female toward sex equality will end in a new sex order, with the female as superior. . . the female mind has demonstrated a capacity for all the mental acquirements and achievements of men, and as generations ensue that capacity will be expanded . . . for the dormant faculties of her brain will be stimulated to an activity that will be all the more intense and powerful because of centuries of repose. Women will ignore precedent and startle civilization with their progress.”

We’re not reposing, but have we startled anyone? Former US secretary-general Kofi Annan said, “There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.” And women all over the world, not just in America, are pushing to be powerful – Newsweek’s September 26th issue cover proclaims “Where Women are Winning” and explores that globally.

So how do we measure up to what the first wave feminists hoped for? I haven’t intended to take sides here, just to give you some food for thought. There are many other arenas – business, medicine, education – besides politics where women have made incredible inroads. But having a voice in changing society comes from political participation – look at the track record for how women have shown up and are showing up in the world. Over lunch with Susan B. Anthony or Carrie Catt or Alice Paul, how would you help them understand how we have honored their sacrifices on behalf of having a voice?

Would the “soldiers in the great suffrage army” be proud of what we’ve done?

August 26th is Women’s Equality Day, which celebrates the day the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote in federal elections became part of the US Constitution. The final scene was an appropriately dramatic conclusion to American women’s long struggle to vote.

The House of Representative had approved the amendment in January of 1918. The Senate finally approved it in June of 1919. The amendment needed approval of 36 states to be ratified, and so the campaign for ratification began. Suffragists and their supporters, led by National American Women’s Suffragist Association leader Carrie Chapman Catt, wanted it approved so that women could vote in the 1920 presidential elections.

Things moved pretty quickly at first, with 22 states approving by the end of 1919. By February of 1920, the 33rd state, Oklahoma, agreed. In West Virginia, an absentee member raced across the state to help pass it there in March, bringing the total to 34. Washington became the 35th. Delaware was in line to be the 36th, but after 10 weeks of debate, the measure was defeated.

By June of 1920, 35 states had approved, 8 had defeated it. Five 5 states remained – Florida, North Carolina, Vermont, Connecticut and Tennessee. Which one should they go after? Finally, the governor of Tennessee, a Democrat, strongly encouraged by President Wilson to reconsider, agreed to call a special session of the legislature. On August 9, the final battle for suffrage began.

Suffragists and anti-suffragists descended on Tennessee, each conducting the most aggressive assault they could muster. Catt predicted it would be a furious battle. Never had the forces of anti suffrage been so vicious, so vulgar. Correspondences were stolen, phones were tapped, lobbyists representing liquor and railroads made sure representative were distracted with drunken revelry. Critical supporters changed their minds and went to the opposition. Anti suffragists passed out literature calling suffrage unpatriotic and arguing that the national suffrage amendment violated states rights.

On August 18, the hour had come. Opponents were sure they had enough votes to block ratification. With 96 legislators present, the first vote was 48-48. A second vote was called for.

Again, a motion to ratify. The voice vote began. Suffragists and anti-suffragists held their breaths. In the stifling heat of the crowded House chamber, only a soft flutter of crumpled flyers hastily folded into make shift fans stirred the air between the “Yea”s and the “Nay”s of the vote. No one counted on a miracle. The youngest member of the legislature, Harry Burn, had promised his mother that he would vote for the amendment if his vote was absolutely needed. When the time came, Burn honored his promise and the motion passed, 49 – 47.

Historian Sara Graham wrote,” Suffragists in the gallery sat in stunned silence. The needed vote had miraculously appeared, the tie had been broken. Seconds later, deafening applause rained down on the young legislator as the Speaker called in vain for order.” Opponents tried to overturn the decision, but it held.

On August 24, the governor signed the resolution, and off it went to Washington, DC. On the morning of August 26, 1920, U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed the proclamation that the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, had become the law of the land.

26 million American women were now citizens. At a triumphant celebration in New York, Catt told women, “Let us remember we are no longer petitioners. We are not wards of the nation, but free and equal citizens. Let us practice the dignity of a sovereign people. We have proved that this is a government of the people, not an empire of corporations. Let us do our part to keep it a true democracy.”

Have women done their part to keep America a true democracy? Would the “soldiers in the great suffrage army” be proud of how women have contributed to the nation? The goals of that first wave of feminists was to bring a woman’s perspective to the activities of the government through voicing that perspective with the vote.  Have women done that?  The right to vote was their legacy – what is ours?