Women's Rights: Then and now

There was a time when women were considered inferior to men in every respect. It was believed that women could not match the intellectual levels of men, on nothing but the straight fact that they were women. Women were not allowed to study, to work or to vote. There was no equality in the rights given to men and women. Women started realizing that they needed to fight for their rights in order to change the situation. The fight officiated with the first Women’s Rights Convention which held in 1848, at Seneca Falls, New York. In this convention, men and women signed a document – “A Declaration of Sentiments”, which constituted of resolutions that were adopted for the eradication of discrimination against women in all realms of society. A revolutionary change was observed in the 20th century, when women were given the right to vote and were given better academic and job opportunities.

Before 20th century, women had no legal identity apart from their husbands’. The biological role of women, ‘to give birth to and take care of offspring’, was considered to be the main and only job of women. Women were not allowed to do labor intensive work, as they were considered to be physically weak. While men were exposed to diverse career opportunities, women’s career opportunities were restricted to jobs related to the home. At times, women were not allowed to go outside the house for any reason unless it was approved by their husbands. Women were denied any significant social and economic statuses.

In 1869, when the fifteenth amendment was proposed the movement for women's rights gained momentum and even more supporters. The amendment was proposed to provide voting rights to the Black. A few supporters of the suffrage movement like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton denied any support to the amendment because it did not have any clause for women’s right to vote. The movement gained momentum during World War I (WWI). When WWI was declared as the war for democracy by President Woodrow Wilson, women took the streets claiming that the US was not a democracy. In 1918, the President gave a pro-suffrage speech and the 19th amendment was passed the next year giving women the right to vote. 

Frances Wright, a Scottish journalist played an important role advocating for the Women's Rights Movement. She started promoting women’s rights, during her visit to the United States in 18th century. Woman Suffrage was started in order to increase the awareness of women's rights.. Elizabeth Cady Stanton is known to be one of the founders of the National Woman's Suffrage Association. The National Woman's Suffrage Association and American Woman's Suffrage Association operated at federal and state levels in the United States. These associations believed in giving equal rights to vote and own property to both men and women. The Women's Rights Movement was led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the year 1840. Eight years later, the Women’s Rights Convention was organized in New York City. Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott were the chief coordinators for this event, which demanded the right to vote and equal educational opportunities for women.

Catharine Beecher helped setup the base for demand of women’s right to education. Throughout her life (1800-1878) she advocated for women’s right to education. Sarah J. Hale (1788 - 1879) was among the first women who actively participated in matters concerning society like creation of ‘Thanksgiving’ as a celebrated holiday, and for the completion of the ‘Bunker Hill’ Monument. The Grimké sisters (Sarah Grimké (1792 -1873) and Angelina Grimké (1805-1879)) tried to raise issues like abortion and the effects of slavery on the institute of marriage. Lucretia Mott (1793 - 1880) is considered as the first American feminist and initiator of the women’s political rights movement. Sojourner Truth (1797 – 1883) was an African-American who fought for the issues like abolition and other women's rights. Phoebe Palmer (1807 - 1874) and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811 - 1852) were influential writers who brought up various social matters of the day like slavery and women's positions in the society. Elizabeth Blackwell (1820 - 1910) was the first female doctor. She participated early on in the Women's Rights Movement lecturing on how important an education is for women and men. In 1848, Ernestine Rose, helped with the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act.

In 1920, the 19th Amendment of the United States Constitution was passed, which helped brought equality to men and women. Under this amendment, discrimination of right to vote in the United States based on gender was prohibited. Also, women could own and look after property, with a mutual agreement with their husbands. Reproductive rights of women were soon being looked after by two organizations – the United Nations Population Fund and the World Health Organization. These organizations actively participated in creating awareness about some of the delicate issues coupled with the reproductive life of a woman like family planning, sex education and reproductive health.

The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, in order to abolish sex discrimination in the work place. In 1996, the National Organization for Women was formed to ensure the enforcement of the Civil rights Act. In 1973, efforts were made to enhance the awareness about reproductive rights. Special rights were given to pregnant women in 1978, which helped them to sustain their jobs, without experiencing any kind of discrimination. More laws were passed for the protection of the pension rights for women, especially for widows and divorcées. Federal funds were granted to poor women, so that they could look after their family. Several laws were passed in 1993 and 1994 to protect the women from service bigotry and brutality.

Women have been fighting for their rights for more than 200 years. Women have come a long way having achieved huge success in regards to rights to education, property, family planning, reproduction and voting. Many have accepted the ridicule given to them and have still continued to fight. The song ‘Don't Rain on My Parade’ sung by Barbra Streisand in the musical ‘The Funny Girl’ tries to mimic the spirit of the activists and the suffrage they fought for. It was certainly not easy for women to gain equality to men and have the same rights. Still, the struggle is not complete. Women still face the issue of glass ceiling. The glass ceiling is a form of discrimination which prevents educated, professional, well qualified, hardworking women from being promoted to higher levels in an organization. The issue of the glass ceiling is prevalent in many organizations across the US.

The following links can be referred to for more information on women rights.

  1. Women and Family History in America - The 19th Century
  2. Timeline of Legal History of Women in the United States
  3. The Path of the Women's Rights Movement
  4. The National American Woman Suffrage Association
  5. Early Attitudes Toward Women
  6. Women's Rights in the US
  7. Violence Against Women
  8. The Glass Ceiling
  9. Women in the Workplace: The Glass Ceiling
  10. History of American Women
  11. Elizabeth Cady Stanton
  12. Timeline of the Emergence of Women
  13. One Hundred Years toward Suffrage: An Overview
  14. Timeline of Women’s legal history (PDF)
  15. Women's Suffrage
  16. Women’s suffrage, political responsiveness, and child survival in American history
  17. American Woman's Rights movement
  18. Suffrage
  19. The Fight for Reproductive Rights
  20. Reproductive Rights