THE BLOG
08/19/2011 02:42 pm ET Updated Oct 19, 2011

Women's Rights -- 91 Years and Still Pedaling a Stationary Bicycle

The 19th Amendment's 91st birthday came and went with little fanfare this week. Granting American women the right to vote in 1920, the amendment's ratification is something most of us women take for granted. However, I do explain to my daughter that my grandmothers were born in a time when women were not allowed to vote. Since she cannot usually visualize such an oddity, I remind my daughter that the mother in the film Mary Poppins, Mrs. Banks, was a suffragette in England. The visual clue cues her every time.

In order to give both my daughter and my son more visual clues into how far American women have come, I recently took my kids to the historical home of Frances Willard (1839-1898) in Evanston, Illinois. Willard led the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) for twenty years, beginning in 1874. While temperance reform aimed to abolish the manufacture and sale of alcohol, its goals were not rooted in religious anti-liquor fervors, but on the rights of women and children whose lives were ruined by unemployable and violent drunken men. Coming off the horrors of the Civil War, many men depended on alcohol to salve their emotional and physical wounds. Females paid the price.

As a skilled community organizer, Willard -- a 19th century woman -- rallied conservative, non-political church women into taking action by encouraging them to make the most of their roles as caretakers and defenders of their children and their homes. She led the WCTU and its followers to pursue the "Home Protection Ballot", which would grant women the right to vote. Willard's motivation was about much more than keeping alcohol from rendering men violent and useless. "Do Everything" was her motto, which included social advocacy for public kindergarten, child care for working mothers, prison reform, and homes for abused and neglected children. In addition, the WCTU lobbied states to increase the age of parents' legal consent for their daughter's marriage to 16 years. Can you imagine that some states previously allowed girls to be married off at age 7?

In 1895, Willard published a book, A Wheel Within A Wheel, which was reprinted in 1991 and retitled How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle. At the age of 53, Willard learned to ride a bicycle, upon doctor's orders that she exercise outdoors to stave off her pernicious anemia. Nineteenth century custom required that women wear long dresses, but Willard overcame the obstacles of her wardrobe and older age, learned to ride, and wrote a poetic book that recommends cycling to women for enjoyment, maintaining their health, useful transportation, and figurative emancipation.

American women's liberation has come a long way since 1900, and my daughter can understand the empowering metaphor Willard used for riding a bicycle into the next century. My daughter also understands that times have changed even since 2000, now that women can run for president, like Michele Bachmann, represent the United States in front of foreign diplomats like Hillary Clinton, fight in wars, or even make $20 million per job like Angelina Jolie or Oprah Winfrey. However, she wouldn't understand if I told her little girls are not allowed to go outside and ride bicycles in countries where our female soldiers are losing their lives. She certainly wouldn't understand that girls her age are being trafficked into sex slavery and violently forced into marriages in countries she hopes to visit. My daughter knows the Civil War, during Frances Willard's time, was about slavery, so she would never imagine it still exists. Read Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn to learn about the plight of these young girls sold into slavery, drugged into submission, and beaten to death. You'll be heartbroken by what you read, and you will want to take personal, financial, and political action.

Furthermore, closer to home, my daughter wouldn't understand why our own country, in which women can now be senators and CEOs, play most sports men play, and which ratified women's right to vote 91 years ago, doesn't even have the common sense to pass an Equal Rights Amendment, which was first proposed in 1923. When I was a child thirty years ago, back in Evanston, I remember seeing my friend's mother peel the remainder of her vandalized ERA Now sticker off her rear bumper. I didn't understand why someone had ripped half of it off her car back then. My daughter, who lives with so many of the freedoms for which suffragettes fought, wouldn't be able to fathom the same thing happening now. I just might order myself a sticker and see what happens. Care to join me? We can fight for girls' and women's rights both at home and abroad. Thanks to Frances Willard, we must "Do Everything."