A Civil Rights History: The Women’s Movement

by Andrea Faville

She cannot vote. She cannot go to most colleges. She cannot own property. If she works outside of the home for pay, she is at best a social misfit and at worst a freak. And her husband legally can imprison or beat her.

She is any woman living in the United States in the 1800s.

Even as American colonists declared independence from Great Britain in 1776, the framers of the U.S. Constitution had ignored the urging of Abigail Adams, who wrote to her husband, John Adams: “In the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.” She warned: “Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

More than 70 years later — in 1848 — upstate New York housewife Elizabeth Cady Stanton sat down with three of her friends for tea and began to foment Abigail Adams’ rebellion. The four unlikely revolutionaries were shocked that women were still denied the basic entitlements of citizenship. They organized the first women’s convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., and launched the first wave of American women’s long struggle for full citizenship and equal rights.

For 72 more years, suffragists struggled for the most basic right of citizenship: the vote. The suffragists were ridiculed, even by other women. Some were arrested and force-fed when they went on hunger strikes. Some were shoved into mental hospitals to cure their obvious delusions. In 1920, Congress finally passed the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote.

For 40 more years, women’s progress toward political and economic equality was erratic. In World War II, more than 6 million women — the “Rosie the Riveters” — answered the nation’s call to work in defense factories, newspaper offices, businesses of nearly every kind to fill in for the men who were fighting overseas. When the war ended, the women were largely expected to leave the workplace to the men and go back home.

No way, said a growing number of women.

The 1960s brought a second wave of women’s rights activism. In 1963, writer Betty Friedan identified this pressure as a form of oppression in her landmark book, “The Feminine Mystique.” A new generation of feminists took up the cause of women’s rights and began to demand, among other things, equal pay for women and better governmental representation.

In 1972, the women’s movement resurrected the Equal Rights Amendment, a bill originally drafted in 1923, which would have declared women absolutely equal to men in the eyes of the law. The amendment’s 24 words incited major controversy. Opponents of the bill claimed that it would deny women their right to be supported by their husbands, send them into combat and invade their privacy. The amendment died.

Despite the Equal Rights Amendment setback, the women’s movement achieved several important civil rights victories during the 1960s and 1970s:

  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination based on sex, as well as race and national origin, in businesses with 25 or more employees.
  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964 established the Equal Opportunities Commission to address complaints of workplace discrimination.
  • In 1972, Title IX of the newly established federal education codes granted women equal access to universities and higher education. This measure led to the increase of women professionals and athletes.
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