Across the ages, women have been the backbone of civilization. The USA has an especially rich history of empowered women making great change and, since 1987, the month of March has been known as Women’s History Month. So this month, I am going to be highlighting some of the most important women in our history.
To start off this series, I thought going over the history of the women’s rights movement in America would shed some light on how we view the important women in our history. The official start of the women’s rights movement in America began July 13th, 1848. It was a midsummer day, 70 years after the American Revolution, as Elizabeth Cady Stanton was having tea with four of her girlfriends. They started talking about women’s rights within the US. Although women’s rights was by no means a new topic of discussion for afternoon teas like this, this one, in particular, stands out in history books because, during this short afternoon and a few days that followed, these five ladies planned and held the first women’s rights convention.
Within two days of their tea together, this group of friends had picked a date for their convention, found a suitable location and placed a small announcement in the Seneca County Courier. The official name of the convention was “ A convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and the rights of women”. The convention was held at Wesleyan chapel in Seneca Falls on July 19th and 20th, 1848. This public meeting was the first of its kind, in the history of Western Civilization.
As these ladies prepared for the event, Elizabeth Cady Stanton used the Declaration of Independence as a framework for writing what she titled the “Declaration of Sentiments.” In this declaration, she highlighted 18 different grievances against women. The convention was held just as planned and the Declaration of Sentiments was discussed largely over the convention. Both the Declaration of Sentiments and 12 different resolutions received unanimous endorsement by the entire convention, with few amendments. The only resolution that did not pass unanimously was the call for the women’s right to vote. The idea that women should be aloud to vote was unimaginable for many. Needless to say, the women’s convention was a hit and many different women’s conventions were held from 1850 to the start of the civil war.
Of course, like all new ideas, there was a lot of backlash from the rest of society, and the media in particular. Only one day after the first convention, the movement was already receiving lots of backlash. Newspaper editors everywhere were so shocked and appalled by the Declaration of Sentiments that they attacked women with everything they could muster. Often, the entire text of the Declaration of Sentiments was published, with the names of the signers frequently included, as an attempt at ridicule. The negative articles about women’s calls for expanded rights were so widespread and livid, they actually had a positive impact far beyond anything the organizers could have ever hoped for. In just about every corner of the USA, women were alerted to the movement and droves of people joined in on the heated discussion. The vote was finally won in 1920, 72 years after the movement had begun.
Although the right to vote was one of the biggest driving forces in the women’s rights movement, many within the movement, like Alice Paul, realized that it was only a step in advancing the ongoing struggle which would be women’s rights. In 1919, as it became clear, the vote for women was to be soon won. The National American Woman Suffrage Association reconfigured itself into the League of Women Voters to ensure that women would take their hard-won vote seriously and use it wisely.
The Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor was established in 1920, to gather information about the situation of women at work, and to advocate for changes it found were needed. Many suffragists became actively involved with lobbying for legislation to protect women workers from abuse and unsafe conditions.
In 1923, Alice Paul, the leader of the National Woman’s Party, took the next obvious step in drafting the Equal Rights Amendment for the United States Constitution. As a federal law, it was argued, it would ensure that “Men and women have equal rights throughout the United States”.
The second wing of the post-suffrage movement is often known as the birth control movement. It was initiated by Margaret Sanger, a public health nurse, just as the suffrage drive was nearing its victory. The idea of a woman’s right to control her own body, and especially to control her own reproduction and sexuality, added a visionary new dimension to the ideas of women’s emancipation. This movement not only endorsed educating women about existing birth control methods, but it also spread the conviction that freedom for modern women meant they could decide for themselves whether they would become mothers, and when. For decades, Margaret Sanger and her supporters faced down the zealously enforced laws denying women this right. In 1936, a Supreme Court decision declassified birth control information as obscene. Still, it was not until 1965 that married couples in all states could obtain contraceptives legally.
In the 1960s, another wave of activism washed into the public consciousness, fueled by several seemingly independent events. Each of these events brought a different segment of the population into the movement.
In 1961, Esther Peterson, the director of the women’s bureau of the department of labor, encouraged President Kennedy to convene a commission on the status of women. It was her belief that the government needed to take responsibility and an active role in addressing discrimination against women. The 1963 report issued by this commission documented discrimination against women in virtually every area of american life. State and local governments soon after started establishing their own commissions for women, to research conditions and recommend changes that could be initiated.
In 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. In it, she documented the emotional and intellectual oppression that middle-class educated women were experiencing because of limited life options. The book became a bestseller and inspired thousands of women to look for fulfillment beyond the role of homemaker.
Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sex as well as race, religion, and national origin. This opened up a wide range of possibilities for people from all walks of life to find jobs, but it wasn’t till 1968 that job segregation became officially illegal. And in 1972, Title IX in the Education Code made equal access to higher education and to professional programs the law.
The women’s rights movement is ever growing and changing, and will continue to do so well into the future. There are far too many amazing women within our history for me to talk about them all, but next week, I will be talking about several of the most important women in science and even a local hero.