Today marks the 95th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which granted women full citizenship rights to vote and hold public office in the United States. Schoolbooks may note Aug. 26, 1920, as an important date in American history, but the story behind the Women’s Suffrage Movement and its social and political significance are too often ignored. Learning about these past efforts will help us strive towards our goal of full gender equality in Hawaii.

The movement tells the story of a 72-year-long struggle that amounted to one of the most remarkable and successful non-violent civil rights efforts that the world has ever seen. More than 10,000 women and their allies, spanning across state borders and generations, persevered against the ignorance and bigotry of a well-financed and entrenched opposition.

Suffragists wrote inexorably on their message of fairness, whether in independent newspapers or on backstreet sidewalks. They spoke with unrelenting fervor, whether in colossal churches or on tree stumps. They soldiered on, often with no end in sight, through mob violence and police brutality, because they knew that they carried with them a fundamental truth. They knew that they were destined to remind Americans of our constitutional tenet — that all people, of all sexes, are created equally.


Legendary Hawaii Congresswoman Patsy Mink (back row, fourth from left) and her fellow 11 women representatives in the 89th Congress. In the 2014 elections, the number of women serving in Congress surpassed 100 for the first time, thanks to groundwork laid by Mink and other trailblazers.

National Archives

Here in Hawaii, our history of courageous leadership in women’s rights should be celebrated along with that of the suffragists.

As the Women’s Suffrage Movement began around 1850, women already held one-third of the seats of Hawaii’s upper legislative chamber. In 1874, just two years after Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting in Rochester, Queen Emma ran to become Hawaii’s head of state. Although she lost to Kalakaua, Queen Liliuokalani was not far behind. In 1893, decades before the 19th amendment went to a vote, our queen stood with her people against the illegal overthrow of her kingdom, and immortalized herself through her words and music for generations to come.

These leaders have paved he way for thousands of women’s rights advocates to influence business, government, and community sectors across Hawaii. The legacy of Congresswoman Patsy T. Mink is a shining example. Title IX, her signature piece of legislation, has been transforming our nation by making higher education monumentally safer and more equitable for women. The result is undeniable and can be observed through the influx of professional degrees and Olympic gold medals obtained by American women in recent years.

Congresswoman Mink and the policy leaders who followed her footsteps have impacted the state Legislature as well. A recent study by WalletHub ranked Hawaii as our nation’s third-best state for political empowerment and No. 1 for overall women’s equality.

But Hawaii still has a ways to go, especially with regard to pay equity. Women in Hawaii are paid 83 cents for every dollar a man is paid for doing the same work. Workplace gender discrimination has been illegal for decades, but the problem persists. Cathy Betts, of the Hawaii Commission on the Status of Women, notes that this gap will persist until the year 2058 if nothing changes. Betts notes that discrimination can be overt, covert or totally unconscious, but there are workplace policies that can help at all levels.

Hawaii still has a ways to go, especially with regard to pay equity. Women in Hawaii are paid 83 cents for every dollar a man is paid for doing the same work. Workplace gender discrimination has been illegal for decades, but the problem persists.

For starters, companies should practice salary transparency to shine a light on pay discrepancies. Open salaries will lead to an employee’s value truly being her value, no matter her ability to negotiate. Some companies, like Whole Foods, are doing this voluntarily and seeing great results.

Other companies, like Reddit, are getting rid of salary negotiations altogether. They note that even when women do negotiate well, they are often viewed as “too aggressive” and less desirable to work with than a male applicant under similar circumstances. These are some ideas that could be explored at the legislative level next session.

Additionally, because women often bear more responsibility in child care than men, they often sacrifice work advancements for their kids. This is why paid family leave should also be available for both men and women in all occupations who need to take time from work to care for a loved one. The reasoning is simple: In Hawaii, no one should ever have to choose between a child or a paycheck.

But even with these policies in place, Hawaii will never close the pay gap completely until societal expectations about the role of women changes. Unfortunately, 95 years has not been enough time to completely eradicate the institutional sexism that shames America’s past. Too often, our understandings of gender roles are rooted in this history.

As men, we need to focus on how to become better allies. We should recognize our role not as telling women what to do with their bodies, or how to better conform to a misogynistic work environment, but as supporters, wherever we are needed. In particular, let us hold each other accountable in women-less spaces where some of the most vile hate speech occurs. Then, of course, lets make sure we are true partners at home by doing a fair share of household duties, and not assuming that the women in our lives should leave work first during child-care emergencies.

As we celebrate this year’s Women’s Equality Day in Hawaii, let’s commemorate the progress that has been made through the Women’s Suffrage Movement and leaders like Congresswoman Mink. But let’s recognize all the work we can do, as women and men together, through policy and at home, to make Hawaii an even more inviting place of equality and aloha. Happy Women’s Equality Day.

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