The Fight for Women’s Rights and Equality: 1920 – 2020
Unfinished business. That’s a good way to sum up the state of women’s rights in America in 2020.
Yes, we’ve made progress, but we’re also a country whose commander-in-chief bragged about grabbing women’s crotches—before he got elected. A country that has repeatedly refused to guarantee equal rights for women under the Constitution. A country that pays women less than men as a matter of course—82 cents on the dollar for white women, 65 cents for Black women, and 58 cents for Latina women. In 2020.
We’ve still got work lots of work do, but it always helps to look at past wins for inspiration. Here are some of the major events that have helped move women forward in the U.S.
1920: Women Win the Right to Vote
After enduring years of jeering, humiliation, arrests, and grueling conditions in workhouses, lawmakers finally caved in to suffragist demands for the right to vote. The passage of the 19th Amendment was pivotal—but there it had serious shortfalls. As an essay published by the National Park Service put it:
“The Nineteenth Amendment officially eliminated sex as a barrier to voting throughout the United States. It expanded voting rights to more people than any other single measure in American history. And yet, the legacy of the Nineteenth Amendment, in the short term and over the next century, turned out to be complicated. It advanced equality between the sexes but left intersecting inequalities of class, race, and ethnicity intact.”
For the next century, women would continue chiseling away at the many barriers to full freedom and equality under the law—and, as racial inequality raged on in the 20th century, Black women would form a movement of their own. Here are some key events of the last century:
1923: The first version of an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is introduced. It says, “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.”
1932: Amelia Earhart becomes the first woman to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic.
1933: Frances Perkins is appointed secretary of labor by FDR, making her the first female cabinet member.
1955: Rosa Parks, a Black seamstress from Montgomery, Alabama, refuses to give up her bus seat to a white man. The move helps launch the Civil Rights movement.
1960: The FDA approves the first commercially produced birth control pill in the world. This gives women more control over family planning than ever before.
1963: President John F. Kennedy signs into law the Equal Pay Act. The law prohibits sex-based wage discrimination for women performing the same job in the same workplace.
1964: Under mounting pressure from civil rights leaders, President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act into law. Title VII prohibits discrimination based on sex or race.
1966: The National Organization for Women (NOW), is co-founded by author Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, and two dozen other women. It becomes one of the most influential feminist organizations in the U.S.
1968: Shirley Chisholm becomes the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress.
1969: California establishes the first country’s first “no-fault” divorce law. This allows for divorce by mutual consent and ends the requirement to prove a spouse or domestic partner did something wrong (such as infidelity).
1969: Mary Ann Weathers’ book “An Argument for Black Women’s Liberation” is published. It becomes a foundational text of Black feminism.
1972: Title IX of the Education Amendments is signed into law by President Richard Nixon. It prohibits sex-based discrimination in any education program or activity that is federally funded.
1973: In the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, the U.S. Supreme Court makes abortion legal. Anti-choice activists have been chipping away at women’s access to safe abortion care ever since.
1973: Tennis pro Billie Jean King beats her unabashedly sexist opponent Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match, which aired on primetime TV and had 90 million viewers. She takes home $100,000, a giant trophy, and the taste of victory.
1974: Congress outlaws housing and credit discrimination on the basis of sex.
1978: The Pregnancy Discrimination Act bans employment discrimination against pregnant women.
1981: Sandra Day O’Connor becomes the first female Supreme Court Justice.
1982: The ERA falls short of ratification. The amendment needed 38 states for full ratification and only had 35. It was a devastating defeat for those who had fought hard for decades.
1986: The U.S. Supreme Court recognizes sexual harassment in the workplace as a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The decision becomes an important tool in sexual harassment cases.
1993: Carol Moseley Braun becomes the first African American woman to be elected to the United States Senate.
1994: President Bill Clinton signs the Violence Against Women Act, which provides funding for programs that help victims of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, stalking, and other gender-related violence.
1997: Madeleine Albright becomes the nation’s first female secretary of state.
2007: Nancy Pelosi becomes the first female speaker of the House (and reclaims the title in 2019).
2008: Alaska Governor Sarah Palin becomes the first woman to run for vice president on the Republican ticket.
2016: Hillary Clinton becomes the first woman to receive a presidential nomination from a major party.
2017: The first Women’s March takes place on January 21st, the day after the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump. It was the largest single-day protest in U.S. history, drawing an estimated 3.3 to 5.2 million people. Millions of people in 84 other countries also participated.
Disparities Between Black and White Women in the Fight for Equality
The suffragists who gathered in Seneca Falls in July 1848 at the first women’s rights convention were fighting for the right of white women to vote. No Black women were invited to the convention, and Frederick Douglass was the only Black man in attendance.
When women were finally granted the right to vote in 1920, it was white suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony who were celebrated. Yet, thousands of Black women had also actively participated in the struggle.
Largely ignored by the white suffragist movement, Black women forged their own path, creating the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the National Association of Wage Earners.
By the turn of the 20th century, Black suffragists like Mary Church Terrell were bringing intersectional feminism into full view. Marginalized because of skin color, gender, and often class, Black women took a broader view of the struggle and positioned themselves as advocates not just for women’s rights, but for human rights and universal suffrage.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Black women organized political societies, attended political conventions, and strategized for the right to vote—but their important work was overshadowed by white women and Black men, who held most of the power in civil rights organizations and set the agendas.
Not surprisingly, the years following the passage of the 19th Amendment overwhelmingly benefited white middle- and upper-class women. Black women and other women of color were still very much disenfranchised—a problem that continues to this day.
These disparate experiences in the struggle for women’s rights continued through the 20th century. While second-wave feminists like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem fought mostly for women’s reproductive rights and rights to work outside the home, Black feminists like Angela Davis and civil rights attorney Florynce Kennedy were more focused on the intersections of racism and male dominance.
Feminism in the 21st century is becoming more representative and intersectional, thanks to the contributions of Black women and women of color, including Melissa Harris-Perry, Laverne Cox, Black Lives Matter founders Opal Tometi, Alicia Garza, and Patrisse Cullors, and many others.
Women and their allies have worked tirelessly to win and protect equal rights and elevate the status of women in the U.S. Sadly, in recent years, we’ve seen a kind of slide back into the Dark Ages.
Trump and his administration have successfully appointed two anti-choice Supreme Court Justices, censored information about sexual health and reproductive rights, emboldened healthcare workers to deny services to LGBTQ patients, and tried to remove civil rights protections from transgender people by redefining gender.
Women must be more diligent and fiercer than ever. The ongoing struggle for women’s rights is a struggle for human rights. It will take nothing less than a united effort across race and class to win the battle.
Looking for inspiration? Check out DCP Entertainment’s motivational podcasts for women.
Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen empowers listeners to seek help with mental health challenges in her podcast Inner Space.
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