History of American Women
Life hasn’t always been easy for women and this was especially true in early American history. However, the role of the American woman has undertaken some huge changes in the past 200 years or so.
During the Colonial Period, things were tough for women. They had very few rights and were basically subject to the will of their male guardians. During their childhood and early teenage years, they had no free will at all and their father decided everything for them. When they married, their husband took on that role. A woman was required to care for the household, provide her husband with children, and raise them. Women could not own property, hold a job without permission or choose who they married. Abigail Adams, wife to President John Adams, lived during this time and she was a huge supporter of the American woman’s desire to attain equality.
The American Revolution marked a significant change in attitude when it came to women – at least in some aspects. During the war, the philosophy that a nation depended on the virtue of its individual citizens became popular. This meant that the future of a new country rested on the shoulders of its children and it was a woman’s job to ensure that her children grew up to become good citizens. Marriage underwent a change as well. This was the time when couples married for love, above everything else. Another significant shift occurred in the workplace for a brief time. With men off at war, women had run the businesses, proving their capabilities. Betsy Ross also lived during this time.
The 1830s brought another revolution – this time in the form of “The Cult of True Womanhood” or the “Cult of Domesticity.” Americans were trying to improve themselves and the role of the woman became more significant. Women were expected to raise children that were morally sound, pious, and pure. Women were also expected to be submissive to their husbands.
It was at this time that the first American feminists began emerging. Most early feminists were Christians who placed blame for the subjugated role of women and slavery on men. The first feminist is believed to be Lucretia Mott, an abolitionist who began teaching other women to use their skills to advocate for their own rights. Two other important feminists of the time were the Grimké sisters, Sarah Moore and Angelina Emily.
The women’s rights movement really gained momentum after the Seneca Falls convention in 1848 when famous feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton presented her Declaration of Sentiments to a convention full of women, greatly inspiring them. Then, another famous woman, Susan B Anthony, joined the movement. Women were pushing for the right to vote, pointing out that the constitution legally gave it to them. However, it would be more than 50 years before women were awarded that right.
The Progressive Era, the 1880s through the 1920s, saw the largest expansion in women’s roles. The country was in the middle of the Industrial Revolution. Corruption was rampant and people were lobbying for change. In particular, women pushed for the protection of child workers, hot lunches at schools, and other things to improve quality of life. Middle-class single women began to find jobs outside the home as clerical workers and some were even graduating from college. These women were called the “New Women.” Margaret Sarver lived during this time and she founded the American Birth Control League, the precursor to Planned Parenthood. In August of 1920, the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed, giving women the right to vote.
Then World War II began. With most of the country’s young men off at war, women became their family’s breadwinners and took jobs usually given to males. Some women even joined the army. One of them was famed war photographer, Therese Bonney. After the war, most men returned to their jobs and women returned to their homes.
Then came the 60s and 70s when the Women’s Liberation Movement really gained steam and women began protesting the unfairness of their role. In 1961, President Kennedy created the President’s Commission on the Status of Women and the report, which was partly a people search, revealed how widespread discrimination was.
The movement really began in 1963 when Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, making everyone aware that women were discontent with their role even if they didn’t say it. When the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, it included a clause about protecting women in the workplace.
In 1966, the National Organization For Women was founded and began protesting, bringing the movement to the nation’s attention. The organization won an extension on affirmative action from the president in 1967. For a few years after, the movement was plagued by divisions but in 1970, millions of women went on strike in the “Women’s Strike For Equality.” In 1972, the Equal Opportunity Act was signed and it helped end sexual discrimination in schools.
From the 1970s until now, the role of women in American has continued to evolve. Every year, more and more women are attaining jobs that were considered “only for men.” They are entering fields of study that were considered predominantly male. There are still many hurdles but women are getting closer to true equality than ever before.