What the fight for women’s equality teaches us about the fight for peace

Co-written by Algene Sajery

Today is Women’s Equality Day, which this year marks the 100th anniversary of the successful campaign by a group of sophisticated and dedicated women to write, lobby, and campaign their way into voting rights for women. The tactics that they used to change the prevailing political elite perception of the time — that women could not be trusted with the vote — are instructive for our efforts today to change attitudes about the centrality of militarism in U.S. foreign policy and the idea that we cannot have security unless we dominate the world militarily. 

The National Woman’s Party employed marches with spectacle, banners and constant picketing at the White House, color coded clothing and identifiable purple and gold sashes (similar to the symbolism of red “MAGA” hats today), research and persuasive writing, hunger strikes and a state based ratification campaign. They worked in parallel with the National American Woman Suffrage Association to pursue their legislative strategy, pioneering lobbying tactics that are still used today. Led by Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and Carrie Chapman Catt, the movement was strategic, methodical, dogged, creative, and bold in pursuit of the 19th Amendment and its ratification.  

It was not inclusive. The movement excluded Black and brown women from the leadership and even the marches. Despite the undeniable historical significance of Women’s Equality Day, many women of color recognize that the civil rights that were granted to white women on August 26, 1920 were not extended to their foremothers. It would take more than 30 years for all Asian American women (and men) to obtain their right to vote, more than 40 years for African American women (and men) across the country to be able exercise their right to vote, and more than 50 years for Spanish-speaking Latina women (and Latino men) to win supporting reforms that ensured their meaningful enfranchisement.   

One hundred years after the adoption of the 19th amendment, women (and men) of color across the nation continue to fight for women’s full suffrage, against voter suppression, racial injustice, and systemic inequality — using many of the tactics that the Woman’s Party used: marches and rallies across the country, White House protests, recognizable symbols and slogans of a growing movement. As with the (partial) women’s suffrage movement, these efforts are growing political power at the local, city and state level. They have not yet resulted in national level reforms, but seem inexorably to be moving in that direction. Most critically, they appear to have finally changed white American consciousness about structural racism and the legacies of slavery in ways that have not previously happened. 

Efforts to achieve a fundamentally new paradigm in America’s engagement with the world — one centered on diplomacy rather than military dominance — are of critical relevance to the continuing movement to realize full democratic participation for everyone in the United States. To fully address structural sexism and racism, we need to end runaway military spending, we need to end the casual bombing of (usually Black and brown) people in far off lands, and we need to make clear that the overflow of combat weapons and combat tactics into our police forces is not acceptable.   

One of the ways we build on the multi-racial alliance that has emerged for racial justice and honor the 100th anniversary of the suffrage movement is to work for peace and  ensure that those  who make decisions about whether to bomb or whether to buy more aircraft carriers at the expense of domestic priorities represent Americans from different walks of life.  

Women were not at the decision making table 100 years ago. Today women — and particularly women of color — are at the table, but they are underrepresented in foreign policy and national security making. Having served as one of few Black women in a senior staff position on U.S. foreign policy issues in the Senate, Algene knows first hand the importance of having more diverse perspectives in the room where the bills get written. That is why she founded Catalyst Global Strategies, a strategic advisory firm focused on foreign policy and national security, and launched the Minority Leaders podcast, to ensure more minority voices are at the table. 

And Lora came to the Quincy Institute to be part of a broad based effort to challenge militarism by making clear the centrality of a less militarized economy and foreign policy to a peaceful America. 

On this Women’s Equality Day, Responsible Statecraft is showcasing the perspectives of women only on its pages, that are all too often male dominated. We invite essays by women of all colors and political perspectives that explore strategies for advancing a U.S. foreign policy where peace is the norm and war the exception.

Happy anniversary.  Now let’s get back to work!

See this piece, and more women’s perspectives on foreign policy, in Responsible Statecraft.