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In our opinion: Women's enfranchisement critical milestone in march toward dignity for all

Published: Thursday, July 2 2015 7:28 a.m. MDT

Women's electoral enfranchisement was a critical milestone in the march toward dignity for all. (Deseret News archives) Women's electoral enfranchisement was a critical milestone in the march toward dignity for all. (Deseret News archives)

On this date in 1920, the 19th Amendment took effect, giving women the right to vote throughout the United States. Given how essential women are in contemporary civic life, it is hard to fathom that within the last century some American women were denied access to the ballot box.

In commemorating women's enfranchisement, we seek to examine how well society lives up to its ideal of providing equal dignity and worth to all.

Utah was at the vanguard of the women's suffrage movement. A full half century before the ratification of the 19th Amendment, Utah's territorial Legislature granted Utah's women the right to vote, becoming the second major jurisdiction in the nation to enfranchise women. Women's voting rights, however, were stripped away by a spiteful Congress with passage of the Edmunds-Tucker Act in 1887.

When Utahns finally secured statehood in 1896, the Utah Constitution not only restored the franchise to Utah's women, it ensured women's right to hold elected office and explicitly provided that "Both male and female citizens of this State shall enjoy equally all civil, political and religious rights and privileges."

On this Women's Equality Day, there is much to celebrate about the achievement of women in American society since the time they were granted electoral equality nationally. Women now regularly serve as Cabinet members, senators and representatives, and as justices and judges. They provide top executive leadership in industry, academia, media and the professions.

Nationally, more women than men enroll in and graduate from college. Women make up half the workforce. And legislation such as the Civil Right Act, the Equal Pay Act and the Lilly Ledbetter Act provide women with important legal protections against discrimination on the basis of sex in the workplace.

Despite these important accomplishments, however, it still feels as though society is far from realizing its aspiration to provide equal dignity to individuals regardless of their sex.

For example, on average, women employed in the workforce earn less than their male colleagues. Some wish to attribute that variance to personal decisions that might affect pay, such as taking a hiatus from work to raise children. But even when researchers painstakingly account for such life choices, women still earn roughly 10 percent less than men.

That kind of measurable discrepancy ought to trouble employers and policymakers. But there are other somewhat less measurable cultural issues related to the equal dignity of the sexes that are similarly, if not more concerning.

Of significant concern is the invisibility of what women do domestically. Society's overdue effort to ensure equality and dignity for women in the monetized workforce seems to have had the unfortunate effect of rendering the difficult but critical work of nurturing children, often done by mothers, somehow less valuable.

Given how vital the nurture of the rising generation is to societal well-being, society needs to celebrate and recognize more effectively the importance, value and meaningfulness of the uncompensated care and nurture of children. Ingratitude betrays our ideals of equal dignity.

Also of concern is the overt sexualization of women in contemporary society. It is ironic that at the same time formal legal protections against sexual harassment are strengthening, contemporary media continues to objectify and value women for physical desirability rather than character.

The distribution of physical beauty is neither democratic nor meritocratic. The hyperemphasis placed by popular culture on unrealistic ideals of physical beauty tyrannizes our wives, our sisters and our daughters. Blatant sexualization mocks any aspiration for equal dignity.

Writing long before women's suffrage, the French social thinker Alexis de Tocqueville penned his insights on the equality of the sexes in the 1830s America he observed. Concerned about the "social inferiority" of women in his day, Tocqueville nonetheless observed that the companionate marriage he discovered in America addressed many of the issues of equal dignity.

"The Americans," wrote Tocqueville, "do not think that man and women have the duty or the right to do the same things, but they show an equal regard for the part played by both and think of them as beings of equal worth, though their fates are different. They do not expect courage of the same sort or for the same purpose from woman as from man, but they never question her courage. They do not think that a man and his wife should always use their intelligence and understanding in the same way, but they do at least consider that the one has as firm an understanding as the other and a mind as clear."

A richer culture of faithful companionate marriage could help to ensure gratitude for the hard work of nurture. It could help to re-enshrine decency, fidelity and virtue. Practiced well, it would appreciate natural difference between the sexes while striving to honor their equal dignity and worth.

The electoral enfranchisement of women was a critical milestone in society's long march toward increased opportunity and dignity for all. The work of complete enfranchisement is still in progress. May we all be more conscious of how our actions, policies and attitudes can enhance the equal dignity and worth of the women in our communities.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company