It’s Women’s Equality Day — should we be celebrating?
On Women’s Equality Day, USC Dornsife experts share their views on the current status of women’s rights in the United States and the world. Composite image by Letty Avila.

It’s Women’s Equality Day — should we be celebrating?

To mark Women’s Equality Day, which falls on Aug. 26 this year, USC Dornsife faculty reflect on how far women have come in a long battle for equal rights and how much still needs to be done to achieve true parity. [5 min read]
BySusan Bell

The last two years have been momentous for women. The rise of the #MeToo movement and its successful demands for justice against sexual abusers and the creation of Women’s Marches that saw millions worldwide gather in defense of women’s rights have provided examples of solidarity and empowerment.

Even so, experts note the rise of new threats to women’s reproductive rights, continued violence against women in public and private spheres, and the ongoing battle for pay equity and equality in the workplace. These issues have recently gained significant purchase in popular culture. An award-winning television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale reflects women’s worst fears, presenting a chilling vision of a near future in which women have been stripped of their rights by a fundamentalist regime. Notably, many women demonstrating for equality and reproductive rights worldwide have adopted the handmaids’ iconic uniform from the show as a symbol of protest.

Here, USC Dornsife faculty mark Women’s Equality Day — a commemoration of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote — by reflecting on the long battle for women’s rights and the issues women continue to face today.

Photo of Lindsay O'Neill

Lindsay O’Neill, assistant professor (teaching) of history

Watching women surging through the streets during the 2017 and 2018 Women’s Marches, pink pussycat hats perched on their heads, vividly reminded me of the suffragettes who marched through the streets of London, sashes declaring “Votes for Women” proudly draped over their chests, more than 100 years earlier. These women fought hard for their rights, they chained themselves to the gates of Parliament, were imprisoned and force fed by the government, and some died in the fight. Their movements and drastic measures remind me both how far we have come and how far we have to go. We now have the vote and the right to own property while married, but cultural and social expectations are hard to alter. We are still fighting for equal pay, for control over our own bodies, and, at base, for the same respect and levels of opportunity given to men. One reason the phrase “nevertheless she persisted” resonated so strongly among women is because persistence has been the felt inheritance of women who have struggled for equal rights for over 100 years.  

Photo of Michael Messner

Michael Messner, professor of sociology and gender studies

In recent decades, women have wrested historically unprecedented legal rights, have reformed or eliminated outmoded laws, have named and challenged systemic sexual harassment and sexual assault, have moved in great numbers into higher education and many professions. But the massive women’s marches that followed the election of Donald Trump, the eruption of campus-based antisexual assault activism among students, the #MeToo movement, feminist mobilizations to protect and extend reproductive rights, as well as union women’s leadership in organizing for equity and fairness in workplaces, all illustrate a clear point: It’s not time for a feminist victory lap. 

Martin Luther King Jr. optimistically suggested that the long arc of history bends toward justice. To the extent that this has been true in gender relations, it is because generations of women have put their bodies on the line to oppose patriarchal institutions, to challenge attitudes and practices that harm, limit and exploit women, along the way creating a vision of a fair and equitable world. Today, a younger generation of activists — women, men, transgender and gender nonbinary people — have awoken to the dystopian possibilities of the moment, and are mobilizing to wrestle that arc of history back toward equality, peace and justice.

Photo of Sarah Gualtieri

Sarah Gualtieri, associate professor of American studies and ethnicity, history and Middle East studies

I often cross the border from Canada to the United States and am asked by a custom’s official for a note from my son’s father allowing him to leave the country. They don’t ask for a letter from a parent, it is always a request for a letter from “the father.” I don’t have a letter and I never will.

This question at the border is a reminder of a wider problem that pervades North American culture — family is widely construed in heteropatriarchal ways. The problem persists because the sexist principles that disenfranchised women and were challenged by the suffragists over 100 years ago unfortunately endure. These principles hold that women’s voices can be subsumed under men’s, thus naturalizing male authority.

When I watched the scene in The Handmaid’s Tale where two mothers attempt to flee Gilead’s state of terror with their son and only the “biological” mother is granted exit, it didn’t seem wildly fanciful to me, but an entirely possible outcome if we continue on the present course. So, I travel with all the appropriate paperwork, but I am fighting for the day when I can stand beside my son and the custom agent knows how to ask the question differently.

Photo of Alison Dundes Renteln

Alison Dundes Renteln, professor of political science, anthropology and public policy

During the past year, prominent women have banded together to demand justice for egregious behavior by those who controlled the future of their careers. At long last these claims are being taken seriously. Inspired by the #MeToo movement, women feel empowered and seek equality in the workplace and other spheres. While celebrating this renewed commitment to equality and nondiscrimination, many worry that fundamental change may prove tantalizing and ultimately illusory.

Although equality benefits everyone, women do not enjoy equality around the world. Violence against women takes many forms. Until girls can avoid early marriages and have guaranteed access to education, equality will remain a pipedream.

One challenge is how best to interpret equal protection of the law. In a world where misogynist attitudes persist, equality requires taking affirmative steps. This explains why many have continued to lobby for an Equal Rights Amendment.

If the movement is to effect meaningful change, there must be the political will to follow through on much needed policy changes. Appointing only a few women to leadership positions, as a symbolic gesture, will not suffice. True equality does not exist yet, but at least recognition that it’s a worthwhile goal is emerging.