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Women and Equal Rights

Suffragists Suffragists picketing the White House, 1917
Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress
Women's status during America's grand experiment as the world's first democracy has undergone dramatic changes over the generations. The religious doctrine, written laws, and social customs that colonists brought with them from Europe asserted women's subordinate position. Women were to marry, tend the house, and raise a family. Education beyond basic reading and writing was unusual. When a woman took a husband she lost what limited freedom she might have had as a single adult. Those few married women who worked for pay could not control their own earnings. Most could neither buy nor sell property or sign contracts; none could vote, sue when wronged, defend themselves in court, or serve on juries. In the rare case of divorce, women lost custody of their children and any family possessions.

During the Revolutionary War, women contributed in virtually every capacity, from doing fieldwork at home to fighting on battlefields. But their pleas for rights under the new democracy were disregarded. Women actually lost legal ground as a result of the new United States Constitution.

Sixty years later, in July 1848, a small group of women set about to change their second-class status. They launched a peaceful revolution that has since encircled the globe-the Women's Rights Movement. At the convention they held in Seneca Falls, New York, 68 women and 32 men signed a Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions. It described 18 areas of life where women's rights were denied and demanded an end to women's inferior status.

Opposition arose immediately, but these new pioneers had proposed a magnificent new America. Reformers began speaking passionately for women's equality in small-town forums and city halls. Annual women's rights conventions drew tremendous crowds. In time, no aspect of public life would remain untouched by this second, women's revolution.

Educational opportunities improved slowly as secondary schools, then colleges, were established for women. With the advent of coeducational schools, policies still limited women's admissions, financial assistance, course or program choices, and participation in activities. In the paid workforce the situation was comparable. In the few occupations that were open to women, they were paid far less than men. Leadership in the major religions was not deemed to be women's province. Professions other than writing, school teaching, and nursing remained essentially closed to women as the 20th century opened.

By 1869, securing the right to vote became the primary focus of the Women's Rights Movement. For the next two generations, activists carried out a ceaseless campaign using every strategy imaginable, from leaflets and massive petition drives to street-corner speeches, legislative lobbying, and enormous street parades. Finally, on August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. With it, 17 million women won for themselves that most basic promise of democracy: the right to vote.

Once the vote was achieved, many activists withdrew to pursue private interests. With the exceptions of nontraditional work opportunities during the two World Wars, women's position improved little over the next four decades.

The civil rights movements of the 1960s inspired a second wave of fervent activism confronting the inequities women faced in virtually all areas of American life. In communities everywhere, women worked on grassroots projects like battered women's shelters and rape crisis hotlines, child care centers and health clinics. Commissions on the Status of Women investigated and reported on women's needs. State and federal laws were passed outlawing discrimination in employment and education, and women responded to their new opportunities with enthusiasm.

Today, America is living the legacy of the great progress women have made in all the areas addressed at the Seneca Falls Convention, while their earnest quest for full and true equality continues.

Mary Ruthsdotter
Projects Director, National Women's History Project

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Last Modified: Monday, 30-Mar-98 15:42:58EST