Several years ago a saleswoman in Macy’s tried to wheedle me into renewing my expired store credit card by offering a deep discount on the sheets I was buying. I dug it out of my wallet where it was mouldering between an expired library card and a 20% coupon for senior dining at the Elephant Bar. I happily handed it over prepared to collect my promised 15% off.
She looked at it, puzzled “But this is not your name”, she said.
The card clearly said my husband’s name. “That’s my husband,” who to my knowledge had never been to Macy’s nor bought a set of sheets in his life.
I flashed back another few years in another Macy’s store when a person with a clipboard came up and asked me if I wanted to apply for a credit card. “Absolutely” I replied instantly. “What’s your husband’s name?” she asked. I wish I could tell you that I engaged her in a lengthy conversation about women’s rights and then dashed for the door, but I let her continue filling out my application. This was in an era when women still needed a male co-signer to get credit. In some places you needed a husband or father to even get a library card. Once a representative from a local utility company refused to discuss my bill unless I let them talk to my husband even though my name signed at the payment checks. But it was his name on the account.
I’m telling you this ahead of time because on August 26 we will celebrate Women’s Equality Day, the anniversary of the 19th Amendment and women’s right to vote. That was in 1920, and there’s no one around who can tell us what that must have felt like to be disenfranchised because of your sex. But there are plenty of people around who can tell you what it felt like to be denied credit in your own name in the recent past.
The great thing about Equality Day is that it works in two ways. We can mull over both how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. It is said that in the 1960’s a spokesman for NASA said that the talk of a woman in space made him sick to his stomach. Well that makes me want to lose my breakfast. There have been 50 women in space since then, including Karen Nyberg who is a mechanical engineer and NASA astronaut. and that has become so routine we don’t often look at their names.
No one expected the 1970’s women’s march for equality to be a big deal. The police had only given the marchers permission to use one lane of Fifth Avenue. But more and more people came and finally the entire street was taken over. People hung out of windows and there was a huge parade. For a long time the drive for suffrage was seen as a depressing slog of middle class clubwomen gathering petitions and throwing themselves in front of horse and carriages.
“We did not eat our little lunches in lobster palaces, but out in the street in front of lobster palaces. We stand for plain living and high thinking, that’s it.” a marcher told the New York Times in 1912. It sounds as if it was a lot of fun. After the march ended, a woman the Times identified as “Miss Annie S. Peck, the mountain climber,” stood on a chair, “waved a Joan of Arc flag, and told her audience that this was the banner that she had planted 21,000 feet above the sea on one of the highest peaks of the Andes.”
The mixture of socialites and factory workers marching for one cause sent a message. Finally in 1971 Richard M. Nixon signed the resolution designating August 26 each year as Women’s Equality Day. It’s hard to believe it had first been introduced in 1878.
We seem to have an abundance of marches of all kinds these days, and parades with flags waving and bands playing are always crowd pleasers calling our attention to the importance of celebration. Though it isn’t at Macy’s, I treasure my credit cards bearing my own name these days. We women are going to have a heck of a time in 1920
(with excerpts from Gail Collins, NYT)