It wasn’t always this way

Aug. 26 is Women’s Equality Day. At the behest of Rep. Bella Abzug (D-NY) in 1971, the date was selected to commemorate the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote. It’s a great opportunity to teach your students about one of the seminal struggles for civil rights, massive, peaceful movement by women that began in 1848 at the world’s first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y.

On this day we commemorate the passage of the 19th Amendment, and we also call attention to women’s continuing efforts toward full equality. That includes schools. In 1915, five years before they got the vote, female teachers were tightly scrutinized. They had to promise, for instance, “not to keep company with men; to be home between the hours of 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. unless in attendance at a school function; not to loiter downtown in ice cream stores.”

In 1965, the Utah Supreme Court upheld the right of a school board to fire a teacher because she became pregnant. For many years, teachers could be fired for joining a professional organization or labor union.

But Margaret Haley, of the Chicago Teachers Federation, sought change. She became a leading voice in national education politics. Haley promoted a more professional approach to teaching, and she fought for traditional bread-and-butter issues: pensions, salary increases and other benefits for teachers. She was the first woman to be on the agenda of the NEA Representative Assembly, speaking on “Why Teachers Should Organize.” In this speech, she introduced issues that continue to be debated by teachers’ unions and the public today.