As a father, husband and son, Women’s History Month has special meaning to me. March is an especially appropriate time, as President Obama declared, “. . . to remember those who fought to make our freedom as real for our daughters as for our sons.”
In my “Bread and Roses” column during March of last year, I recalled for you the Lawrence Textile Strike, the historic and successful protest movement for fair wages led by working women during January to March 1912.
Yet, history informs us that, by March of the following year, the wider struggle for gender equality had shifted to the legal and political realm.
This year, as House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has reminded us, “We celebrate a turning point in our history: the moment, 100 years ago, when women marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to demand the vote.”
Historians, of course, would also point to the earlier 1848 Seneca Falls Convention – as well as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and their 1878 proposal for a Women’s Suffrage Amendment to our federal Constitution.
Yet, during the 35 years that followed, the movement to acknowledge every woman’s equal right to vote gained traction only in a few of our newly formed western states – and, in response, American suffragists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns began advocating a national strategy to achieve universal women’s suffrage.
Conceived to coincide with newly elected Woodrow Wilson’s upcoming Washington inauguration in March of 1913, the small group that they formed organized a March 3 “Women’s Suffrage Parade to march in a spirit of protest against the present political organization of society, from which women are excluded.”
On that historic day, the gathered marchers numbered 8,000-10,000, an extraordinary number for that era. Capturing the nation’s attention, the marchers were supported by ten bands, five mounted female brigades and 26 floats.
Sadly, according to newspaper accounts of the time, the suffragists encountered an angry, jeering response by mostly-male opponents – and more than 200 of the women marchers were hospitalized.
The March 3, 1913 attack upon the women marchers evoked national outrage, becoming an eerie precursor to that later, better known clash for civil rights in March 1965—“Bloody Sunday” on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.
Yet, like their future brothers and sisters in the struggle for equality, the 1913 suffragists persevered. The Suffragist Movement continued unbowed and unbroken – and on August 18, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution became the law of our land.
Upon reflection, all Americans should find these events from America’s historical journey compelling – truly American stories that are filled with inspiration, drama, conflict, courage and, ultimately, success.
We could undervalue their lessons for our own time, however, if we failed to perceive the striking connections that link our lives today with those of these brave Americans from a century ago.
The struggles of Lawrence textile workers reach across the decades to inform us in our own fight to secure better jobs, living wages and expanded economic opportunity.
The Suffragists of 1913 created a more inclusive and promising political dynamic for our era – a new “Bread and Roses” coalition of conscience that is challenging the reactionary status quo of today.
On Nov. 7, 2012, CNN’s exit polls revealed that women made up 54 percent of our voting electorate. President Obama’s 12-point 2008 gender advantage among this nation’s women had grown to an 18-point advantage last year.
In Ohio, for example, the president won by 12 points among women, while losing among men.
Pennsylvania revealed a 16-point gender gap for our president – support for his vision of progressive change that tipped the electoral scales and re-elected Barack Obama.
America’s women voters, who marched to protest the inaction of President Wilson in 1913, had become a major force in supporting President Barack Obama’s mandate for constructive action in our own time.
For them, and for us all, however, the struggle for security and opportunity continues.
Economic data from the National Women’s Law Center confirms that our national economic recovery is reaching America’s women, but only slowly. Job losses among women serving in government have significantly offset – by 25 percent – the jobs that women have regained in the private sector.
These are harsh realities that the additional budget cuts contemplated by my Republican colleagues will aggravate – just as cuts in critically important women’s health, domestic violence, and food stamp programs will hit poor women the hardest.
Today, as it was a century in our past, American women continue to make progressive history for us all, even as they struggle toward greater opportunity for themselves and their families.
Their struggle for Bread and Roses continues. Yet, the lessons of our past give all of us reason for hope.
Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) represents Maryland’s Seventh Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.