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NIEHS celebrates Women's Equality Day

By Eddy Ball
October 2010

Noreen Gordon, giving a presentation on the struggle for women's voting rights
Gordon called the ratification of the 19th Amendment the result of "the only non-violent revolution in this country's history." (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Bill Jirles, AFGE Local 2923 President
Reflecting on the brave women who spoke out for their voting rights, Jirles encouraged members of the audience "to think about how we use our voice" to improve our lives. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

union stewards Versal Mason, right foreground, and Clarence Gibson
Several men came out to celebrate equal voting rights for women, including NIEHS Office of Management employees and union stewards Versal Mason, right foreground, and Clarence Gibson. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Jirles, left, presented Gordon with a copy of the poster
Jirles, left, presented Gordon with a copy of the poster announcing the first NIEHS tribute to Women's Equality Day. Jirles and Gordon will share another important document as they negotiate the new contract between NIEHS and AFGE Local 2923. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The long struggle for equal voting rights for women was at center stage Aug. 26 at NIEHS as Noreen Gordon addressed "The Effect of the 19th Amendment on American History/Herstory: A Socioeconomic Perspective," celebrating the 90th anniversary of its ratification. Since April, Gordon has served as the on-site labor and employee relations specialist for NIEHS, representing the Institute in labor contract negotiations and carrying out her duties as part of the NIH Office of Human Resources Workforce Relations Division.

The union at NIEHS, American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 2923, hosted the precedent-setting event. In his opening remarks, AFGE Local 2923 President Bill Jirles described the celebration as a first in two important ways. "One of them is because this is the first tribute to Women's Equality Day here at NIEHS," Jirles explained, "and the other because this is the first partnership activity of this kind between the union and NIEHS management."

Roots in the abolitionist movement

In her enthusiastic survey of the struggle for women's voting rights, Gordon began with what historians consider the movement's seminal document, the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments ( Exit NIEHS, and traced the 72-year history of what she called "a long and uphill battle through the sacrifices of many" to achieve passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment. Although American women, including Abigail Adams, wife of President John Adams, had long appreciated the irony of the Constitution's idealistic phrase "we the people" juxtaposed with the legislated exclusion of women from equal rights, Gordon noted that it was the anti-slavery movement that finally brought the struggle to national attention and offered women a venue for voicing their concerns about inequality.

Gordon's narrative was rich in detail about the heroines of the struggle - such women as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Julia Ward Howe. She described the arguments that surrounded the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, as human rights advocates were divided on the benefits of guaranteeing rights for former slaves, compared to holding out for an amendment that would also bring true equality for women. Divisions also developed among women's rights groups, Gordon said, over the issue of expediency and enabling measures versus persisting in demands for an unequivocal guarantee of equal voting rights.

Racial and economic implications

Taking her discussion beyond the ratification of the 19th Amendment, Gordon surveyed the voting rights struggle in terms of racial equality, as women of color joined their male counterparts in a bid for full participation in elections nationwide and economic equality. Gordon also discussed the contributions of former U.S Representative Bella Abzug, who spearheaded the Women's Equality Day resolution of 1971, the National Organization for Women, and the Equal Rights Amendment.

As she neared the end of her presentation, Gordon assured her listeners, "The struggle continues." Today, she explained, more women than men in most age groups turn out to vote in each election, but the number of elected representatives shows that progress still needs to be made. Currently, 17 women serve in the U.S. Senate and 74 sit in the U.S. House of Representatives - important advances, Gordon conceded, but still far from a true reflection of the proportion of women in the U.S. population.

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