Women's Rights Movement

views updated May 08 2018


This entry includes 2 subentries:

The Nineteenth Century
The Twentieth Century

The Nineteenth Century

During the Colonial era and the first decades of the Republic, there were always women who strove to secure equal rights for themselves. Some assumed the business interests of a husband after his death. A few women challenged male domination of religious life, though they met with criticism from their communities—or banishment, as in the case of Anne Hutchinson. Women were also active in the fight against the Crown and organized boycotts of British goods. During the struggle for independence, prominent females such as Abigail Adams wrote and spoke privately about the need for male leaders to rectify the inferior position of women, promising rebellion if their words were not heeded. But only later, over the course of the nineteenth century, did women's demands for equal rights change from a series of isolated incidents to an organized movement. This movement was far from unified, however; strife and division often arose as activists faced the difficulties of meeting the diverse needs and priorities of the women of America.

Enormous changes swept through the United States in the nineteenth century, altering the lives of women at all levels of society. The country moved away from an agrarian, home-based economy and became increasingly industrialized. Beginning in the 1820s, many white single women found work in the mills that opened across the Northeast, where they often lived in boarding houses owned by their employers. As working-class women and men of all classes began to work outside the home, middle-class women were increasingly associated with, and confined to, the domestic sphere. Prescriptive literature defined the ideal middle-class wife as pious, pure, and submissive. Her main responsibilities consisted of creating a haven away from the harsh workplace in which her husband toiled and raising virtuous, productive citizens of the Republic.

The new century saw changes in the lives of female slaves as well, when on 1 January 1808 the importation of slaves into the United States was outlawed. In response, slaveowners placed increased pressure on enslaved women to produce children. They also subjected these women to sexual advances against which they had little defense.

The changing nature of women's lives helped create the circumstances that allowed them to begin to act politically, on their own behalf and for others. "Mill girls" often worked long hours under dangerous conditions. By the 1830s female workers were organizing protests in an attempt to improve their work environment and wages. Middle-class women's role in the home, on the other hand, led them to develop a sense of themselves as members of a cohesive group; this consciousness would later translate, for some, into the idea that they could collectively demand rights. Concern about the urban poor, moreover, allowed middle-class women to engage in charity work and temperance campaigns, in which they saw themselves as working toward the "moral uplift" of society in the same way that they cared for the moral wellbeing of their families at home. While coded as domestic and benevolent, these campaigns gave women a public voice and significant social power.

Women's work in the abolitionist movement played a particularly important role in the creation of an organized women's rights movement. Early organizers for women's rights began by working with black women who had escaped slavery and wanted to learn how to read and write. The women who first spoke in public about slavery and female abuse were viciously attacked, and those who organized schools in the early 1800s met with incessant harassment. Black women, such as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Jacobs, fought for the rights of both their race and their sex, while also fighting the often condescending attitudes of white activists who saw themselves as the sole liberators of passive, childlike slaves.

For white women like Lydia Maria Child and Sarah Grimké, campaigning for abolition made them aware of their own lack of rights, and the sexism they found within the abolitionist movement sharpened this awareness. In 1840 the organizers of the World Antislavery Convention in London refused to seat female delegates, including the American activist Lucretia Mott. Before leaving England, she and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose husband was a delegate at the convention, decided to launch a campaign for woman's rights on their return to the United States. On 19 and 20 July 1848 Mott and Stanton's plan reached fruition, as they staged the country's first formal women's rights convention (see Seneca Falls Convention). Three hundred people gathered in Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, where they ratified the Declaration of Sentiments. Based on the Declaration of Independence, the document proclaimed that men and women were "created equal," and that women should therefore have legal and social parity with men, including the right to vote. The declaration was greeted with a storm of criticism in newspapers and from religious leaders. By 1850, however, activists had organized similar gatherings in Ohio and Massachusetts and established an annual Woman's Rights Convention.

The campaign for dress reform became closely associated with the women's rights movement, as advocates such as Amelia Bloomer argued that the tight clothing women wore—especially whalebone corsets—was unhealthy and restrictive (see Bloomers). Many early women's rights advocates also became involved in spiritualism, a belief system based on direct communication with God and the dead, which offered women a greater voice in their religious life than did the male hierarchies of the Christian churches.

The events of the Civil War and Reconstruction dramatically affected the women's rights movement. As tensions between North and South intensified in the late 1850s, many women activists decided to devote themselves purely to abolition, until slavery had ended in the United States. After the Civil War, many women returned to the fight for women's rights, but new tensions soon split the movement. Radical Republicans lobbying for black male suffrage attacked women's rights advocates, believing that to demand the vote for women hurt their cause. Some women's rights activists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, turned to the Democratic Party, portions of which supported white woman suffrage in order to stop black men from securing the vote. In 1869 Stanton and Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association, which focused on enfranchising white women; they insisted on female control of the organization and focused their energies on action at the federal level. Soon thereafter, the American Woman Suffrage Association formed as a rival group, turning to

Republican and abolitionist men for leadership and agreeing to place black male suffrage ahead of votes for women, white or black, and to work at the state level. Both groups chose suffrage as their main issue, stepping back from an earlier, broader based agenda.

The women's rights movement continued to transform itself and to weather divisive tensions. In 1890 the two rival suffrage associations merged, forming the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Both constituent groups, despite their differences, had originally based their case for woman suffrage on the argument that men and women were naturally equal. Even as the two groups consolidated their strength, this view lost political ground, and older advocates found themselves replaced by younger, more conservative suffragists. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the Young Women's Christian Association, and hundreds of other women's clubs began to focus on winning the vote, as they came to believe they could not accomplish their goals without official political power. The National Association of Colored Women, formed in part due to the exclusion of black women's clubs from the General Federation of Women's Clubs (formed in 1890), became a central player in fostering the black woman suffrage movement. While these clubs had different agendas, many of their members believed that the vote would allow women to bring their moralizing influence to bear on the problems of society; in other words, women should have the right to vote not because they were the same as men, but because they were different.

Despite the new interest from clubwomen, the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth proved disappointing for advocates of woman's suffrage. Although there were some victories early in this period—by 1896, women in Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah could vote and a few Midwestern states had enfranchised women in school and municipal elections—the suffrage movement would not enjoy another major victory until 1910. Racial and ethnic prejudice continued to haunt and divide the movement. As Southern women became more involved in the suffrage issue, many white suffragists began to court Southern politicians by portraying woman's suffrage as a method to secure white supremacy. African American women, in response, formed their own suffrage organizations. Some advocates also argued that female enfranchisement would allow educated native-born women—and their middle-class concerns—to overrule the growing immigrant vote.

As suffragists fought amongst themselves, they also fought an active anti-suffrage campaign. Because many feminists were also socialists, and because women workers often earned minimal wages, business interests solidly opposed the women's movement. The liquor industry, alarmed by the coalition between temperance advocates and the suffrage movement, campaigned particularly vigorously against the vote for women. Many females joined the anti-suffrage forces as well, arguing that women did not desire the vote.

In early decades of the twentieth century several suffragists introduced new approaches that both reinvigorated and once again divided the movement. Elizabeth Cady Stanton's daughter, Harriot Stanton Blatch, founded the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women in 1907, bringing females from all classes and backgrounds together to work for suffrage. The League organized large, lavish suffrage parades that brought publicity and respect to the cause. Carrie Chapman Catt, who served as the president of NAWSA between 1900 and 1904, recruited both college-educated professionals and socially prominent women to the campaign. In 1912, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns took over NAWSA's Congressional Committee. The movement had employed a state-by-state strategy since the 1890s, hoping eventually to secure woman suffrage nationwide, but Paul and Burns believed only a push for a federal constitutional amendment would bring about victory. The two women also believed in more aggressive tactics than those employed by their parent organization, including picketing the White House and hunger strikes. Eventually Paul and Burns broke with the NAWSA, forming the Congressional Union (later the National Woman's Party) in 1914.

Despite the split, the woman's suffrage movement had become a vital force. When Catt returned to the NAWSA presidency in 1915, she emphasized the importance of both state and national activity. Women in Arizona, California, Kansas, Oregon, and Washington had secured the vote by 1912; by 1913, Illinois women could vote in presidential elections. In January 1918 the House of Representatives passed the Nineteenth Amendment, sometimes known as the Anthony Amendment; a year and a half later, the Senate passed it as well. Suffragists worked tirelessly for the next year to obtain ratification by the required 36 states. On 26 August 1920 American women finally had the right to vote.

While the women's rights movement focused its energies mainly on suffrage after 1869, it both fostered and was fed by other changes in women's lives. Women's access to higher education expanded, as both single-sex and coeducational institutions opened their doors (see Education, Higher: Women's Colleges). As a result, females could begin to enter, at least in small numbers, traditionally male professions, becoming authors, doctors, lawyers, and ministers. Women also became involved in other political causes, especially labor issues, and opened settlement houses to aid the poor. Although American women had not achieved equality, by 1920 they had traveled far.


Braude, Anne. Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America. 2d ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Buechler, Steven. The Transformation of the Woman Suffrage Movement: The Case of Illinois, 1850–1920. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

Clinton, Catherine, and Christine Lunardini, eds. The Columbia Guide to American Women in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Cott, Nancy F. The Bonds of Womanhood: "Woman's Sphere" in New England, 1780–1835. 2d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.

DuBois, Ellen Carol. Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women's Movement in America, 1848–1869. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999.

———. Harriot Stanton Blatch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.

Flexnor, Eleanor. Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996.

Ginzberg, Lori D. Women and the Work of Benevolence: Morality, Politics, and Class in the Nineteenth-Century United States. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.

Hewitt, Nancy A. Women's Activism and Social Change: Rochester, New York, 1822–1872. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Kerber, Linda K. Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America. Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History by the University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

Kraditor, Aileen S. The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement, 1890–1920. New York: Norton, 1981.

Lerner, Gerda, ed. Black Women in White America: A Documentary History. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

Marilley, Suzanne M. Woman Suffrage and the Origins of Liberal Feminism in the United States, 1820–1920. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Marshall, Susan E. Splintered Sisterhood: Gender and Class in the Campaign Against Woman Suffrage. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.

Painter, Nell Irvin. Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol. New York: Norton, 1996.

Ryan, Mary P. Women in Public: Between Banners and Ballots, 1825–1880. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Scott, Anne Firor. Natural Allies: Women's Associations in American History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Wheeler, Marjorie Spurill. Votes for Women!: The Woman Suffrage Movement in Tennessee, the South, and the Nation. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995.



See alsoAntislavery ; Discrimination: Sex ; Gender and Gender Roles ; Suffrage: Woman's Suffrage ; Women in Churches ; Women in Public Life, Business, and Professions ; Women, Citizenship of Married andvol. 9:Human Rights Not Founded on Sex, October 2, 1837 ; The Seneca Falls Declaration ; What If I Am a Woman? ; When Woman Gets Her Rights Man Will Be Right .

The Twentieth Century

The reemergence of the women's movement in the United States in the late 1960s is commonly referred to as the modern women's rights movement, the feminist movement, or the women's liberation movement. It is also known as second wave feminism, which serves to distinguish it from the period a century earlier when women in the United States first organized around demands for full citizenship. That earlier campaign, known as first wave, culminated with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, which legally (if not actually) barred discrimination in voting on the basis of sex. Feminists in the 1960s, like their predecessors, sought to alter their unequal political, social, and economic status. Although still vital in a variety of forms, the modern women's movement reached a high point in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Simply put, feminism is the belief in the full economic, political, and social equality of males and females. But because women are often distinctly different from one another—divided by issues of class, race, and sexual orientation—how feminists defined women's problems and women's equality varied considerably. Consequently, the modern wave of feminism had many facets, and it changed during its initial decades as women confronted and acknowledged not only larger patterns of sexism in society, but also their differences from one another. There were underlying themes common to all those who sought to improve women's status, however. One was an opposition to sexism—the notion that there are political and social institutions as well as deep-seated cultural attitudes that discriminate against women, denying them the opportunity to reach their fullest potential. A second theme was the goal of individual self-determination—the claim that women should be free to choose their own paths in life, perhaps helped by but not constrained by men or other women. Finally, feminists insisted that the "personal is political." This conviction asserted that women's individual problems were legitimate, important political issues and that the only way to change the problems of battering, rape, low-paying jobs, unfair divorce laws, discriminatory education, or degrading notions of femininity was through political organizing and political struggle. Feminist critiques constituted not only a direct challenge to the gender system, but also to racism and capitalism.

The roots of the second wave lay, in part, in large-scale structural changes that occurred in the United States during the middle part of the twentieth century. Demo-graphic change, including a rapidly falling birth rate, increased longevity, a rising divorce rate, and an increase in the age at which people married, radicalized the expectations of girls and women. They flooded into the full-time labor force, stayed in school longer, secured college and postgraduate degrees in increasing numbers, and linked their newfound sexual freedom with the desire to control their own reproduction. Other important origins included a variety of political protest movements, including the labor movement, the Civil Rights Movement, New Left politics, and the counterculture of the 1960s. Women joined these movements in large numbers and often encountered deep and pervasive sexism within these radical movements. When Stokely Charmichael, a leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, for example, was publically asked in 1964 what was the position of women in the organization, he replied famously: "The only position for women in SNCC is prone." The growing dissatisfaction of women within these groups led many to insist that the organizations devote attention to women's issues, while others exited New Left movements, joining with one another to ignite the modern women's liberation movement.

The early 1960s saw two important events that perhaps signalled the beginning of the second wave. In December 1961, President John F. Kennedy established the President's Commission on the Status of Women. Chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt and comprised of female political, business, and education leaders, the commission was asked to report on the progress women had made in six areas, including federal civil service employment and labor legislation. Its final report, although certainly not viewed as radical by modern feminists, did call for greater equality in the workplace while at the same time trying to protect women's "maternal functions."

Writer and feminist Betty Friedan recognized that the commission was bogged down in bureacracy and that it would not bring about any real changes, so she decided to take matters into her own hands, leading to the second important event. In 1963, Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique was published and immediately caused an uproar. Called a "wake-up call to women," the book outlined Friedan's belief that women were tired of being trapped in the home as housewives and that the entire nation would benefit if women could escape that outdated role and assume a more productive place in the national workforce. With such controversial tactics as comparing being stuck in the role of housewife to spending time in a Nazi prison camp, The Feminine Mystique touched a nerve in women across the country and caused a social revolution, after which little was ever the same in the women's movement.

Spurred on by those early 1960s events, organizations and small groups appeared in the late 1960s and the 1970s as feminists grappled with the difficult question of how to act on these themes and insights. The largest and most structured of the new feminist organizations was the National Organization for Women (NOW), founded in 1966. It sought solutions at the policy level, fighting legal and legislative battles. One of their most famous campaigns centered around an unsuccessful attempt to secure passage of a Constitutional amendment known as the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which bared discrimination on the basis of sex. Its backers believed the amendment could be used to eliminate discrimination against women in education and the labor force as well as to safeguard women's reproductive freedom. Other groups working on the policy level included the Women's Equity Action League (1968) and the National Women's Political Caucus (1971). These groups, along with NOW, demanded equal employment opportunity, equal pay for equal work, an end to sexual harassment in the workforce and educational institutions, more equitable divorce and child-custody laws, and greater concern with violence against women. Most also supported pay equity or comparable worth, reproductive rights (including abortion), and greater domestic autonomy. They believed that many of these reforms would likely occur when the numbers of women at all levels of government increased. Toward this end, they also launched initiatives to increase the number of women in public office.

Other tactics for change included the development of consciousness-raising groups. Small discussion groups, these intimate forums sprung up in large numbers around the country and sought to raise women's consciousness about sexism and feminism. Women explored their struggles to become more assertive and to resist a socialization process that had taught them to be passive and self-denigrating. This technique was so successful that it has filtered into the general culture being deployed by a wide variety of groups today. Activists in many camps believed that street protests were the most effective way to communicate feminism's message to large numbers of people. Direct-action tactics included protests at the Miss America pageant in 1968; the hexing of the New York Stock Exchange by women dressed as witches from WITCH (Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell); the Women's Strike for Equality on 26 August 1970, involving more than 100,000 women throughout the country; and, later, huge demonstrations to assert women's right to abortion. Other activists worked for a feminist vision of change by organizing alternative institutions. Some formed separatist female communities. Some established rape hotlines and battered women's shelters; women's health clinics, food stores, publishers, a symphony orchestra, art galleries, bookstores, banks, and bars provided outlets for creative energies and entrepreneurial skills. Although there was much disagreement within the movement about which of these disparate tactics was most effective, their combined effect was staggering. They touched the lives of millions of Americans and began to transform the ways people thought about and acted toward women.

No sooner, however, had men and women begun to shift their behavior and attitudes than the male-dominated media began to ridicule and trivialize women's liberation and to publicize distorted accounts of women's activities. Most famously, the media branded the protesters at the Miss America Pageant in August 1968 as "bra burners." This event was never part of the protest, however. The press photograph of the purported incident was staged. Nevertheless, this image of the bra-burning, man-hating feminist registered powerfully and has persisted in the public mind. This backlash against women has taken a

wide variety of forms and has been a powerful force, particularly throughout the 1980s, in halting and reversing many gains for women's equal human rights.

Some policy successes of the modern women's rights movement have included the 1963 Equal Pay Act, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, laws prohibiting discrimination in educational and credit opportunities, and Supreme Court decisions expanding the civil liberties of women. In 1972 Congress sent the Equal Rights Amendment to the states for ratification; despite approval from more than half the states it failed to obtain the necessary two-thirds needed by 1982. In 1973, the Supreme Court affirmed a women's right to privacy in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion. Subsequent gains included the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, and the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. Victories in state legislatures included laws establishing greater protection for battered women and victims of violent crime, reform of rape statutes, and laws providing for more equitable distribution of marital property following divorce, made necessary by the negative impact of no-fault divorce laws on women. At the same time, many states placed restrictions on women's constitutional right to obtain abortions and often interpreted no-fault divorce laws in ways that harmed women's economic status.

The women's movement remained a salient force for social justice and equity in the 1990s but faced new challenges and problems. Despite substantial gains in many areas over thirty years, sexist attitudes and behavior endured. The gap between women's and men's incomes narrowed but persisted, with women earning approximately 25 percent less than men regardless of education. Abortion rights, while guaranteed, came under renewed attack and in many states were severely eroded. Sexual harassment was a recognized crime but nevertheless continued to compromise women's full equality. More women were running for and winning elective office than ever before but in 1994 women constituted only 10 percent of Congress. Women continue to be underrepresented in positions of leadership in corporations and universities. Many women earning their own incomes had to work a "second shift" because they remained responsible for most or all of their families' care, even in dual income households. And families headed by single women were among the poorest in the nation. These and other concerns shaped the ideological debates within feminism at the end of the twentieth century. The women's movement continued to contain within itself a plethora of differing analyses and opinions concerning women and social change.

One such debate focused on the issue of sexual violence. Feminists were divided about the role of pornography in engendering and encouraging the sexual violence rampant in the United States. Many who believed that pornography was a major cause of woman-centered violence called for strict regulation or outlawing of pornography as a violation of women's civil rights. Other feminists were concerned about the difficulty of defining pornography, claiming that the real causes of violence against women are complex and rooted deep within our culture and social institutions. They argued that pornography is a form of free speech—however abhorrent—that must be tolerated in a democratic society. Disagreements were apparent as well on the question of how to define and punish such problems as sexual harassment, date rape, and marital rape. Some questioned the legitimacy of a "battered woman defense," giving women victims of systematic violence the right to strike back against their abusers. While all feminists agreed that gender-based crimes against women, including violent acts against lesbian women, were a virulent form of sexism that must be eradicated, they differed in their analyses of and remedies for these problems.

Another debate divided "difference" feminists from "equality" feminists. Difference feminists stressed that women resemble one another and differ from men in fundamental ways. They focused on the value of presumed feminine characteristics, claiming women's greater empathy, cooperation, intuition, and care and posited these as superior to those thought to characterize men. Although they frequently pointed to socialization rather than biology as the source of sex differences, these feminists believed women's characteristics are shared by all women and difficult if not impossible to alter. Equality feminism, in contrast, rejected the view that there are basic social and psychological differences between women and men. It focused on eliminating barriers to fulfilling individual potential. Equality feminism defined social justice in a gender-neutral fashion, anticipating a future that would provide women and men with opportunities to exercise individual choice on a wide range of issues, including reproduction, education, employment, legal rights, sexual orientation, and personal relationships. It rejected the traditional idea that women's differences from men are inherent or can ever be legitimately used to justify either sex's exclusion from any aspect of society or social life. The political ramifications of difference and equality feminism were many. They divided feminists who advocated special provisions for women in the labor force and the law from those who wanted equal treatment for women and men. One practical aspect of this debate concerned the appropriate remedy for the persistent disadvantages of women in the labor force. When compared to men, women earned less, were promoted less frequently, and continued to be segregated in "female" occupations. Most harmful of all was the pattern of interrupted work histories that characterized large numbers of women as they continued to drop out of the labor force in order to almost single-handedly rear children and care for their homes.

Insisting on preserving women's special relationship to home and children, difference feminists addressed women's disadvantaged position in the workforce with such solutions as the "mommy track." This special arrangement of part-time work enables female lawyers, for example, to spend more time at home without forgoing their law practices. Women retain their relationships with firms even though the ability to qualify as partners is delayed and salaries are considerably lower than are those of full-time lawyers. Equality feminists, however, rejected such special protections. Their search for remedies focused rather on finding ways to equalize men's and women's responsibilities for home and child care. Many equality feminists believed that parental leaves of absence from work when children are young or ill, expanded availability of low-cost and high-quality day care, and greater participation of men in fairly dividing responsibilities for housework and child rearing were the only real solutions to women's dual-workload problem. By the middle of the 1990s, however, neither difference nor equality feminists had been able to exercise the political power necessary to resolve women's continuing disadvantages in the labor force.

The ideologies of difference and equality separated feminists with respect to strategies for building the movement itself. Difference feminists tended to be wary of coalitions,

especially those with men. They were generally pessimistic about the possibility of changing what they saw as men's essentially intractable sexist attitudes and behavior and frequently claimed that only women can understand and fight women's oppression. As a result, feminists influenced by a difference model tended to be separatist, inward looking, and focused on what they saw as women's inevitable victimization. Their activism often took the form of trying to shield women from sexism, especially by separating them from its sources. Thus, one of their primary goals was the creation of all-women environments that were considered safe spaces, such as those at women's music festivals or retreats.

The ideology of equality feminism, in contrast, concentrated on eradicating sexism by removing its causes. For many equality feminists this included working in coalition with men to change their attitudes and behavior toward women. They focused on issues that could unite women and men of different social classes and races, such as the disproportionate poverty of U.S. women and their children, federal funding for abortions, and the need for day care. Their goal was to change those aspects of the society that engender sexism. They fought for fair laws and nonsexist legislation and staged large demonstrations and protests to create a broad-based, diverse, and effective movement for ending sexism.

The difference and equality debate raged within academic institutions. The establishment of women's studies courses and programs in almost every institution of higher education in the country was unquestionably one of the women's movement's most significant achievements. These programs and the women's centers with which they were often associated on college campuses altered the way scholars and students thought about issues of gender. Reversing a situation in which women and their contributions to history, science, and society were almost entirely ignored, women's studies courses educated millions of young people about the importance of both women and men to our cultural heritage and contemporary world. Despite their success, women's studies programs faced an identity crisis in the 1990s. On one side, equality feminists argued that the subjects of women and gender should be integrated into the curriculum and not require separate courses or programs. To them the primary goal of women's studies programs was to facilitate that integration. In contrast, difference feminists claimed that only an independent women's studies curriculum could fulfill the continuing need for courses dedicated to women's unique place in and approach to the world. Thus, feminists celebrated the many accomplishments of women's studies programs even as they disagreed about the strategy that should be adopted by such programs.

The women's movement remained a forum for debate, with issues, strategies, and tactics subject to controversy. While such diversity may have confused a public looking for simple definitions or perplexed those who wanted to know, finally, "What do women want?" its multifaceted nature was the movement's strength. The women's movement had room for everyone who agreed that sexism has no place in a society dedicated to social justice. The most important contribution of the women's movement of the late twentieth century was to improve women's lives by reducing obstacles to the full expression of their desires and choices. Feminists contributed to the wider society as well, because their activism was an important element in the continuing struggle for a more equitable and just society for all.


Baxandall, Rosalyn F., and Linda Gordon, eds. Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women's Liberation Movement. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Deslippe, Dennis A. Rights, Not Roses: Unions and the Rise of Working-Class Feminism, 1945–1980. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

Echols, Alice. Daring To Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967–1975. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Evans, Sara M. Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left. New York: Vintage Books, 1980.

Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. New York: Anchor Books, 1991.

Freedman, Estelle B. No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women. New York: Ballantine Books, 2002.

Rosen, Ruth. The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America. New York: Viking, 2000.

White, Deborah G. Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894–1994. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.

Joan D.Mandle/l. t.

See alsoBirth Control Movement ; Discrimination: Sex ; Emily's List ; Feminine Mystique, The ; National Organization for Women ; National Women's Political Caucus ; Pro-Choice Movement ; Rape Crisis Centers ; Sexual Harrasment ; Sexual Orientation ; Sexuality ; Suffrage: Woman's Suffrage ; Women, President's Commission on the Status of ; Women in Public Life, Business, and Professions ; Women's Equity Action League ; Women's Health ; Women's Rights Movement ; Women's Studies andvol. 9:NOW Statement of Purpose .

Women’s Liberation

views updated Jun 11 2018

Womens Liberation





The term womens liberation in twentieth-century discourse has been used interchangeably with feminism, womens rights, and the womens movement. A more precise focus on the term womens liberation raises the question, Liberation from what? The response that feminists have offered is liberation from the oppressive practices of patriarchy and womens second-class social status that have been a part of the structure of traditional and modern societies. The concept of womens liberation was popularized by the early stages of the Second Wave of the womens movement, by the United Nations (UN) decade of focus on women (1975 to 1985), and more recently by UN-sponsored events like the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women. Because women constitute 50 percent of the worlds population, the potential for coalitions across nations, ethnicities, ages, classes, religions, and sexualities is significant for all people. These UN events, which included governmental and nongovernmental agency representatives, have offered opportunities for international networking to supporters of the womens movement. The term liberation draws insights from Marxist and liberal democratic theories, which argue that societies work best when all adult persons are free and able to participate fully in public life. But what counts as womens liberation shifts over time.


Historically, the womens movement can be divided into three waves, which begin with the issue of suffrage. Setting the stage for the First Wave were some key political writings in Western societies that articulated the centrality of individuals in the state. These include the eighteenth-century work of Mary Wollstonecraft (17591797), A Vindication of the Rights of Woman ; the nineteenth-century work of John Stuart Mill (18061873) with Harriet Taylor (18071858), On the Subjugation of Women, which compares womens situations to slavery; and the work of the German socialist Friedrich Engels (18201895), Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, shaped by his work with the political philosopher Karl Marx (18181883), which argues that womens oppression begins with the division of labor in the family.

The womens movement has developed in a variety of world cultures in complex ways, but an understanding of the Western tradition offers a context from which to examine some of the key issues. For those influenced by U.S. politics, the First Wave began with the Seneca Falls Convention in New York in 1848, when activists involved in the abolition of slavery met to talk about women. It ended in 1920 with a U.S. constitutional amendment that granted women the vote. The Second Wave began with the civil rights struggles in 1962 and included a push for an equal rights amendment, workplace equity, educational opportunities, and policies that supported womens participation in public life. During this period womens studies programs were established as challenges were made to traditional discipline-based theories and epistemologies. In the early 1980s the New Right began to gain momentum just as feminist goals were shifting from legal rights to cultural issues and as multiculturalism was gaining greater recognition. These developments gave rise to the Third Wave of feminism in the 1990s, which has gained momentum since the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The Seneca Falls Convention was organized by Lucretia Mott (17931880) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (18151902), with the abolitionist Frederick Douglas (18171895) and various Quakers in attendance. The issues in the First Wave were laid out at the convention in the Declaration of Sentiments, which called for women to have access to education, to their own salaries, to courts, to property, to child custody, to employment, to professions, and to the right to vote, which was the most controversial resolution. It would take from 1848 to 1920 for this last resolution to be achieved in the United States. The struggles for womens equality in European societies followed similar historical paths.


The Second Wave of American feminism grew out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the New Left. During the early stages activists readily employed the term womens liberation as a way of explaining that the problem women faced as a group was similar to that of other oppressed groups. Second Wave consciousness-raising groups helped women move from seeing themselves as ineffective individuals in a fair society to identifying the structural patterns of sex bias that turned women as a group into second-class citizens. Women were in need of liberation from patriarchy and the cultural, legal, and political practices that flowed from patriarchy to subjugate them. As the civil rights movement progressed and the womens movement gained supporters, four key categories became the base for critical analysis: race, class, gender, and sexuality. The removal of their accompanying social illsracism, class privilege, sexism, and heterosexismwould liberate societies from oppressive practices and unjust institutional structures. Feminists argued that womens liberation would result in the liberation of men because gender roles would be more open and individuals could assume them according to their talents and tastes instead of the shape of their bodies.

The Second Wave of feminism was supported by a variety of local and national political organizations that pressed for such rights as to continue work while pregnant and to have access to information about birth control, to abortion, to health care for pregnant women, and to legal protection from domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment, and economic discrimination. Concerns over womens health, reproductive choices, and body image came to the foreground as the issues of health and medical practices were scrutinized for sex or gender bias. Groups used lobbying, demonstrations, community-based organizations, and litigation and were loosely linked together through national-level organizations like the National Organization for Women (NOW), founded in 1966.

Betty Friedan (19212006), one of the NOW founders, raised a key question about womens liberation in her book The Feminine Mystique : Who knows what women can be when they are finally free to become themselves? (Friedan 1963, p. 378). Her critical review of womens roles as housewives helped citizens see how women were restricted in their ability to develop into full persons. Coalitions between the womens movement and the New Left, the antiVietnam War campaigns, the black liberation movement, and the ecological movement produced a variety of feminist theories and analyses, each of which explained liberation differently. Liberal feminism sought legal rights on a par with mens rights; socialist and Marxist feminism sought economic equity; radical feminism sought liberation and recognition for women-based theories, cultures, and sexualities; eco-feminism sought to explain how the subjugation of women is connected to the subjugation and abuse of nature; and postmodern feminism sought linguistic equities.

As the Second Wave of the womens movement progressed, pejorative nicknames like womens libber emerged as some social groups began to resist the changes. While there were feminists who wore the label libber or radical proudly, embracing the popular adage that feminism is the radical notion that women are people, others found that the labels hindered other types of political work. Feminists fought against the stereotype of themselves as man haters and humorless. While women as a group were oppressed, many also belonged to privileged groups: whites, elites, developed nations, majority religions, and heterosexual dyads. Since the term liberation could be understood as liberation from men or from slavery, other terms were employed to discourage these misunderstandings. Instead of using the term womens liberation, many political activists and scholars refer to this concept with the terms feminism or gender equity.

Groups within the feminist movement who focused on rights put their energies into legislation, gaining political office, protests, and litigation. Others were concerned with cultural transformations and focused on reframing language, what counted as the canon in art and literature, everyday life activities, the division of labor in the household, and images of women presented in schools and the media.

The personal is political was a phrase that articulated the ways all women could be involved in this process of change, and personal choices were seen as manifestations of political commitments. The genuineness of a political commitment was indicated in the details of how one lived ones life. Those who were vegetarian were expected not to wear leather shoes. Those who believed women were equal to men were expected to refer to adult females as women, not as girls. Hence a notion of political connection between individual actions and political beliefs was advocated, and this led to a form of political correctness in that ones personal behavior was to match ones ethical commitments. Progressive activists would point out such inconsistencies in each others actions in order to discourage patriarchal practices. Such actions examined and corrected speech practices to alert citizens to inconsistencies between political commitments and personal utterances. Calling adult women girls or referring to women as chicks could elicit public criticism. The Second Wave established inclusive speech practices for both genders that are now accepted in the society as a whole.

Affirmative action programs were put in place to recruit women and minorities into schools and the workplace, and watchdog agencies were created to be sure that such policies were followed. Sexism and racism were scrutinized, and citizens became aware that they needed to be careful about engaging in these types of behaviors. Some of these programs and the scrutiny associated with them have diminished with the rise of the New Right and its critiques of affirmative action, abortion policies, and other limits on corporate interests. The New Right resurrected the term political correctness to suggest that feminists and their allies had unduly politicized issues that were best left to individuals or corporations to work out as they thought best. Drawing from the ways in which politics has been treated as a negative term, the new use of political correctness permitted a quick negative label for social practices (especially related to affirmative action, protections for equal political and economic access for women and ethnic minorities, and inclusive language practices) that the political right wanted to eliminate from social policy.

Because rights in the United States are focused on limits to government action, U.S. politics has focused on how states have prevented womens access to contraceptives and abortion as well as preventing corporations from discrimination in employment and educational opportunities on the basis of gender or sex. The New Right in the United States has developed an antiabortion component to their political agenda with a pro-life argument based on the protection of what they call the unborn. This position builds on the general interests of the New Right in gender politics. Antifeminists have attempted to reduce womens liberation to womens individual opportunity and even to bra burning by making the claim that Second Wave feminists burned bras. However, the occurrence of this event cannot be found by those who study the movement even though it was reported in the media. Reducing a movement to bra burning was probably a confusion with the antiVietnam War movement that burned draft cards, an illegal activity that did serve as civil disobedience. While burning draft cards is illegal, there is no such law against burning bras; discussions about bra burning are designed to trivialize womens liberation. The central issues of the Second Wave movement were equal access to education, employment opportunities, and health care.

Internationally, gender issues have included a struggle over womens identities as wife and mother with a primary location in the modern private sector as opposed to womens identities as political citizens with economic roles in modern societies that include but are not limited to their roles within the family. Because the world economy depends on womens economic contributions to the economies of nations, the limitation of women to the private sector of the home has disappeared as an economic factor even though the issue remains alive as an emotional factor in some political ideologies or religious interpretations. These issues were debated at the 1995 UN Conference on Women in Beijing, China, where representatives from major religions, the political right and left, and other sectors discussed what is required to liberate women.

In an international context, the key issues for feminists remain womens access to educational opportunities, including educational levels comparable to those offered to men, employment and pay opportunities that afford a living wage and are comparable to the pay men receive, and access to health care. In some nations women continue to struggle for equality with men in suing for divorce and custody of their children. Government policies vary on reproduction regulation, including abortion. In some nations abortion is limited to early stages or conditions that depend on the life of the mother. In others, such as China with its one-child policy, abortion can be encouraged and supported up to later stages of pregnancy. While some would reduce womens liberation to access to reproductive health technologies, womens liberation depends on access to general health care, education, and wages that will reduce womens poverty and the devastation that comes when women are unable to provide for themselves, their families, and their children.

As the political climate developed in the 1980s and 1990s, feminists no longer had to contend with the problems of invisibility or of not being taken seriously. Nonetheless, while they were taken seriously in the 1990s, they were targeted by the New Right as a source of social ills. Internationally, a New Right, neoconservative feminism emerged that emphasized the role of women as wives and mothers. In the United States these activists are often part of the pro-life movement that has opposed abortion and worked to counter the effects of Roe v. Wade. They have argued that women did not need and would not benefit from the individual protection that could be granted through social and political rights that are the same as those granted to men. At the same time, among Western feminists, tighter alliances were built with the gay and lesbian movements, so issues of sex and reproduction remained important in the struggle over what counts as womens liberation.


In the 1990s postmodern analyses came to the foreground with a focus on the politics of language and culture and an emphasis on everyday political transformations as well as notions of difference. These shifts placed greater emphasis on culture and language as mechanisms for change at local levels. As the children of the Second Wave of feminism began to reach adulthood, they became activists with a new agenda that embraced the postmodern turn to language and cultural issues but also focused on mentoring, leadership, art, and new articulations of feminine and feminist identities. Rebecca Walker, the daughter of the Second Wave activist and novelist Alice Walker (b. 1944), is an example of a Third Wave activist. Building on Second Wave feminism, these activists and academics raise new questions such as that found in Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drakes Third Wave Agenda : Which personal? And whose politics? How to think sisterhood in terms of difference and hybridity? (Heywood and Drake 1997, p. 23). Examinations of multiple identities, complex articulations of feminine and feminist, coalition politics, and everyday practices became even more important than party affiliations and legal reforms. Retaining a loyalty to womanist perspectives and multicultural understandings, feminists continued to argue that each woman must gain the opportunity to tell her own story and speak for herself.

As academic feminism moved from the Second Wave feminists, who had drawn on empirical evidence to substantiate gender bias, to Third Wave academics, who drew more from postmodern theoretical frameworks, linguistic playfulness became a form of politics. Third Wave feminists have focused on reinventing womens identities, languages, and symbols while framing their own articulations of feminist politics. In this context womens liberation means the freedom to select the context for political change, the ability to frame the issues in response to both contemporary and local contexts, and the means by which various surprising reversals, including linguistic turns, might liberate.

Womens liberation is a part of the womens movement, which includes access to education and political office; health care benefits, including reproductive health benefits; legal rights for women; employment access; protection from rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment; access to professions and professional development; and protections from unwanted medical interventions and practices that put men in charge of womens lives. The democratization of nation-states depends on womens liberation because 50 percent of the population of a nationwomencannot be denied equal participation and rights if a democracy is to emerge. Such denial undercuts democratization.

Womens liberation has come to mean liberation from patriarchal practices. However, the ways liberation might take place and what practices count as patriarchal are matters for political debate, and women, like men, differ in their assessment of their own needs. While there are similarities in womens situations, different contexts and values create different understandings of what womens liberation requires and how it might best be achieved. These differences offer important political insights for social justice and the development of strong democratic societies.

SEE ALSO Affirmative Action; Civil Rights; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Feminism; Feminism, Second Wave; Gender; Gender Gap; Inequality, Gender; Left Wing; Liberation; Politics; Politics, Gender; Reproductive Politics; Reproductive Rights; Right Wing; Sexism; Social Movements; Vietnam War; Women and Politics; Womens Movement


Basu, Amrita, with C. Elizabeth McGrory, eds. 1995. The Challenge of Local Feminisms: Womens Movements in Global Perspective. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Friedan, Betty. 1963. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton.

Harding, Sandra G. 1991. Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Womens Lives. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Heywood, Leslie, and Jennifer Drake, eds. 1997. Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

hooks, bell. 2000. Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge, MA: South End.

Jaggar, Alison M. 1983. Feminist Politics and Human Nature. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld.

Meyers, Diana Tietjens, ed. 1997. Feminist Social Thought: A Reader. New York: Routledge.

Rossi, Alice S., 1973. The Feminist Papers: From Adams to de Beauvoir. New York: Columbia University Press.

Seager, Joni. 2003. The Penguin Atlas of Women in the World. 3rd ed. New York: Penguin Books.

Eloise A. Buker

Women's Rights

views updated Jun 11 2018


The effort to secure equal rights for women and to remove gender discrimination from laws, institutions, and behavioral patterns.

The women's rights movement began in the nineteenth century with the demand by some women reformers for the right to vote, known as suffrage, and for the same legal rights as men. Though the vote was secured for women by the nineteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, most of the gains women have made in achieving legal equality and ending gender discrimination have come since the 1960s. civil rights legislation of that era was primarily focused on ensuring that African Americans and other racial minorities secured equal protection of the laws. However, the inclusion of sex as a protected category under the civil rights act of 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e et seq.) gave women a powerful legal tool to end sex discrimination and to erase cultural stereotypes about females.

The modern women's rights movement began in the 1960s and gained momentum with the development of the scholarly field of feminist jurisprudence in the 1970s. The quest for women's rights has led to legal challenges in the areas of employment, domestic relations, reproductive rights, education, and criminal law. Although the women's rights movement failed to secure ratification of the equal rights amendment (ERA), the courts have generally been receptive to claims that demand recognition of rights under the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment.

Nineteenth Century Women's Rights Movement

The effort to secure women's rights began at a convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. A group of women and men drafted and approved the Declaration of Sentiments, an impassioned demand for equal rights for women, including the right to vote. The declaration was modeled after the language and structure of the Declaration of Independence of 1776. Many of those gathered at Seneca Falls, including early women's rights leaders susan b. anthony and elizabeth cady stanton, had been active in the abolitionist movement, seeking an end to slavery. However, these women realized that they were second-class citizens, unable to vote and possessing few legal rights, especially if they were married. Some leaders, like lucy stone, saw parallels between women and slaves: both were expected to be passive, cooperative, and obedient. In addition, the legal status of both slaves and women was unequal to that of white men.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, many of these reformers fully committed their energies to gaining women's suffrage. Stanton and Anthony established the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) that sought an amendment to the U.S. Constitution similar to the fifteenth amendment, which gave non-white men the right to vote. In 1872, Anthony was prosecuted for attempting to vote in the presidential election. Stone, on the other hand, helped form the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). AWSA worked for women's suffrage on a state by state basis, seeking amendments to state constitutions.

The U.S. Supreme Court was hostile to women's suffrage. In Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. 162, 22 L. Ed. 627 (1875), the Court rejected an attempt by a woman to cast a ballot in a Missouri election. The Court stated that the "Constitution of the United States does not confer the right of suffrage upon any one." In addition, the Court said, "Women were excluded from suffrage in nearly all the States by the express provision of their constitutions and laws." In essence, the Court relied on past exclusions to justify current exclusions, concluding that because women had never been allowed to vote, they could continue to be excluded.

The Campaign to Defeat the ERA

After a fifty-year struggle, in March 1972 Congress approved the equal rights amendment (ERA), a move that appeared to pave the way for the quick and easy adoption of the amendment by the states. Under the Constitution, thirty-eight states are required for ratification, and within a year of congressional approval, thirty states had ratified the amendment. At this point, however, a concerted opposition campaign stopped the momentum for the ERA dead in its tracks.

The most intense opposition to the ERA came from conservative religious and political organizations, including the right-wing John Birch Society and STOP ERA, a group led by conservative firebrand Phyllis S. Schlafly. Supporters of the ERA had cast it as mainly a tool to improve the economic position of women. Opponents, however, saw the amendment as a means of undermining traditional cultural values, especially those concerned with the family and the role of women in U.S. society. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision legalizing abortion, roe v. wade, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147 (1973), also affected the ratification struggle, as the emerging right-to-life movement saw the ERA as an additional legal basis for a woman's right to an abortion.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, fierce lobbying took place in state legislatures that were considering the ERA. Opponents pointed out that during the U.S. Senate debate on the ERA, a host of amendments that would have restricted the reach of the amendment were defeated. These included prohibitions against drafting women into the military and allowing women to serve in combat. The defeat of other amendments to the ERA led opponents to claim that women would lose the right to child support and certain special privileges and exemptions based in state and federal law. Opponents also warned that the passage of the ERA would lead to unisex public toilet facilities and the abolition of traditionally gender-based segregated facilities. Finally, many opponents saw the ERA as a means to remove criminal laws dealing with homosexual acts.

Although the deadline for ratification was extended for thirty months, ERA supporters were never able to gain the additional states needed for ratification.

further readings

Berry, Mary Frances. 1986. Why ERA Failed: Politics, Women's Rights, and the Amending Process of the Constitution. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

Hoff-Wilson, Joan. 1986. Rights of Passage: The Past and Future of the ERA. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

Mansbridge, Jane J. 1986. Why We Lost the ERA. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

The attitude of the Court in Minor was fore-shadowed three years earlier in the concurring opinion of Justice joseph p. bradley in Brad-well v. Illinois, 83 U.S. 130, 21 L. Ed. 442 (1872). Bradley supported the Illinois Supreme Court's denial of Myra Bradwell's application to practice law in the state. Bradley articulated the widely held view that the "natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life." He further concluded that the "paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator."

By the late nineteenth century, lobbying of state legislatures by AWSA and other suffrage supporters began to bear fruit. A few states changed their statutes to permit female suffrage. By 1912, nine states had extended the franchise to include women. In 1918, President woodrow wilson endorsed women's suffrage, and Congress soon adopted a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote and submitting the amendment to the states for ratification. In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution, immediately doubling the potential electorate.

Domestic Relations in the Nineteenth Century

The legal inequality that Lucy Stone and other women's rights leaders argued against was evident in the relationship of husband and wife. Under English common law, which was adopted by the states after independence, the identity of the wife was merged into that of the husband; he was a legal person but she was not. Upon marriage, he received all her personal property, and managed all property owned by her. In return, the husband was obliged to sup port his wife and children. A married woman, therefore, could not sign a contract without the signature of her husband.

In a society that had no government welfare system, a wife's property could be squandered by a profligate or drunken husband, leaving her without financial means if the husband died or abandoned her. By the 1850s, women's rights supporters convinced many state legislatures to pass Married Women's Separate Property Acts. These acts gave women the legal right to retain ownership and control of property they brought to the marriage.

Women also secured the right to have custody of their children after a divorce. Traditionally, fathers retained custody of their children. This tradition weakened in the nineteenth century, as judges fashioned two doctrines governing child custody. The "best-interest-of-the-child" doc trine balanced the new right of the mother to have custody of the child against the assessment of the needs of the child. The "tender years" doc trine arose after the Civil War, giving mothers a presumptive right to their young children.

Reproductive Rights in the Nineteenth Century

The fertility rate of white women declined steadily during the nineteenth century. In part this was the result of using birth control and abortion to control family size. By the 1870s, a woman's right to make decisions about reproduction was restricted by federal and state laws. The most famous was the federal comstock law of 1873, which criminalized the transmission and receipt of "obscene," "lewd," or "lascivious" publications through the U.S. mail. The law specified that materials designed, adapted, or intended "for preventing conception or producing abortion" were included in the list of banned items. Some states passed laws banning the use of contraceptives.

A woman's opportunity to have an abortion was outlawed by the states during the latter part of the nineteenth century. abortions, which increased markedly in the 1850s and 1860s, especially among middle-class white women, had been legal until the fetus "quickened," or moved inside the uterus. The american medical association (AMA) and religious groups led the successful move to have state legislatures impose criminal penalties on persons performing abortions. In some states, women who had abortions could also be held criminally liable.

The Modern Women's Rights Movement

For many decades of the twentieth century, supporters of women's rights had little success in legislatures or in the courts. Gender inequality meant that women could legally be discriminated against in employment, education, and other important areas of everyday life. The civil rights movement of the 1960s drew the support of many college-educated women, much like the women who supported the abolitionist cause a little more than a hundred years before. Like their predecessors, these civil rights workers realized that discrimination based on race existed side by side with discrimination based on gender. The result was the birth of the modern feminist movement and the quest for women's rights.


Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a major step forward for women's rights. Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on sex, giving women the ability to challenge the actions of employers or potential employers. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 (PDA), 42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e(k), prohibits discrimination against employees on the basis of pregnancy and childbirth with respect to employment and benefits. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act, 15 U.S.C.A. § 1691, prohibits discrimination in the extension of credit on the basis of sex or marital status. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C.A. §§ 1681–1686, prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions receiving federal financial assistance, and covers exclusion on the basis of sex from noncontact team sports. Title IX revolutionized women's collegiate athletics, forcing colleges and universities to fund women's athletics at a level comparable to men's athletics.

The Equal Rights Amendment

The Equal Rights Amendment was the central goal of the women's rights movement in the 1970s. Congress passed the ERA and sent it to the states for ratification on March 22, 1972. The operative language of the ERA stated, "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." The effect of the amendment would have been limited to the actions of any government or government official, acting in his official capacity. In addition to its symbolic effect, the ERA would have shifted the burden of proof in litigation alleging discrimination from the person making the complaint to the public officials who were denying that the discrimination had occurred. Such an effect would have been significant, because the party with the responsibility for carrying the burden of proof must do so successfully or else lose the litigation.

Congress initially required the ERA to be ratified by three-fourths of the states (38 states) seven years from the time Congress sent the amendment to the states. By 1978, 35 of the 38 states had ratified the amendment. Proponents of the ERA secured an extension of the ratification deadline to June 30, 1982. A determined effort by conservative groups opposed to the ERA prevented any additional states from ratifying the amendment by the 1982 deadline. However, some states have amended their constitutions to include an equal rights amendment.

Intermediate Judicial Scrutiny

Without the Equal Rights Amendment, women's rights supporters faced a more difficult task in convincing the courts to set aside state laws and policies that perpetuated inequality and sex discrimination. The main constitutional tool for litigating women's rights cases has been the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. A key issue in equal protection analysis by the courts is what standard of judicial scrutiny to apply to the challenged legislation. Since the 1970s, the Supreme Court has applied "heightened" or "intermediate" judicial scrutiny to cases involving matters of discrimination based on sex.

In 1971, the Supreme Court, in Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71, 92 S. Ct. 251, 30 L. Ed. 2d 225, extended the application of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to gender-based discrimination. Women's rights supporters sought to have the Court include sex as a "suspect classification." The suspect classification doctrine holds that laws classifying people according to race, ethnicity, and religion are inherently suspect and are subject to the strict scrutiny test of judicial review. Strict scrutiny forces the state to provide a compelling state interest for the challenged law and demonstrate that the law has been narrowly tailored to achieve its purpose. If a suspect classification is not involved, the Court will apply the rational basis test, which requires the state to provide any reasonable ground for the legislation. Under strict scrutiny, the government has a difficult burden to meet, while under rational basis, most laws will be upheld.

The Supreme Court has refused to make sex a suspect classification, but it did not impose the rational basis test on matters involving sex discrimination. Instead, the Court developed the intermediate or heightened scrutiny test. As articulated in Craig v. Boren, 429 U.S. 190, 97 S. Ct. 451, 50 L. Ed. 2d 397 (1976), "classifications by gender must serve important governmental objectives and must be substantially related to achievement of those objectives." Thus, intermediate scrutiny lies between strict scrutiny and rational basis.

The Supreme Court has sustained numerous challenges to gender-based discrimination, thereby mandating equal rights under the law. It has established the right of equality in laws dealing with survivors' benefits (Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 420 U.S. 636, 95 S. Ct. 1225, 43 L. Ed. 2d 514 [1975]), alimony (Orr v. Orr, 440 U.S. 268, 99 S. Ct. 1102, 59 L. Ed. 2d 306 [1979]), sexbased mortality tables (City of Los AngelesDepartment of Water and Power v. Manhart, 435 U.S. 702, 98 S. Ct. 1370, 55 L. Ed. 2d 267 [1978]), and pensions (Arizona Governing Committee v. Norris, 463 U.S. 1073, 103 S. Ct. 3492, 77 L. Ed. 2d 1236 [1983]).

Nevertheless, the Court has upheld laws that apply sex-based distinctions. In Michael M. v. Superior Court, 450 U.S. 464, 101 S. Ct. 1200, 67 L. Ed. 2d 437 (1981), the Court upheld a statutory rape law that set different ages of consent for females and males. The Court also upheld, in rostker v. goldberg, 453 U.S. 57, 101 S. Ct. 2646, 69 L. Ed. 2d 478 (1981), the Military Selective Service Act (50 U.S.C.A. App. § 451 et seq.), passed by Congress in 1980, though only men are required to register.

The Court has granted women equal rights to attend publicly funded colleges and universities that have traditionally enrolled only men. In united states v. virginia, 518 U.S. 515, 116 S. Ct. 2264, 135 L. Ed. 2d 735 (1996), the Court ruled that the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), a publicly funded military college, must end its all-male enrollment policy and admit women. According to the Court, the all-male policy violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Reproductive Rights

The reproductive rights of women were recognized by the Supreme Court in the 1960s and 1970s, overturning one hundred years of legislation that restricted birth control and banned legal abortions. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, the Court retreated, allowing states to place restrictions on abortion.

In griswold v. state of connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 85 S. Ct. 1678, 14 L. Ed. 2d 510 (1965), the Court struck down a Connecticut law that made the sale and possession of birth control devices to married couples a misdemeanor. The law also prohibited anyone from assisting, abetting, or counseling another in the use of birth control devices. In Griswold, the Court announced that the Constitution contained a general, independent right of privacy.

Seven years later, in Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438, 92 S. Ct. 1029, 31 L. Ed. 2d 349 (1972), the Court struck down a Massachusetts law that banned the distribution of birth control devices. In this case, the Court established that the right of privacy is an individual right, not a right enjoyed only by married couples.

These two cases paved the way for roe v. wade, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147 (1973), which struck down a Texas law that banned abortions. Writing for the majority, Justice harry a. blackmun concluded that the right to privacy "is broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy." More importantly, he stated that the right of privacy is a fundamental right. This meant that the state of Texas had to meet the strict scrutiny test of constitutional review. The Court held that Texas' interest in preventing abortion did not become compelling until that point in pregnancy when the fetus becomes "viable" (capable of "meaningful life outside the mother's womb"). Beyond the point of viability, the Court held that the state may prohibit abortion, except in cases where it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.

The Roe decision provided women with the right to continue or terminate a pregnancy, at least up to the point of viability. However, by the 1980s, a more conservative Supreme Court began upholding state laws that placed restrictions on this right. In webster v. reproductive health services, 492 U.S. 490, 109 S. Ct. 3040, 106 L. Ed. 2d 410 (1989), the Court upheld a Missouri law that forbids state employees from performing or assisting in abortions, or counseling women to have abortions. It also prohibited the use of state facilities for these purposes and required all doctors who would perform abortions to conduct viability tests on fetuses at or beyond 20 weeks' gestation. Though it appeared that the Court might overturn Roe in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 112 S. Ct. 2791, 120 L. Ed. 2d 674 (1992), it reaffirmed the essential holding of Roe that the constitutional right of privacy is broad enough to include a woman's decision to terminate her pregnancy.

Domestic Violence

The right of women to be free from domestic violence has drawn increasing concern and support since the 1970s. As a result, the issue of spousal abuse, in which most of the victims are women, has led to changes in state and federal law. For example, many states have repealed laws that prevented a wife from filing a marital rape charge against her husband.

In addition, most court systems have attempted to be more consistent in enforcing and prosecuting these toughened domestic violence laws. For example, a spouse who has been attacked or harassed by a marital partner may obtain an order for protection, which prohibits the aggressor from contacting the victim. The federal violence against women act (VWA), passed in 1994 (108 Stat. 1796, 1902), sought to ensure that orders for protection are given full faith and credit in every state, not just in the state where the order was made. Persons who commit domestic abuse are banned from possessing a firearm and anyone facing a restraining order for domestic abuse is prohibited from possessing a firearm. In addition, the law established a federal cause of action for gender-motivated violence, which means that victims of gender-motivated violence were allowed to bring a civil suit for damages or equitable relief in federal or state court.

However, the Supreme Court, in Brzonkala v Morrison, 529 U.S. 598, 120 S.Ct. 1740, 146 L.Ed.2d 658 (2000), struck down this section of the act (42 USC section 13981). The Court held that Congress did not have the authority to enact the section under either the commerce clause or the Fourteenth Amendment, which had been identified by Congress as the sources for its authority. The VWA provision had nothing to do with interstate commerce or any type of economic enterprise. In addition, the Fourteenth Amendment could not sustain this section of the VWA because the amendment only applies to the actions of state governments, not private persons. The Court concluded that the suppression of violent crime and the "vindication of its victims" had, in its view, always been the responsibility of state governments.

further readings

Bierbauer, Charles. May 15, 2000. "Supreme Court Strikes Down Violence Against Women Act." CNN.com: Law Center. Available online at <www.cnn.com/2000/LAW/05/15/scotus.violence> (accessed September 8, 2003).

Ching, Jacqueline. 2001. Women's Rights. New York: Rosen. National Organization for Women site. Available online at <www.now.org> (accessed July 11, 2003).

Strom, Sharon Hartman. 2003. Women's Rights. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

VanBurkleo, Sandra F. 2001. "Belonging to the World": Women's Rights and American Constitutional Culture. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.


Dworkin, Andrea; Family Law; Fetal Rights; Friedan, Betty Naomi Goldstein; Ireland, Patricia; MacKinnon, Catharine Alice; Millett, Katherine Murray; National Organization for Women; Pornography; Sexual Harassment; Steinem, Gloria. See also primary documents in "Women's Rights" section of Appendix.

Women's Rights

views updated May 29 2018

Women's Rights

The term "women's rights" emerged in connection with the feminist movement to focus attention on the unequal treatment of women in the public sphere. Women demanded equal civil, political, and economic rights and have fought for the expansion of the human rights framework to claim rights of bodily integrity for women (for example, the right to decide on such issues as abortion).

The notion of individual rights stems from eighteenth-century Western political thought and helped prepare the grounds for the American and French Revolutions. New laws defined the rights of the new citizens according to their gender, race, and class. Only male, white property owners had the right to vote and run for office, and the right to own property largely was limited to white males. Personal law defined women and men as fundamentally different, and men had final decision in matters relating to family and economic maintenance.

Demands for women's equal rights arose in the nineteenth century as part of a broader struggle to democratize Western societies in parallel with the fight against slavery and the struggle for workers' rights. By the end of the century, the main preoccupation of this first wave of the women's movement became the right to vote. In territories colonized by Europeans, women demanded equal rights together with independence from colonial rule. They participated in nationalist movements and insisted on the modernization of their own societies and rights of full citizenship for women.

In the second half of the twentieth century feminist activism sought to move beyond formal rights of political equality to eliminate pervasive discrimination entrenched in culture and society. Feminists fought for women's political and economic rights around the world. The United Nations (UN) declared an International Women's Year in 1975 and a decade for women from 1976 to 1985. It organized three world conferences (Mexico City, 1975; Copenhagen, 1980; Nairobi, 1985) that developed plans and strategies to advance the status of women globally and a follow-up conference in 1995 (Beijing) to assess progress and make concrete commitments. In 1979, the UN adopted a treaty, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which condemns discrimination and commits states to fight discrimination in political and public life, education, employment, and health care. Furthermore, states agreed to accord women equality with men before the law in civil matters, marriage, and family relations.

political rights

The demands of the early feminist movement focused on civil and political rights, particularly on the right to vote and stand for election. In many countries (Australia, Canada, Soviet Union, the Scandinavian states, Germany) women gained suffrage rights by the end of World War I (1914–1918), but the biggest surge in voting rights (for both women and men) came with decolonization in the late 1950s. In the early twenty-first century, there remained few countries in which women do not have voting rights. They included Saudi Arabia and countries such as Oman, Qatar, and Brunei, which do not have parliaments and where neither men nor women vote.

Although women formally have equal political rights in most countries, their representation in parliaments and governments is far below their proportion in the population. In the vast majority of countries, women hold less than 20 percent of seats in parliaments (with a global average of 15.2% in 2003) and less than 20 percent of ministerial positions, and female heads of government are still a rarity. The level of women's participation is increasing slowly. Most of the increase has been in wealthier countries, but wealth is not the main predictor of women's political participation. For example, at least thirteen countries in sub-Saharan Africa, a part of the world with considerable economic problems, have higher rates of women in parliament than France, Japan, and the United States.

The most effective tool for increasing the number of women in politics is the implementation of special measures such as quotas. For example, the elimination of quotas led to a steep drop in women's representation in the parliaments of countries transitioning from communism to some type of democratic representation. In contrast, more than twenty-five countries, among them many Latin American countries, have adopted quotas to increase the proportion of women in their parliaments, and have done so with considerable success. As a result of introducing quotas, both Argentina and Costa Rica now range among the few (otherwise Northern European) countries with more than 30 percent women in parliaments. Voting systems also make a difference: Countries with systems of proportional representation , where candidates run on party lists, tend to elect more women than those with majoritarian systems (such as the United States), where candidates compete in defined districts and the winner takes all.

civil rights

Women's rights in civil matters, in particular in marriage and family law, are much more contested than women's political rights. Civil rights include the rights to contract, hold property, to be treated equally in the courts, and to freely choose a residence or domicile. They also include equal rights to enter marriage and freely choose a spouse, the same rights and responsibilities during marriage and at its dissolution, the same rights in matters relating to children, and the same rights in acquiring, administering, enjoying and disposing of property. In many countries (e.g., India), religious or customary law guides these matters and frequently denies women equal rights. Most Islamic countries (e.g. Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia) govern marriage and family relations through Shari'a, or Islamic law, which operates on the premise that men have guardianship over women and, as a result, sanctions many inequalities. For example, a man may take up to four wives and divorce any of them at will. In contrast, a woman can only be married to one man at a time and can gain a divorce only through a judicial ruling on limited grounds. A wife is required to obey her husband and, if she is judged disobedient, loses her entitlement to maintenance. Her husband can prevent her from taking employment, and if she escapes a violent home, she can be forced to return. Although some Islamic countries have ratified the CEDAW treaty, they have entered reservations regarding paragraphs incompatible with Shari'a.

Another significant area of concern is laws on nationality. In some countries, women who marry a foreigner are not able to pass on their nationality, whereas men can. This significantly impacts their mobility and their right to choose where to live. Furthermore, women do not always have the same right as men to pass on nationality to their children. For example, in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Egypt, the law stipulates that children from a marriage between a female national and a foreigner take on the father's nationality. This again curtails the ability of women to freely establish residence with their children.

A final area of concern is property ownership and inheritance. In many countries in Africa in particular, customary law denies women rights with regard to communal or clan property. In addition, property acquired by the spouses often belongs to the husband on dissolution of the marriage. In many countries women have no right to inherit or their claims are treated as subordinate to that of male kin. As a result, women rarely own land in societies heavily dominated by agriculture where lack of access to land often is a key cause of poverty.

economic rights

Women's economic rights pertain in particular to their treatment in the labor market. Although poor rural and working-class women always have worked, the idea that women are under the guardianship, or coverture, of men has informed laws that have restricted women's right to work. In the early twentieth century, this took the form of "protective legislation." This type of legislation considered all women to be mothers or potential mothers and therefore vulnerable and in need of protection. Laws and international conventions prohibited women from working at night, underground, or with dangerous substances (such as phosphorus) because this was considered harmful to the female body or against public mores . Furthermore, women earned less than men for the same work, a practice sanctioned by governments' minimum wage scales and collective bargaining agreements between unions and employers.

Since the 1950s, the principles of equal pay and equal treatment increasingly have come to dominate international instruments and national laws. In 1951 the International Labour Organization passed an equal pay convention, and in 1981 a convention on equal opportunities and equal treatment for men and women workers. For the most part laws limiting women's right to work have been repealed. Although CEDAW has confirmed the rights to equal pay, equal treatment, and maternity protection, these rights are far from being realized.

Women's access to nonagricultural employment is about the same as men's in developed countries, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. But there is a large employment gap in other areas of the world. Women's labor force participation rate is especially low in the Middle East and North Africa (36 women per 100 men) and in South Asia (44 women per 100 men). The wage gap between women and men has been decreasing slowly, but in all countries for which data are available women still earn less than men. In industry and services, this wage gap ranges from 53 to 97 percent. Differentials are especially marked in countries that pursue export-oriented industrialization, those that emphasize traditional complementary gender roles, and those where wages are not determined in centralized collective bargaining.

In part, wage differentials are due to occupational segregation (i.e., women tend to be concentrated in low-level and low-paying occupations). But there also are significant differences within occupations. According to an International Labour Organization review of six diverse occupations (accountant, computer programmer, teacher, construction laborer, nurse, and welder), women typically earn 90 percent of what their male coworkers earn for the same job. In maledominated occupations, such as welding, the difference is even greater, with women earning 79 percent of men in industrialized economies and 75 percent in developing economies. Moreover, within occupations there is no overall trend toward a narrowing of the wage gap. Of the six occupations the International Labour Organization studied, the wage gap increased particularly steeply in the male-dominated occupation of welding and in the female-dominated occupation of primary education teachers.

Problems of equal treatment often have become visible in the area of social security. In many countries social security systems were built on the presumption of a male breadwinner, giving women fewer social security benefits or benefits that were derived from the rights of their husbands. Although these practices are being remedied, the larger problem is the concentration of women in less secure jobs in the informal sector, in part-time work, and in home-based work. Much of this work entails self-employment and lacks any kind of social security. Since the 1980s, women's proportion of self-employment has increased more rapidly than men's, so that in 2000, 34 percent of women in nonagricultural employment worldwide were self-employed (as opposed to 27 percent of men).

Informal sector work has little job security and provides few benefits, but it allows women the flexibility to take care of unpaid household and caring work. Women around the world take primary responsibility for such unpaid work. Women's rights to equal treatment thus are impaired because of their segregation into atypical forms of employment that allow them to combine income earning with their disproportionate burden of household and caring work.

right to education

CEDAW guarantees women equal rights with men in regards to education. This includes the same access to education, scholarships, curricula and quality programs, and the elimination of stereotyped gender roles in schooling. Women have made considerable gains in the area of education during the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. In 2001, the ratio of female primary enrollment reached a global average of 94 per 100 boys. At the secondary level, in most countries, as many or more girls as boys are enrolled in school. The largest gaps continue to exist in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Despite a reduced gender gap in enrollments, there is a large number of girls (and boys) without access to primary education. Of 115 million school-age children worldwide who do not attend school, three-fifths are girls. In addition, in many countries, a large number of children drop out of school, and illiteracy continues to be a problem. Globally, more than half of all illiterates are women. As with school enrollment, the largest gender gaps exist in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Poverty, AIDS, warfare, and a strong preference for sons are the main obstacles to realizing women's rights to education in these regions.

women's rights are human rights

The slogan that "women's rights are human rights" emerged in the context of the UN Human Rights Conference in 1993 and has catapulted issues of violence against women into the international arena, leading to a declaration of the UN General Assembly on the elimination of violence against women. Whereas international human rights law previously had been interpreted to regulate only conduct in the public sphere (e.g., a state's use of torture), the UN inserted the language of rights into the private sphere. This constituted a victory for feminists in their effort to combat widespread practices of violence against women. These have included domestic violence (murder, rape, and battery), gender-based violence by the police and during armed conflict, violence associated with prostitution and trafficking, sexual harassment, limits on reproductive rights (including forced pregnancy, forced abortion, or forced sterilization), and female genital mutilation.

Domestic violence is widespread around the world. Indeed, 23 to 33 percent of women in different contexts indicate that they have experienced physical abuse from a male partner. In the United States, 23 women per week were murdered by an intimate partner in 1999. In Bangladesh, 50 percent of all murders are of husbands killing their wives. Rape similarly terrorizes women all over the world and is severely underreported. It occurs in homes but also in public contexts where men exert power over women, for example, in the workplace or in jails. Highly stigmatized, there is a tendency to blame the victims.

Reproductive rights is an issue of contention in international forums, entangled in the politics of abortion. They are defined in CEDAW as "the same rights to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights" (UN Division for the Advancement of Women, 1981, Article 16). Women's ability to decide freely about having children is often constrained because they lack negotiating power in their sexual relationships and because of a lack of reproductive health services.

According to the Safe Motherhood Initiative, about one-third of the 200 million pregnancies each year are unwanted. Yet, more than 350 million couples worldwide do not have access to a full range of contraceptive methods and information. The result is a severe curtailment of women's reproductive rights with often fatal consequences. According to the World Health Organization, there are about 20 million unsafe abortions every year leading to 70,000 maternal deaths. In addition, more than 500,000 women die each year from the effects of pregnancy and childbirth, deaths that could be prevented through adequate maternal health care programs.

Female genital mutilation, or female circumcision, entails the cutting and/or removal of women's genitals to ensure their desirability for marriage. Found in parts of Africa and the Middle East, it violates women's basic human right to bodily integrity. Women who have undergone female genital mutilation face severe health problems and lose the ability to enjoy sex. They face life-long problems with infection, are twice as likely to die during childbirth, and more likely to bear stillborn children. Governments have been reluctant to interfere with the practice and have accused critics of misunderstanding local cultures. However, there is significant mobilization against female genital mutilation on the part of feminists in the countries concerned.

Worldwide, women's movements and their organizations struggle to realize equal rights for women. The UN has become an important ally in this struggle, having made gender equality one of its "Millennium Goals." Although governments and the UN can provide legal frameworks and resources, the realization of women's equal rights will require the continued vigilance of activists committed to women's empowerment, wealth, and well-being.

See also: Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; Gender Discrimination; Human Rights; Reproductive Rights; Suffrage; United Nations.


Cook, Rebecca J., ed. Human Rights of Women: National and International Perspectives. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

International Labour Organization. Global Employment Trends for Women 2004. Geneva: International Labour Organization, 2004. <http://kilm.ilo.org/GET2004/DOWNLOAD/trendsw.pdf>.

International Planned Parenthood Federation. IPPF Charter Facts on Sexual and Reproductive Rights. London: International Planned Parenthood Federation, 2003. <http://www.ippf.org/charter/PDF/IPPF_Factsheet.pdf>.

Jayawardena, Kumari. Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World. London: Zed Books, 1986.

Mayer, Mary K., and Elisabeth Prügl, eds. Gender Politics in Global Governance. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999.

Peters, Julie, and Andrea Wolper, eds. Women's Rights, Human Rights: International Feminist Perspectives. London: Routledge, 1995.

Pietlä, Hilkka, and Jeanne Vickers. Making Women Matter: The Role of the United Nations. London: Zed Books, 1990.

Seager, Joni. The Penguin Atlas of Women in the World. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

United Nations Development Programme. Human Development Report. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. <http://hdr.undp.org/reports/global/2003/>.

United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, 1981. <http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/text/econvention.htm>.

United Nations Women's Fund. Progress of the World's Women: Vol. 2. Gender Equality and the Millennium Development Goals. New York: United Nations Women's Fund, 2002. <http://www.unifem.org/index.php?f_page_pid=10>.

World Health Organization. World Health Day: Safe Motherhood, April 7, 1998. <http://www.who.int/archives/whday/en/pages1998/whd98_10.html>.

Elisabeth Prügl

Women's Rights

views updated Nov 22 2016

Women's Rights

The women's rights movement in the United States began in the nineteenth century when some women reformers demanded the right to vote and the same legal rights as men. The participation of women in the abolitionist movement played a crucial role in crystallizing their dissatisfaction with the lack of rights accorded to females. Some, like Lucy Stone, saw parallels between women and slaves: both were expected to be passive, cooperative, and obedient. In addition, the legal status of both slaves and women was unequal to that of white men. Sojourner Truth, an African American evangelist and reformer, also recognized this connection and soon was speaking before women's rights groups, advocating the right to vote.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, many of these women reformers devoted their energies to gaining women's suffrage. Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone were the best-known suffrage leaders. Anthony and Stanton fought for a federal constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote, while Stone and her followers sought amendments in state constitutions. The Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1920, finally gave women the right to vote.

During the nineteenth century, women encountered rigid cultural and legal barriers when they sought to enter business and the professions. Women who married had traditionally suffered a loss of legal status, as the identity of the wife merged into that of the husband. He was a legal person but she was not. A married woman could not sign a contract without the signature of her husband. Upon marriage, he received all her personal property and managed all property that she owned. In return, the husband was obliged to support his wife and children. By the 1850s women's rights supporters had convinced many state legislatures to pass married women's separate property acts. These acts gave women the legal right to retain ownership and control of property they brought into the marriage.

Women also had difficulty entering the professions, because the cultural stereotypes of the period dictated that the proper role of an adult woman was to be a wife and mother. According to the prevailing viewpoint, the rough-and-tumble world of business and the professions was no place for women, who had more delicate natures than men. In addition, the male-dominated world believed women to be intellectually inferior and fundamentally incapable of handling the demands of white-collar jobs and the professions. This view was reinforced by the decision in Bradwell v. Illinois, 83 U.S. 130, 21 L. Ed. 442 (1872), when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was not unconstitutional for Illinois to deny a woman a license to practice law solely on the basis of her gender.

The quest for women's rights reignited in the 1960s, fueled by the participation of women in the civil rights movement. Just as in the nineteenth century, women compared their legal, economic, and social status with that of persons of color and found similar problems. The National Organization for Women was established in 1966. It quickly became the nation's largest and most influential feminist organization, but in the process it stimulated opponents of modern feminism to organize as well.

Reproductive rights became a key issue for women in the 1960s. At that time the distribution of birth control devices and information was illegal in many states. In Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 85 S. Ct. 1678, 14 L. Ed. 2d 510 (1965), the Supreme Court struck down a Connecticut law that made the sale and possession of birth control devices a misdemeanor. More importantly, the Court declared that the Constitution contained a right to privacy. In Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438, 92 S. Ct. 1029, 31 L. Ed. 2d 349 (1972), the Court established that the right of privacy is an individual right and is not limited to married couples.

The Griswold and Eisenstadt decisions paved the way for Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147 (1973), which struck down a Texas law that banned abortions. Justice Harry A. Blackmun concluded that the right to privacy "is broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy." The Roe decision provided women with the right to continue or terminate a pregnancy, at least up to the point of viability. By the 1980s, however, a more conservative Supreme Court began upholding state laws that placed restrictions on this right.

womens liberation

views updated May 18 2018

wom·en's lib·er·a·tion • n. the advocacy of the liberation of women from inequalities and subservient status in relation to men, and from attitudes causing these (now generally replaced by the term feminism).

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