The fight for equal rights in America is nothing new. Since the Declaration of Independence, some groups have been deemed inferior to others and less deserving of rights. Over time, women have gained many of the rights of men. So, when did women get rights in voting, reproductive choices, and more?
When did women get rights?
This is a very open-ended question with many different factors to consider. There was no single moment in American history where we can say that women obtained every possible right they were entitled to, especially as so many rights still aren’t realized or are heading in the wrong direction.
While we can argue that the unalienable rights of women were in place from the time of independence, this wasn’t true from a legal standpoint. Women have had to fight to gain additional civil rights across the centuries and will continue to do so.
Women as Property and Not Persons of the United States
To understand how far women have come regarding equal rights in America, we need to go back in time. From the outset, women were barely regarded as citizens, let alone coming close to being equal in status to men. For example, in 1777, the year after the Declaration of Independence, state laws removed the right of women voters to vote.
After that, there is the questionable wording of the Constitution and how it applies to all those within the United States. It is now clear that the Constitution protects everyone on American soil and provides certain unalienable rights that cannot be given – or taken – away. Yet, there was a point where people or persons referred to landowning men. Women were the property of those men and gave up their rights to be considered individuals through marriage.
Women’s Organizations for Equal Rights and Suffrage
Over time, women would take a stand as best they could, forming organizations such as the American Woman Suffrage Association and attempting to speak on subjects at the same level as men. One of the earliest famous instances of this was the Seneca Falls Convention in New York in 1848 and its Declaration of Sentiments.
One of the biggest concerns for white women and colored women alike in the latter half of the 1800s was voting rights. The 14th Amendment of 1866 identified voters as male. The 15th Amendment of 1870 removed restrictions based on race, color, and previous conditions of servitude. However, there was no clear mention of women.
After years of protests by women in the suffrage movement and the support of the Progressive Party, the 19th Amendment passed in 1920, which saw a change in voting rights. Now, no one could be denied based on their sex. President Wilson had given a speech before Congress before the Senate voted on the amendment guaranteeing American women the right to vote.
Some notable names in the suffrage movement include Susan B Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass.
Women and Reproductive Rights
In 1916, Margaret Sanger challenged the government on behalf of a woman’s right to contraception and family planning. She set up a clinic in Brooklyn at a time of strict anti-contraception laws in the state. She then took her case to the court of appeal in 1918 and won the right for married patients to receive advice from doctors on birth control. A couple of decades on, in 1936, there was the judicial approval of the medicinal use of birth control.
Finally, in 1973, the Roe v. Wade case saw the Supreme Court rule in favor of the right to terminate early abortions. At the time of writing, there is the suggestion that this will be overturned, giving states the right to ban abortion outright.
Women’s Rights in the 20th Century
A lot changed from 1900 onward aside from voting laws, although it often felt like a system of one step forward and two steps back. For instance, in 1923, the National Women’s Party proposed the Equal Rights Amendment to see the sexes classed as equal in the Constitution. The implications would have been considered for all kinds of laws in various sectors. But, the amendment never passed and is still pending today.
Then came the National Recovery Act of 1932, which forced women to give up their jobs when more than one member of the household had a government role. Standards dictated that American women went back into the kitchens and raised the children and let the man act as the provider.
There was a similar situation after the Second World War. During World War II, women became essential workers and played a major role in World War I when men went off to fight. Many feel that as tragic as the war was, it was an important shift in the representation and freedoms of women. But, by the 1950s, the nation had returned to the idea of the nuclear family, with a stay-at-home mother raising the children in a perfect suburban home.
The counterculture era of the 1960s saw a shift in direction once again and the passing of the Equal Pay Act – although there is still dispute on how effective this is with pay gaps in many sectors. 1994 brought the Gender Equality in Education and the Violence Against Women Acts.
The Lack of Full Equality in Women’s Rights Laws
While a lot changed for the better across the 20th Century, there are still issues in many areas. The abortion laws and lack of the Equal Rights Amendment are just the start. Many feel there is still a lack of representation in the military. While the ban on women in combat positions was overturned in 2013, the exclusion of women from the draft is deemed constitutional.
Then there are the issues for minority women – those of color, indigenous women, those in a same-sex relationship, and those in the trans and non-binary communities. Many here still face persecution and obstacles for wanting the same rights that white, straight, and cis-gendered women gained before them.
It is unclear where things will progress in the coming years. There will always be another obstacle to overcome or some way that the male majority tries to hold down the female minority in some area of society or law. The Equal Rights Act seems a long way from becoming a reality.