Women's Rights Movement

From the New Book of Knowledge

Since the mid-1800's, women in the United States and around the world have organized political movements to obtain the same social, economic, and political rights that men have traditionally enjoyed. These feminist movements have sought to change the laws to prevent discrimination against women and to provide them with equal opportunities in all aspects of life, including education, employment, and government representation.

The Birth of the American Women's Rights Movement (1848-1920)

What one editorial called "the most shocking and unnatural incident ever recorded in the history of womanity" took place in the summer of 1848, in upstate New York. It was the Seneca Falls Convention, the official beginning of the organized women's movement in the United States. At the time, women had few rights. They were routinely denied admission to colleges and to the trades and professions. Most found work in only four areas: teaching, sewing, factory work, or domestic service. Their wages, if they were married, belonged to their husbands. Indeed, a wife herself was considered her husband's chattel, or personal property.

The organizers of the Seneca Falls Convention were Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martha Coffin Wright, Jane Hunt, and Mary Ann McClintock. On July 19, 1848, they stood before 300 curious people and presented a Declaration of Rights and Sentiments. That document, modeled after the Declaration of Independence, declared that all men and women are created equal. It demanded equal access to all means of employment and the ministry. And it insisted that women had "the duty…to secure to themselves their sacred right of franchise," or suffrage (the right to vote).

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucy Stone quickly became the movement's undisputed leaders. They and their followers tirelessly petitioned the nation's state legislatures for women's suffrage and for the reform of property and child custody laws. Many of them worked simultaneously as abolitionists to end slavery. Many male abolitionists also supported their female colleagues' new demands.

The Civil War and Its Aftermath

In 1863, at the height of the Civil War, a 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was introduced to end slavery. Cady Stanton and Anthony immediately founded the National Woman's Loyal League. The League gathered 100,000 signatures on petitions in support of the amendment. The Civil War ended in 1865. Many abolitionists who had also supported women's rights then withdrew their support from the women. They said it was "the Negro's hour." Abolitionist Wendell Phillips explained, "Mixing the movements…would lose for the Negro far more than we should gain for the woman." Cady Stanton replied, "Do you believe the African race is composed entirely of males?"

The 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870. It begins, "The right of citizens to vote shall not be denied…on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." Women's rights leaders struggled to have the word "sex" added so that women would also be enfranchised. But the effort failed.

Cady Stanton believed that "if the two millions of southern black women are not to be secured in their rights of person, property, wages, and children, then their emancipation is but another form of slavery." Shortly after the passage of the 15th Amendment, Anthony and Cady Stanton founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). Its purpose was to work exclusively for women's rights.

Lucy Stone also agonized over the exclusion of women. She reminded the former slave and prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass that men had the legal right to "take away children from the mother, and separate them just as completely as if done on the block of the auctioneer." And yet she finally supported the 15th Amendment. She explained, "There are two great oceans; in the one is the black man, and in the other is the woman…I will be thankful in my soul if any body can get out of the terrible pit." With Julia Ward Howe (author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic") and others, Stone founded the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA).

The Fight for the 19th Amendment

The two women's rights organizations remained split for 20 years. AWSA worked to amend the constitutions of the individual states. NWSA also lobbied and petitioned Congress for a women's suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The two women's groups reconciled in 1890. They joined to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Elizabeth Cady Stanton served as its first president (1890-92). Susan B. Anthony was its second (1892-1900). Lucy Stone was first chair of its executive committee.

Anthony stepped down from NAWSA's presidency in 1900. By then there were concrete changes in the position of women in America. Women could vote in four states--Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. They attended secondary schools and colleges. They had property rights in many states. In greater numbers than ever before, they found places in the trades and professions. Between 1907 and 1916, Arizona, California, Illinois, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and the Alaska Territory granted the vote to women. In 1916, NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt outlined her strategy. It became known as her Winning Plan. Approval by 36 states was needed to ratify a federal amendment. Thus NAWSA would concentrate on winning women's suffrage in that number of states. Then the women of those 36 states could pressure their U.S. congressmen to pass a constitutional amendment enfranchising women in all states.

Other women's organizations worked for suffrage at the same time. Harriot Stanton Blatch, Elizabeth Cady Stanton's daughter, felt that NAWSA had lost its radical edge. She founded the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women. It held the first suffrage parade in New York City in 1910. NAWSA quickly adopted that tactic. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) also supported women's suffrage. So did a number of women in the growing labor movement.

No organization attracted as much attention as the radical National Woman's Party (NWP). It was founded in 1913 by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns. Paul led her followers to picket the White House. For that, 168 women served jail sentences lasting up to six months. An appeals court later found the arrests and incarcerations "invalid."

In 1917, the United States entered World War I. Women served as nurses and weapons manufacturers. They performed the work the soldiers left behind. Just 41 days before the war ended in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson urged the Senate to pass the women's suffrage amendment. "We have made partners of the women in this war," he declared. "Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?"

On May 21, 1919, the House of Representatives passed the 19th Amendment. Senate approval followed on June 4. The amendment was ratified by the required number of states on August 26, 1920. Women were finally guaranteed the right to vote.

The Struggle for Equal Rights

In February 1920, NAWSA was renamed the League of Women Voters. After suffrage was won, Carrie Chapman Catt encouraged league members to remain politically active. She urged them to use the power of their votes to press for additional women's rights. Alice Paul declared that the NWP would continue to fight for "the removal of all forms of the subjection of women." In 1923, on the 75th anniversary of the first women's rights convention, Paul and NWP members returned to Seneca Falls. There, for the first time, Paul proposed an equal rights amendment to the Constitution.

Introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)

The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), as Paul drafted it, simply stated, "Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction." The amendment was first introduced in Congress in 1923 but did not pass. The National Association of Colored Women joined the NWP in support of the amendment. But many other women's organizations, including the League of Women Voters and the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs (BPW), were opposed to it. They feared it would cancel out existing laws that gave special protection to women. The women's movement remained split on the ERA issue for almost 40 years.

The President's Commission on the Status of Women

In December 1961, President John F. Kennedy created the President's Commission on the Status of Women. Its purpose was to analyze the "prejudices and outmoded customs act[ing] as barriers to the full realization of women's basic rights[horizontal_ellipsis]" The commission was the suggestion of his only female policy-making appointee, Esther Peterson, the assistant secretary of labor and director of the Women's Bureau.

Kennedy did not support the ERA. But in July 1962, he ordered federal agencies to hire, train, and advance employees without regard to gender (sex). And on June 10, 1963, he signed the Equal Pay Act. It required private employers to pay men and women equal wages for performing equal work under the same conditions.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act

The following year, Congress passed landmark legislation, known as the 1964 Civil Rights Act. At first, Title VII of this legislation only prohibited discrimination on account of race, color, religion, or national origin. However, feminist leaders, including Alice Paul and Michigan congresswoman Martha Griffiths, successfully lobbied to have "sex" added as a specifically protected category.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was to enforce the new law. But feminists such as author Betty Friedan and attorney Marguerite Rawalt soon realized that they would have to keep pressure on the government. For this purpose, they and 13 others founded the National Organization for Women in June 1966.

The Fight for a New ERA

The National Organization for Women (NOW) was dedicated to "tak[ing] all the actions needed to bring women into the mainstream of American society." In 1970, NOW and other women's organizations began an intense, well-coordinated lobbying effort. They pressed to have the Equal Rights Amendment brought out of its 47-year-long stalemate. Women petitioned their senators and representatives with more than 5 million letters. After two years, Congress finally passed the ERA. The wording was slightly different from Alice Paul's original 1923 proposal. The amendment was sent with a seven-year deadline to the states for ratification. By the end of 1973, 30 of the required 38 states had approved it.

As the movement gained momentum, so did its opposition. Antifeminists formed an organization called Stop ERA. It was led by Phyllis Schlafly, a former congressional candidate. Schlafly and her supporters claimed that the American family would be damaged if women were granted equal rights.

Congress extended the ratification deadline by three years, to June 30, 1982. But on the day of its demise, the ERA was still three states short of the number it needed to become law.

Victories by Other Means

During the fight for the ERA, there were many case-by-case victories for feminists. In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled in Reed v. Reed that sex discrimination violated the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause. In 1972, an amendment to the Civil Rights Act prohibited employment discrimination in government and public educational institutions. This amendment also gave the EEOC the authority to sue offending employers in court. Other amendments prohibited sex discrimination in federally funded educational programs.

The Supreme Court also decided two other issues of the women's rights movement. Both concerned pregnancy and childbirth. Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972) made birth control legally available. This gave women the right to plan the size of their families. Roe v. Wade (1973) guaranteed a woman's right to end an unwanted pregnancy through abortion. This right was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). But the issue remains controversial. In 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an attorney in Reed v. Reed and other women's rights cases, became the second woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The first was Sandra Day O'Connor in 1981.

International Movements

In 1888, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony founded the International Council of Women. It gave formal status to an international network of feminists. Delegates from Canada, Denmark, England, Finland, France, India, Ireland, Italy, and the United States formed the council. They adopted resolutions demanding equal access to education and all trades and professions and equal pay for equal work. The International Council and a subsequent organization, the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, met regularly.

Many countries granted women's suffrage before the United States. Among them were New Zealand (1893); Australia (1901); Finland (1906); Norway (1913); Denmark and Iceland (1915); Russia (1917); Austria, Canada, Ireland, Poland, and the United Kingdom (1918); and Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Germany (1919).

The United Nations Convention on Women

On December 19, 1979, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. It became an international treaty on September 2, 1981. The convention calls for an end to all forms of women's slavery and prostitution. It demands equal access with men to education and employment opportunities and benefits. It also calls for maternity leave and childcare. And it says women should have the freedom "to choose the number and spacing of their children." As of March 2005, 180 countries had signed and ratified the convention. They represent over 90 percent of the members of the United Nations. The United States signed the convention in 1980 but has not yet ratified it.

Kathryn Cullen-DuPont
Author, The Encyclopedia of Women's History in America

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