This article will discuss the evolution of women’s rights since the late 1800’s to the present. Before the Civil War, women had fought for rights dealing in equality. Women continued to strive for change in their family, social and sexual roles, and struggled for participation and representation in the workforce and in politics.
Women continued gaining strength and support in the 1940s when they were given the right to serve in the military. A benefit of this was their significant increase in the labor force. The focus on women’s rights became even more important in the 1960s with the formation of the feminist movement. Women continued to fight hard for social equality and equal pay. Today women have achieved legal and economic progress, but they still face many challenges dealing with unequal pay, the demand of supporting a family, maintaining a career, etc.
The Declaration of Independence claimed that all men were created equal, but made no mention of women’s rights, or of their equality. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony found this to be unacceptable and created the “Womanifesto,” modeled after the Declaration of Independence (Roberts, 2005).
The most important resolution contained in the document was the demand for equal voting rights for women. Some participants at the convention found this concept to be shocking. Stanton believed that suffrage was the only way for women to ever be truly equal. She stated that she believed “the power to make the laws was the right through which all other rights could be secured” (Roberts, 2005, ¶5). It was seventy-two years after the creation of the Womanifesto that women were granted and allowed the right to vote.
1877-1920: Social reform
The Progressive Era was an important period of growth for the women’s movement in the area of social reform. During this time, women began seeking what Jane Addams referred to as “the larger life” of public affairs (Davidson, et al., 2008). Many social activities generally considered traditional roles, such as raising children, keeping house and preparing meals, were now expanded to include making decisions and becoming more involved in the community (Davidson, et al., 2008).
Social reform was important in this era, but there was a more significant event. The occurrence that took place had its effects on women’s rights. The passage of the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. The first Territory to make suffrage permanent for women was Wyoming in 1869. (Roberts, 2005).
By the year of 1919, twenty-eight states had ratified the amendment and, with the support of Woodrow Wilson, “35 of the required 36 states had voted for ratification” (Roberts, 2005, Wyoming section, ¶5). In 1920, with a tied vote Republican Harry T. Burn switched sides and voted for ratification in what is now referred to as the “War of the Roses.”
Between the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 and the feminist movement in the 1960s, it was often thought that the women’s movement had died. According to Taylor (1989), after the victory from the suffrage, feminist activism was “transformed as a result of organizational success, internal conflict, and social changes that altered women’s common interests” (p. 763). Because of social changes, two major organizations involved with the women’s movement split into different directions.
The National Woman’s Party (NWP), focused on the passage of an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which alienated mainstream activists. The National American Woman Suffrage Association took a different route and formed the League of Women Voters, which opposed the ERA and focused on educating women. Ffeminist activism continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s, “in the face of increasing hostility between the two camps of the suffrage movement, cooperation developed on only a few issues” (Taylor, 1989, p. 763).
Race was also an ongoing struggle for women’s rights. Many groups consisted of white women who feared that “black participation in the movement would confirm southern perceptions that expanding the sufferance to women would disrupt well-established black disenfranchisement in that region” (Dumenil, 2007, ¶4).
This era was also important for women in the military and the labor force. In 1943, the Women’s Army Corps was created, women were given “full army status, equal ranks, and equal pay” (Davidson, et al., 2008, p. 775). Women were now seen as a source of labor and demand for women employees soared, their participation grew significantly; “from around a quarter in 1940 to more than a third by 1945” (Davidson, et al., 2008. p. 779).
Even though the welfare and status of women improved in the economy, their advancements in the military and labor force, along with others attitudes about gender remained mostly unchanged. When the war ended, the birth rate soared and many women returned to working at home. It would take a decade before America’s stance on women’s rights and attitudes about gender would change.
In the late 1950s, changes in social trends established a positive climate for the growth of feminism. The birth rate declined significantly and contraceptive methods increased, which “permitted more sexual freedom and small family size” (Davidson, et al., 2008, p. 906). American’s attitudes towards abortion, dating, marriage and healthcare also began to change and soon became “part and parcel of women’s liberation” (Hansen, 2008, ¶6).
The feminist movement was important in establishing equality of opportunity and according to Hanson (2008), the arguments for feminism was that women should receive equal pay for equal work, that they should not be mere appendages of their husbands, and that having children should not preclude a women from pursuing a career.
The cause for feminism was further advanced with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. This act prohibited sex discrimination in employment and was passed with the assistance of women serving in Congress (Morse, 2007). This also included freedom of choice in reproductive rights (1973), minimum wage protection for domestic workers (1974), and prohibition of employment discrimination against pregnant women (1978) (Morse, 2007).
1976 – Present
The past few decades have shown, “significant steps have been taken to improve the education, health, family life, economic opportunity and political empowerment for women” (Morse, 2007, ¶2). There are still problems to be overcome in order to ensure that women’s rights continue to improve and expand. One of the most important rights is that of equal pay for equal work. While the 2005 U.S. Census found that women accounted for 59% of the workforce, they earn only $0.77 for every $1.00 that men earn performing the same job (Morse, 2007).
Balancing demands of career and family is another challenge that women are facing. Without support systems in place that are available to men with children, working women often feel that in order to be successful, they must be at the expense of another. One study conducted concluded that 42% of women working in a corporate setting were childless by the age of 40, while only 14% planned to be (Morse, 2007).
In conclusion, since the mid 1800’s, advocates of women’s rights have struggled to achieve significant advances in the economic, political and social status of women. Activists rallied for suffrage for women, gained advancements in both the military and the labor force and pushed forward social reforms that increased the equality of women in the workforce. While it’s true that the rights of women have come a long way over the past 150 years, women still have some obstacles to overcome in furtherance of complete equality.