Story at a glance

  • Aug. 26, 2020, marks the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment and Women's Equality Day.
  • The 19th Amendment solidified, into constitutional law, that the right to vote could not be determined by a citizen's sexual orientation, paving the way for women's voting rights.
  • More innovative and change-making women are starting to be recognized for their contributions to history thanks to movements like Black Lives Matter and female historians like Nina Ansary.

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment, which sealed into law that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Now recognized annually as Women’s Equality Day, the historic adoption of the 19th Amendment on Aug. 26, 1920, kicked off a century of uneven-but-steady progression for the legal voting rights of all women in the United States. Fast forward to the present, and part of our still-ongoing process is the growing recognition that voting rights for women even after the passing of the 19th Amendment are — and were — imperfect. Even today, these rights are seen primarily, as was also the case during the mainstream feminist movement at the time, through the lens of the white woman. 

Now thanks to social rights movements like Black Lives Matter, more women of color and lesser-known change-makers are starting to be recognized posthumously for their accomplishments — from civil rights activists Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash to trans rights icon Marsha P. Johnson. 

The legacy of these and other stride-making women are worth preserving, and historians such as Nina Ansary, an award-winning author and women's rights advocate, are helping to bring their stories to light. Her recently released book “Anonymous Is a Woman,” profiles 50 women throughout history who she believes didn’t get the recognition they deserved at the time.

“I profiled women who lived prior to 1900 for the obvious reason that opportunities were even less available to women prior to the 20th century. These women overcame so many gender-based obstacles, laws and stereotypical assumptions and made incredible and significant contributions in their own fields that have largely gone unnoticed in history, meaning, there's a general misconception that women are not as qualified,” said Ansary. “You can change the laws. You can change policies that are gender discriminatory, but what's most difficult to change and challenge are these stereotypical assumptions regarding women's capabilities.”

These are precisely the reasons why Ansary decided to chronicle the accomplishments of notable female innovators, taking readers on a more than 4,000-year historic journey across the world. 

“Many of them made significant contributions in fields where the number of women continue to remain low today. They showed that even when opportunities were not readily available for women, when women were barred from holding certain positions in society or even attending school, they were able to make such strides and show that being good at math and science is not gender specific. Some of the women were profiled because men in their lives initially took credit for their work, and a lot of other women were profiled because their lack of recognition was in fact, in stark contrast to their male counterparts.”

Ansary tells Changing America that the worst thing for her to have discovered as a historian is that, through the course of her extensive research, women only account for .05 percent of recorded history. She believes that this imbalance helps to perpetuate an unhealthy cycle of gender inequality, citing a study she delves into within the pages of “Anonymous Is a Woman." The study found that when girls and boys have been asked to draw what they think a scientist looks like, a whopping 99.4 percent of the drawings depicted a male.

“When a young girl opens up a history textbook and continuously sees predominantly men that are mentioned, they automatically internalize as a young girl that they’re not as capable. Stanford University recently did a study that said if young girls were exposed to as many female innovators as boys are to male innovators, the rate of female innovation would go up by 164 percent,” Ansary says.

“The whole issue of equality is that you need to center women's equality by taking into consideration all voices — the collective voices of those experiencing overlapping concurrent forms of oppression,” says Ansary. “That's the only way you're able to understand the depth of those inequalities. The other important thing is to recognize the historical context surrounding every issue, meaning we must take into account challenges that different women have faced throughout history, and the fact is that these challenges continue to have ripple effects over generations because we're not finding the proper solutions — we're not embedding them as social norms.”

When asked who, living today, Ansary thinks would be included in the book, she cited human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who was handed a 38-year jail sentence last year, “simply for defending the rights of women to go out unveiled in public in Iran," and "has not gotten the recognition she deserves.” Ansary says that it is women like Sotoudeh who are her heroes in part because of the sacrifices they have made for future generations of women to hopefully excel and can regain their rights.

Ansary believes the best way to celebrate women’s equality day, besides taking the time to educate yourself, is to honor that idea of future equality for all women, saying, “Equality Day to me is a reminder that there's still a long road ahead. Unfortunately, the fact that there even is a Women's Equality Day in the 21st century in the U.S., is something for all of us to take note of, and we all have to do our part to ensure that the road ahead, specifically for the next generation, is one that is paved with more equality and diversity and inclusivity. That means making a concerted effort to bring about systemic change.”

Published on Aug 26, 2020