A Brief History of Women’s Rights in the U.S.

United Nations Observance of International Women’s Day 2020, UN General Assembly Hall, 6 March 2020.

Over 170 years have passed since the first convention on women’s rights took place in Seneca Falls, New York. The fight for equality of the genders has been a long path in the course of the United States' history. The celebration of Women’s History Month this March is an opportune time to look back at the past, and the rights called for in that early meeting years ago. History allows us to reflect on how far the journey for women’s rights has come and assess the significant changes that have led us to where we are now.

From July 19-20, 1848, a vast number of women and men gathered to discuss the status of women’s rights at the time. On the first day of the convention, a ‘Declaration of Sentiments’ was presented, setting forth a list of the rights men had denied to women throughout most of their lives. “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman…,”[1] these are the words that preceded and hinted at the list of sentiments established in the declaration.

· “He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.”[2]

Before the 19th Amendment was enacted in 1920 granting most women in the United States the right to vote, some states had already set this right into law. In 1869, Wyoming became the first state in the country to pass a bill that allowed women’s participation in elections. The bill stated that all women of 21 years of age and older could vote in state and national elections. The following year, Louisa Swain, a 69-year-old woman, became the first in the state to exercise her voting rights. Neighboring states soon followed Wyoming’s example: Utah in 1870; Colorado in 1893; Idaho in 1896; and between 1910 and 1918, they were joined by ten other states in the country's western region.[3]

· “He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education - all colleges being closed against her.”[4]

Education is one of the core elements of a prosperous society and should therefore be available to all the citizens of said society, regardless of gender. In Georgia, the founders of Wesleyan College recognized this fundamental right and established an institution that would provide women with a chance at an education. The college, previously called Georgia Female College, opened its doors on January 7, 1839, as a liberal arts institution.[5] The following year, it granted the first degree to a woman in the United States. Catherine Elizabeth Brewer started as a junior at the college and was the first recipient of said diploma in a small graduating class of 11 students.[6]

· “He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.”[7]

Laws rule the lives of those under its jurisdiction, and the job of lawmakers is to represent and act in the name of their constituents. For women in the United States, laws and representation have not always been on their side. Women were equally kept out of the polls and out of public office. The absence of about half of a population in political affairs meant that they possessed no vote nor voice in the decision-making process of electing officials and passing legislation that would significantly affect them. The repercussions of excluding women from politics were already evident by their lack of civic rights, kept from them by sets of laws that they had no part in establishing.

A well-functioning society should count with the participation in government affairs of all groups that constitute said society. The journey of women in high-ranking federal positions began in 1916 with Jeannette Rankin, a Republican representative elected to serve in Congress for the state of Montana. Rep. Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress and served for two nonconsecutive terms, from 1917-1919 and again from 1941 – 1943.[8]

Following Rep. Rankin's significant achievement as the first woman in Congress, another key figure of women in politics was Hattie Wyatt Caraway, the first elected female senator in the United States. Sen. Caraway represented the state of Arkansas as part of the Democratic party and served for over ten years, from 1931-1945.[9]

· “He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration.”[10]

Throughout the history of the United States, since women were able to take part in the nation’s labor force, they have always performed equal work for a lower-paying wage than their male counterparts. Several attempts at the national legislature that would rectify this issue never went through.

One of the first concrete steps towards pay equally occurred in the state of New York. After a battle that lasted for about ten years, the “Equal Pay Law” came into effect in 1912. This law stated that all New York City teachers, regardless of gender, would be paid an equal salary. However, this would only apply to those hired after the law passed, meaning that all previously hired female teachers remained to earn a lower wage than the male teachers.[11]Finally, change at the national level occurred with the enactment of the “Equal Pay Law” in 1963, signed by President John F. Kennedy.[12]

· “In the covenant of marriage, she is compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming, to all intents and purposes, her master - the law giving him power to deprive her of her liberty, and to administer chastisement.”[13]

While the focal point of the previous sentiments was women’s civil rights, this last yet no less significant one centers on their physical well-being. Throughout history, harm against women at the hands of their partners or others came at no repercussions for the harming party. It is astounding that the first legal measure to protect women against violent acts originated less than 30 years ago. This law is the latest of the most crucial ones to be added to the list of legislative measures in defense of women’s rights. Congress approved the “Violence Against Women Act” in 1994, and it recognizes domestic and dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking as punishable crimes.

The Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women is in charge of implementing the VAWA. It provides funding and support for programs, policies, and practices throughout the country that aim to prevent and aid women who have suffered from crimes recognized under the VAWA.

This act is reauthorized about every five years with improved measures to its original scope of focus. It has as well expanded to provide support to victims and survivors from all backgrounds, including women of color, immigrants, and women from tribal and Native communities.[14]

Women have gained most, if not all, of the rights expressed on that ‘Declaration of Sentiments’ introduced many years ago. And while attaining such rights is already an outstanding achievement, enacting a law does not entirely mean that change will occur at once or that equality is achieved.

SDGs Showcased on Billboards in Times Square, New York City

A report by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security shows a large discrepancy among states on the status of some of the rights women have legally gained yet remain fighting for to this day. According to the report, South Carolina is the state with the highest intimate partner violence rate, yet it doesn’t require domestic abusers to give up their firearms. While in the state of Louisiana, ranked as the worst state for a woman to live in the United States, women earn 68.8 cents to a man’s dollar.[15]

The evidence presented in the report conveys the reality that much more work must take place in the future to fully achieve equality. And while passing laws does not seem to be enough, it is one of the primary and most essential steps to take in the journey towards equality.

[1] “Declaration of Sentiments,” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, February 26, 2015, https://www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/declaration-of-sentiments.htm.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Christopher Klein, “The State Where Women Voted Long Before the 19th Amendment,” History.com, A&E Television Networks, August 26, 2015, https://www.history.com/news/the-state-where-women-voted-long-before-the-19th-amendment.

[4] “Declaration of Sentiments,” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, February 26, 2015, https://www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/declaration-of-sentiments.htm.

[5] Wesleyan College History, https://www.wesleyancollege.edu/about/history/wesleyan-college-history.cfm.

[6] “Catherine Brewer Benson,” Wesleyan College - First for Women, https://www.wesleyancollege.edu/academics/Commencement/catherine-brewer-benson.cfm.

[7] “Declaration of Sentiments,” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, February 26, 2015, https://www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/declaration-of-sentiments.htm.

[8] “RANKIN, Jeannette,” US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives, https://history.house.gov/People/Listing/R/RANKIN,-Jeannette-(R000055)/.

[9] “CARAWAY, Hattie Wyatt,” US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives, https://history.house.gov/People/Listing/C/CARAWAY,-Hattie-Wyatt-(C000138)/.

[10] “Declaration of Sentiments,” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, February 26, 2015, https://www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/declaration-of-sentiments.htm.

[11] Pauline Toole, “Equal Pay and Equal Employment,” NYC Department of Records & Information Services, NYC Department of Records & Information Services, May 14, 2018, https://www.archives.nyc/blog/2018/3/23/equal-pay-and-equal-employment.

[12] Charlotte Alter, “Equal Pay Day: Here's the History of the Fight for Equal Pay for Women,” Time, Time, April 14, 2015, https://time.com/3774661/equal-pay-history/.

[13] “Declaration of Sentiments.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, February 26, 2015. https://www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/declaration-of-sentiments.htm.

[14] “Legal Momentum,” History of VAWA | Legal Momentum, https://www.legalmomentum.org/history-vawa.

[15] The Best and Worst States to Be a Woman: Introducing the U.S. Women, Peace and Security Index 2020, Washington, DC: Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, 2020, https://giwps.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/The-Best-and-Worst-States-to-Be-a-Woman.pdf.

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