To celebrate Women’s Equality Day this August 26, I’ve been designing a grand dinner party in my head. Designated by Congress in 1971, Women’s Equality Day was created to commemorate women’s suffrage in the United States and to remind us of the hurdles overcome by the heroic women who faced violence and discrimination to propel the women’s movement forward. To be honest, I’d never heard of this day until recently, but since then, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about whom I’d want to invite to this fantasy gathering.
The first invitees would come right from my book, RBG’s Brave and Brilliant Women: 33 Jewish Women to Inspire Everyone, which I collaborated on with Ruth Bader Ginsburg before she left us too soon. Yes, I’d invite RBG (I miss her), whom I pray is holding court in feminist heaven with some of her personal Jewish heroes, such as the prophet Deborah, activist-intellectual Henrietta Szold, poet-activist Emma Lazarus, public-health pioneer Lillian Wald and Anne Frank. I’d be delighted to invite all of them to the party, but I’d want Ernestine Rose to my right at the table. This fiery 19th-century crusader, born the daughter of a strict rabbi in Poland, took her father to civil court to win the right to control her own money and avoid an arranged marriage, and eventually ended up as one of the trio leading the American women’s suffragist movement, along with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Astonishingly, her name is practically forgotten today, but I want to imbibe some of her strength and determination.
I am also longing to meet the Judean queen, Salome Alexandra, whose rule so impressed historian Flavius Joseph that he not only wrote about a woman (a rare occurrence in history), but praised her abilities. And there’s Gracia Mendes Nasi, the 16th-century shipping magnate who saved Jews from the Inquisition and eventually envisioned and created a homeland for them in Ottoman Palestine. Then there’s Muriel Faye Siebert, who died in 2013: Mickie, as she was known, was the first woman to buy her own seat on the New York Stock Exchange. I met her by chance when I was about 21 on a train between New York and Philadelphia, and she told me her story, gave me her card and asked me to be in touch. I never called her, something I have always regretted. There’s so much I could have, should have, and now would ask.
Of course, not everyone at the table would be from the book or Jewish. The brilliant lawyer, strategist and civil rights activist Pauli Murray must attend! Other invitees would be the courageous and remarkable Harriet Tubman, the indomitable Eleanor Roosevelt (I’d tell her she can bring her husband and her Uncle Theodore, too), the first American female cabinet member Frances Perkins, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, novelist and author of the classic feminist short story The Yellow Wallpaper, who argued that women needed economic power to be free. And I can’t forget Ida B. Wells, the investigative journalist, educator and early leader in the civil rights movement. I’d seat her next to Lillian Wald, since they were both founders of the NAACP.
Back further in time, there’s Abigail Adams, who wisely counseled her husband to include women in the American political process, and George Washington, the leader who would not be king. There are many American presidents I’d like to meet but for the purposes of this dinner, I’d choose him. (Since I spent my childhood seeing the modern world through his eyes, I’d place him at my left.) I want to know firsthand what the formative American generation was thinking, and, of course, to show him the remarkable progress made since his lifetime. Yet, I would want Washington to understand how much further we have to go—and to hear his thoughts. After all, the goal of this dinner is for all of us to put our heads together and map out the road to full gender equality—and a constitutional amendment protecting it—in the United States. Other topics of conversation over dinner would be what women bring to power that is so critical to humanity’s future and how to bring more women into leadership.
I can still squeeze in a few living women to help lead the conversation, among them Doris Kearns Goodwin, for her understanding of leadership and brilliant biographical narrative writing; Stacey Abrams, who stands out for her long-term strategy making and leadership; New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern; and Angela Merkel, the former German chancellor.
Obviously, I have an exceedingly long dinner table and it’s already past full. I have had to leave out artists, musicians, poets and scientists who would enrich the conversation, friends and family, and a few young people who have very different ideas about what gender equality looks like. That’s why in a few days I will start planning the next dinner. I won’t wait until Women’s Equality Day 2023. We need these conversations right now.