“There never will be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers.” –Susan B. Anthony, 1897
Anthony was right! It wasn’t until 1920, when women gained the right to vote, that the pace toward women’s equality gained momentum. Women have come a long way in the past hundred years. So this month in recognition of Women’s History Month, celebrate women’s liberation by remembering the accomplishments of some of history’s most dedicated and resilient women.
A HISTORY OF SUBORDINATION
Until the emergence of women’s movements, American women were considered inferior to men. Though some inequalities persist still today, they pale in comparison to that of only a century ago. Women were denied the right to vote or obtain an education; unable to work in certain occupations; and couldn’t hold office. Their rights in the home were severely limited as well. They couldn’t write wills, sign contracts, obtain loans, and had very limited property rights. Fathers owned their daughters until marriage at which point their husbands took possession.
A multitude of historical events and accomplishments have taken place over the last 150 years. These landmarks have brought American women the freedom we possess today making us complete and independent women.
THE ROAD TO EQUALITY
The women’s suffrage movement didn’t come into full swing until the mid-1800s. But years earlier courageous women began carving a path toward independence. In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft, in her book the Vindication of the Rights of Women, argued, “I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.”
In the early nineteenth century, girls were encouraged to attend elementary school to reduce illiteracy. But those who desired to continue their education were often banned from it. Not until 1837 were women able to attend the same schools as men. In that year Oberlin College became the first coeducational institution in the United States by admitting four female students. Still, this was a rare exception for several decades to come, and women’s institutions remained few and far between.
The beginning of the women’s movement began in 1848, when Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton called a women’s rights convention to be held in Seneca Falls, New York. The purpose was “to discuss the social, civil, and religious rights of women.” At the convention a “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” stating that “all men and women are created equal” and defining the goals of the women’s movement was signed.
Over the years disputes arose among the women’s movement dividing it in 1869 into the more conservative American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) and the more radical National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA).
Susan B. Anthony, of the more radical group, registered and voted in Rochester, New York, in the 1872 presidential election. She was arrested several days later and taken to trial. During that same election, Sojourner Truth was denied the right to vote in Grand Rapids, Michigan, after she demanded a ballot.
Four years later, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an ally of Anthony, wrote a Declaration and Protest of the Women of the United States and requested to present it at Philadelphia’s centennial celebration. Stanton’s request was denied. But Anthony and four other suffragists, unwilling to hold their silence, boldly rushed to the speaker’s platform and forcefully handed over the document.
Not long after, in 1878, a Woman Suffrage Amendment was introduced to the United States Congress granting women the right to vote. The Nineteenth Amendment, however, would take over 40 years to pass both houses. In 1920, a year following its passage, the Amendment was ratified marking a new era for women.
In 1923, the Equal Rights Amendment was proposed. Its purpose: to eliminate gender discrimination. In 1972, nearly 50 years following its proposal, Congress passed the Amendment. Yet, it still fell short of three states for ratification, and in 1982, was defeated. Its deadline for ratification had expired.
Still, the years between saw major change. In 1936, birth control was ruled legal for preventing pregnancy. The ability of women to limit their family size, which began with the introduction of reliable condoms in 1859, played a crucial role in gaining equality as women were no longer forced into roles of lifelong child rearing. In 1960, the FDA approved birth control pills. Finally, in 1972, the landmark Roe v. Wade case established a woman’s right to abortion, giving women complete control over their reproduction.
The 1960s and 1970s were marked by many accomplishments. In 1963, the Equal Pay Act was passed prohibiting discriminatory compensation in federal jobs. The Civil Rights Act, which passed the following year, banned discrimination based on gender and race.
In 1966, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded. Its purpose was to promote the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion rights, and childcare for working mothers.
Massive marches marked the next couple of decades with NOW leading the way to women’s reform. One of those marches, in 1973, was to voice outrage over violence against women. Twenty-four years later the Violence Against Women Act was passed to protect battered women.
Today, feminists are still striving for total equality in areas such as health care, while working hard to prevent measures that would undermine women’s reproductive rights and protections against spousal abuse.
PIONEERS OF WOMEN’S EQUALITY
Many women today and throughout history have taken risks to bring us independence. The following are just a few who championed women’s rights.
Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), co-founder of the National Woman Suffrage Association, dedicated much of her life to the women’s movement. Among other notable actions, she campaigned for women’s suffrage, property rights for married women, and equal wages for female teachers. Anthony coined the phrase, “Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less.” This became the motto of the National Woman Suffrage Association. In 1868, Anthony organized the Working Women’s Association in her campaign to gain better working conditions and fair pay for women. Anthony published The Revolution from 1868 to 1870. She also took part in drafting a proposal on which the Nineteenth Amendment was later based, as well as coauthored the History of Woman Suffrage, 1881 to 1886. Betty Friedan (1921-2006) wrote The Feminine Mystique in 1963, which began the contemporary women’s movement in Britain and the United States. Her book was a challenge to long-held attitudes that woman’s place was in the home. In 1966, she founded the National Organization for Women; in 1971, the National Women’s Political Caucus; and then, in 1973, the First Women’s Bank. Friedan was also an organizer of the 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality.
Alice Paul (1885-1977), of the radical women’s camp, organized a suffrage parade in Washington D.C. in 1913, on the day of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. Although violence ensued, it helped the women’s movement to unite. Four years later, the fearless Paul was jailed during a picketing of the White House along with nearly 100 other suffragists. They were charged with “obstructing traffic.” Paul worked unstoppably toward the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1938, she founded the World Woman’s Party.
Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), a nurse, founded the National Birth Control League in 1917 that would later become Planned Parenthood Federation of America. In 1916, she opened the first birth-control clinic in the United States, in Brooklyn, and was briefly sent to prison.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) co-founded the National Woman Suffrage Association and became its first president. Outspoken and better known in her day than even Anthony, Stanton went before the New York State legislature in 1855, where she argued for expansion of the Married Woman’s Property Law. Along with Anthony, Stanton started The Revolution, a newspaper on women’s rights. Stanton was the author of the Nineteenth Amendment and organized the International Council of Women in Washington D.C.
Kimberly Blaker is a freelance content writer.