Statement by National Endowment for the Arts Chair Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson on Women's Equality Day
Since August 26, 1971, our nation celebrates Women’s Equality Day—a day that commemorates Congress’s 1920 adoption of the 19th Amendment; granting women the right to vote. This celebration would not be possible without the strong advocacy of former U.S. Representative Bella Abzug of New York, who introduced a resolution in 1971 to designate August 26 as Women’s Equality Day. Throughout the years, there have been many hurdles cleared by courageous women who faced violence and discrimination while standing firm for women’s rights.
The pathway to women’s equality was illuminated at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 1969 when Nancy Hanks became the first woman to serve as chair. Under Chair Hanks’s tenure from 1969-1977, the NEA’s funding from Congress increased from $8 million to $114 million. Chair Hanks developed national arts policy and led the agency during a positive shift in American public perspectives of the importance of the arts. In 1983, after Chair Hanks’s untimely death, Congress enacted a law that designated the Old Post Office Building in Washington, DC as the Nancy Hanks Center to recognize her significant contributions to the arts.
Supporting women artists and arts leaders since 1965, the NEA continues to bolster women’s equality through our initiatives, fellowships, and programs. Among these distinguished artists are 2023 NEA Jazz Master and MacArthur "genius" grant recipient, violinist Regina Carter, and 2022 National Heritage Fellow and flamenco dancer, Eva Enciñias.
This year, through Grants for Arts Projects funding, the NEA will support the off-Broadway company WP Theater with the development of a mentorship and residency program with a focus on mid-career women playwrights, directors, and producers, to equip them with resources, new career paths, and opportunities for production. Another Grants for Arts Projects grantee—Girls Garage—is a nonprofit using funding to dispel gender stereotypes and create a promising next generation of diversity and gender equity in the field of design and construction. Led by founder Emily Pilloton-Lam, the workshop’s focus will allow girls and gender-expansive youth to learn carpentry, welding, design, and printmaking skills and pour their acquired skills and talent back into their communities, helping to create the world they want to see.
In 2020, the NEA participated in the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, in part, by featuring in our magazine American Artscape many projects that showcased and supported women’s rights and equality, ranging from a festival that displayed the innovative work of women filmmakers to the remounting of an all-Black opera—Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha—centered on a female protagonist who leads her community toward literacy and solidarity in the 1880s.
Paying homage to the historic suffrage slogan “Forward through the Darkness, Forward into Light,” the NEA, in partnership with the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission (WSCC), took part in the Forward Into Light project, which collaborated with federal partners and arts organizations across the nation to light up buildings and landmarks in purple [symbolizing loyalty] and gold [symbolizing light and life] on August 26, 2020. The NEA continued its partnership with WSCC and made grants to each of the six regional arts organizations to support the creation of public suffrage-themed mural projects to provide visual reminders, education, and inspiration about the journey of women’s suffrage.
As we reflect on women trailblazers and their accomplishments over the last few decades, we must remain mindful of the challenges and work ahead to ensure equality for all women in all realms. The success of our next generation of women leaders rests on the work of our predecessors and the meaningful work that our nation must do today to continue breaking down stereotypes, barriers, and glass ceilings to ensure equal access, rights, and opportunities for all.
Let’s keep the celebration going by visiting arts.gov and our social media channels, as the NEA highlights women artists and women-owned and women-oriented arts organizations on our blog and weekly podcast.