Why the National Women’s Equality Day Road Trip is Necessary and Needed and a History Lesson About Labor Day

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By Julene Allen

Labor day is far more than just the last day of the year everyone wears white. It marks 134 years of its original celebration and  122 years since the actual labor movement when a nationwide conflict arose between labor unions and railroads. This movement was ignited by the Pullman Strike, a protest that began in the town of Pullman, Illinois. The most influential labor organization, the American Railway Union (ARU) and the entire railroad industry were at odds; Hundreds of thousands of workers in 27 states were at the heart of this movement.

At the time, The Pullman railroad workers were ostracized for joining forces with labor unions. Yet their labor conditions were unfair and economically crippling. These circumstances were the result of railroad tycoon by the name of George Pullman who was immersed in greed. Pullman became wealthy in the mid-1800’s by developing the sleeping car for railroads. His company paid extremely low wages to their workers. Their wages did not meet housing costs. Yet The Pullman Company employees were residents of Pullman Housing.  

George Pullman's profit became a priority over his treatment of people, which brought about unfair and unjust economic conditions for those who worked for him just as well as rented from him. He built a town for 12,000 inhabitants on 500 hundred acres. It seemed as though it was a haven at first, but it became a trap for many, with cheap construction, and tiny spacing in the dwellings. The rent cost twenty-five percent more than any other housing around. No one could hold a job with the Pullman company without residing within the Pullman Housing. Rent was deducted from their paychecks, and if any housing repairs were needed, prior to moving in, the money was advanced to the employee for repairs, then deducted from their wages. One toilet was shared amongst four to five families in each flat. Employees were even spied on. If an employee went out of town, he was watched.  If he joined a union, he would be fired then blacklisted and reported to every railroad in the country.

The blackball treatment of railroad workers ignited the Pullman Strike, which resulted in numerous deaths of workers by the hands of U.S. Military and U.S. Marshals at the time. Our national holiday, Labor Day was enacted by Congress just six days after the end of the strike. In 1894, it was elevated to an official federal holiday with the support of 30 states. Labor Day's significance symbolizes not only the importance of our laboring workers - the foundation of our economy - but the right to equality and freedom.

Federal holidays become important because they remind us of our past and the efforts being made to get to make our country better. This is what federal holidays such Memorial Day, Independence Day and Martin Luther King’s Birthday represent. These days symbolize those who sacrificed their lives for our nation’s freedom, the independence we’ve established as a country and the equal treatment amongst our citizens. Commemorating the hard work of our grandfathers and grandmothers should be necessary and important. It also sends a strong message about American values and the necessity of not just diversity but inclusion. The Pullman strike was a result of working people confronting unjust policies yet demanding fair ones. Their protest was marked as a reminder in our federal holiday.

August 26th, Women’s Equality Day is just as important. Though it is a national holiday, it dimly noted. Yet, on August 26, 1920, women were officially granted the right to vote in the United States after the certification of the 19th amendment.  Fifty years later on August 26, 1970, feminists activists joined ranks on this day to demand more because women still were at an unequal advantage. They organized a protest with over 100,000 women - the largest equality protest in American history - which campaigned for equality in education, employment and the access to childcare.  On this same day  in 1971, a national bill was passed to designate August 26th a day of prominence- Women's Equality Day. Though it is under-recognized but it should come as no surprise.

It has been less than a hundred years since women gained the right to vote and just a little over 50 years since the Civil Rights Act of 1965 was passed which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Our history reminds us that a future that holds equality is a constant work in progress. Today, women are still making less than their male counterparts and for women of color, the gap is far greater. Also, women have lesser numbers in significant forms of leadership. In our present day, no federal holiday recognizes a woman and the efforts towards Women’s Equality Day is not enough.

Gratefully and thankfully, some of our past presidents including our current highlights Women's Equality Day every year at the White House. However, it is not resonating with Americans. The historical record tied to August 26th is in the background and seems to be getting further. Children are unaware of Women’s Equality Day and its history and parents are unable to teach them. The history behind Women’s Equality Day occupies blogs of prominent women’s organizations and websites, even our own, but the information is not getting out.  This is why Women For Action plans to take the petition to Elevate August 26th, Women’s Equality Day to a Federal Holiday on the road to generate more awareness after promoting the message on the internet for two years. Upon hitting the ground last year in Chicago’s downtown area with the petition and interacting with  people who swore that such a day did not exist, it is clear the work towards women’s equality is continuous, yet it has to get done.

Article Published In August/September 2016 issue of Women For Action Times
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