The Path to Equality -- Yesterday and Today

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[authors: Barbara Reedy;  Michael Reedy]

“The history of the past is but one long struggle upward to equality.” ~ Elizabeth Cady Stanton

The movement toward equal rights for women and minorities has a long and storied history.  Organizations that strive for equality for all races, genders, and religions can trace their origins back to a small gathering in upstate New York.

In 1848, at The Seneca Falls Convention, a small group of women drafted a Declaration of Sentiments, demanding equal rights for women, including the right to vote and hold office, as well as property rights, higher wages, and educational opportunities.  The women’s declaration appropriated the language and form of the Declaration of Independence.  Considered shocking in its time, many of the aims and goals contained in the Declaration of Sentiments apply to all people, and many members of our society are still striving to achieve them.

“We hope this Convention will be followed by a series of Conventions, embracing every part of the country.” ~ 1848 Seneca Convention, Declaration of Sentiments

After the start of the Civil War, the Women’s Rights Convention emphasized the issue of emancipation for slaves.  In 1866, Frances Ellen Watkins, an African-American activist told the convention, “You white women here speak of rights.  I speak of wrongs.”  A few weeks later, the American Equal Rights Association held its first meeting in Boston.

It took more than 70 years for women to receive the right to vote, a goal that finally was achieved when the Nineteenth Amendment passed in 1920.  Three years later, at the 75th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention, Alice Paul proposed passage of an Equal Rights Amendment to address inequalities not covered by the Nineteenth Amendment. 

In 1961, Eleanor Roosevelt was appointed to head the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, which successfully pushed for passage in 1963 of the Equal Pay Act, the first federal law requiring women to receive the same pay as men in federal jobs.  The next year, in 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed, banning discrimination against racial ethnic minorities, as well as women. In 1965, the Voting Right Acts was passed, prohibiting states and local government from denying the right of any citizen to vote on account of race or color.

With the Civil Rights Act turning 50, the success of the struggle for equal rights for women and minorities is evidenced by four members of the U.S. Supreme Court and by the President of the United States.  Nonetheless, the struggle for equal rights continues, although advanced earlier this year by two landmark U.S. Supreme Court rulings regarding gender equality in marriage. 

Alas, the fight to obtain and to preserve equal rights – so bravely begun in Seneca Falls by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott – continues in the 21st century.  It requires determination, organization, leadership and lawyers who are willing to work year after year, decade after decade, to achieve equality for the underrepresented. 

One of the organizations that has fought for women’s equality for decades, California Women Lawyers (CWL), will hold its 39th Annual Dinner this October, in conjunction with the Annual California State Bar Convention. CWL has pushed for the advancement of women as lawyers and judges, and has seen the landscape change drastically since it began the fight for equality in the legal profession.  CWL acknowledges making good progress on this front, but recognizes that there is much work ahead for women lawyers in California and nationwide.

The Keynote Speaker at the CWL dinner will be Therese M. Stewart, Chief Deputy City Attorney for the City and County of San Francisco.  Ms. Stewart is a nationally-renowned attorney who has been leading the fight for marriage equality.  She will discuss the work that her office has done in both state and federal courts over the last 9 years to obtain marriage equality for same-sex couples, including a discussion of her pivotal role in the federal court trial challenging Proposition 8 (which initially prevented same sex marriage in California).  She will also discuss the issues of gender stereotypes and bias, as they relate to all.

Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, Tani Cantil-Sakauye, will administer the oath of office for CWL’s 2013-2014 officers and board.  CWL also will acknowledge a distinguished group of women who made a difference in the last year, including Patricia Gillette of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe (winner of the Fay Stender award) and Mary-Christine (M.C.) Sungaila of Snell & Wilmer (winner of the Judith Soley Lawyer award).  In the tradition started with the Seneca Convention, CWL supports equality and civil rights for all, and will continue its efforts to ensure equality for women in the legal profession.

“With the new day comes new strength and new thoughts.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

Barbara Reedy is part of the front office team at McManis Faulkner.

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