Article

A Brief History of Women's Rights Movements

The prominent figures and notable events of women's rights movements in America and beyond

  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

Women's rights movements are primarily concerned with making the political, social, and economic status of women equal to that of men and with establishing legislative safeguards against discrimination on the basis of gender. Women's rights movements have worked in support of these aims for more than two centuries. They date to at least the first feminist publication, in 1792, entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by British writer Mary Wollstonecraft.

Militant political action among women began in Britain in 1903 with the formation of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) for the right to vote. The organization was led by Emmeline Pankhurst. Women of all ages and classes demonstrated on a massive scale; the demonstrators were jailed, locked out of their meeting places, and thrown down the steps of Parliament. National divisiveness ended in a truce at the outbreak of World War I (1914) with the WSPU's decision to support the war effort. The ensuing mobilization by the WSPU of thousands of its members for voluntary participation in the war industries and support services was a highly influential factor in overcoming government resistance to WSPU aims. The right to vote was granted in 1918; it was confined to women age 30 and above. In 1928 the voting age was lowered to 21.

In the United States the first definitive position on women's rights—hitherto intermingled with antislavery issues—was taken in 1848 under the leadership of Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the Women's Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, N.Y. (see Seneca Falls Convention). In 1850 the National Women's Rights Convention was held, led by Lucy Stone, an early activist. Both groups coalesced in the formation (1863) of the Women's National Loyal League, under Susan B. Anthony. Anthony wrote and submitted in 1878 a proposed right-to-vote amendment to the Constitution.

In 1890, Wyoming became the first state with women's suffrage. The movement was accelerated by the formation (1890) of the National American Women's Suffrage Association and the election (1900) of Carrie Chapman Catt as president. The ensuing campaign attracted many educated, wealthy, and influential women to the cause, with resultant political professionalism, increased funding, and the development of massive parades and demonstrations in the major cities. The Anthony amendment, as written in 1878, was ratified as the 19th Amendment and became law in 1920.

From 1920 to 1960, militancy on behalf of a single issue diffused into a number of women's political groups, such as the League of Women Voters (1920) and the National Council of Negro Women (1935). Such groups supported various types of liberal reforms related to the rights of both men and women. An equal rights amendment drafted in 1923 by the National Women's party (founded 1913) remained dormant for another 50 years.

At the international level, however, the women's rights movement made progress. The preamble to the United Nations (UN) Charter (1945) referred to equal rights for women; in 1948 the UN Commission on the Status of Women was established; in 1952 the UN General Assembly held a convention on the political rights of women. The United Nations Decade for Women (1976–85) emphasized the international scope of the women’s rights movement. Three related conferences—in Mexico City (1975); Copenhagen (1980); and Nairobi, Kenya (1985)—did the same. Beijing was host to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. That conference endorsed a nonbinding "Platform for Action." The platform would serve as a blueprint for promoting women's rights in the 21st century. In September 2010, UN secretary-general Ban Ki Moon appointed former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet to the new UN position of undersecretary-general for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women).

During the 1960s a militant feminist trend emerged in the United States. It was encouraged by significant feminist studies, such as The Second Sex (1953) by Simone de Beauvoir and The Feminine Mystique (1963) by Betty Friedan; it was also aided by a general legislative climate favorable to minority rights and antidiscrimination movements. Militant women's groups were formed. The Women's Liberation Movement, which was social rather than political and was manifested in literature and demonstrations by radical feminists, may have raised the awareness of the nation to the prevalence of discriminatory beliefs and attitudes.

More significantly, feminist political organizations arose that developed into a full feminist movement by the 1970s. These included the National Organization for Women (NOW), formed in 1966 under the leadership of Betty Friedan; the National Women's Political Caucus (1971), composed of such nationally known feminists as Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, and Gloria Steinem; the Equal Rights Amendment Ratification Council (1973); and the Coalition of Labor Union Women (1973).

The force of the women's rights movement, spearheaded by NOW, was brought to bear on the major issue of the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution. The ERA was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives in 1971 and by the Senate in 1972. On June 30, 1982, however, ratification of the ERA fell three states short of the 38 needed by that deadline. Later congressional efforts to reintroduce the measure have failed, although a number of states have added equal-rights clauses to their constitutions.

Since the 1980s the women's movement has focused on diverse issues. These include reproductive rights, that is, preserving a woman's right of choice to have an abortion against the fervent pro-life movement; sexual harassment; and the "glass ceiling" that impedes women in corporate advancement.

Women continue to make advances in the political field. In 2008, Sen. Hillary Clinton made a historic bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Although she was defeated in the primaries by Sen. Barack Obama, she won some 18 million votes in those polls. In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro was the first female Democrat to be nominated for the vice-presidency. Sarah Palin followed her as the first female Republican nominee for that office in 2008.

Women have made considerable gains in the other political arenas. In 1991, there were 2 women serving in the U.S. Senate and 28 in the U.S. House of Representatives. Following the 2010 elections 17 female senators and 75 female representatives were serving, including 3 nonvoting delegates. In January 2007, Rep. Nancy Pelosi became the first woman selected Speaker of the House. She was chosen House minority leader after the Republican party won control of the House in 2010. Also, 6 women were governors in 2011. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed the first woman, Sandra Day O'Connor, to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ruth Bader Ginsburg followed her to the nation’s highest bench in 1993. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Sonia Sotomayor as the third woman and the first Hispanic American Supreme Court justice. Elena Kagan became the fourth woman to join the high court in 2010. Madeleine Albright was the first woman to serve as secretary of state (1997–2001); Condoleezza Rice held that post during the George W. Bushadministration. In January 2009, Hillary Clinton succeeded Rice as secretary of state.

How to Cite This Article:

MLA (Modern Language Association) style:

"Women's Rights Movements." Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Grolier Online, 2014. Web. 1 July 2014. (use the date you accessed the page)

Chicago Manual of Style:

"Women's Rights Movements." Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Grolier Online http://gme.grolier.com/article?assetid=0314735-0 (accessed July 1, 2014). (use the date you accessed the page)

APA (American Psychological Association) style:

Women's Rights Movements. (2014). Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Retrieved July 1, 2014, (use the date you accessed the page) from Grolier Online http://gme.grolier.com/article?assetid=0314735-0

 

  • Subjects:
    Civil Rights, Civics and Government, Women's Rights Movement
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