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This paper was originally written for my
U.S. History Class (Civil War to present).
The quest for women’s rights in The United States stagnated until the late 19th century. A changing job market served as a catalyst to jumpstart the women’s rights movement at or around the turn of the 20th century. The need to fill jobs during America’s wars during the early part of the 20th century left an opening to the various job markets. Women took advantage of these footholds to springboard their quest for equality.
The period of time between the late 19th century and the 1920’s saw an increase in the number of women in the job market. 2.6 million Women were employed in the late 19th century. That number grew to approximately 8.6 million by the 1920’s. The type of work women were doing saw a shift as well. The few women who were employed in the latter half of the 19th century held jobs in the domestic-service market (i.e. were maids, nannies, etc.). Expansion in industrial and retail sectors led to an increase in the number of available clerical jobs by the 20’s. These jobs were filled predominately by women looking for better pay and working conditions.
Sexual discrimination was still evident even in the apparently nicer working environments of offices and department stores. Women in these positions were paid considerably less than their male counterparts, as per usual. Also, women were frequently not allowed any responsibilities involving billing or counting money. There was little room for advancement in the jobs they were allowed to do.
Women were also pushing forward on the political front at this time. Organizations such as the National Woman Suffrage Association, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and the American Woman Suffrage Association, led by Lucy Stone and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, fought hard for women’s suffrage (as their titles imply).
The NWSA fought for women’s suffrage at the federal level. The group introduced and reintroduced a bill in congress which stated, “The rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex,” over the course of the 18 years between 1872 and 1890. The NWSA also fought for women’s equality in court and the workplace in addition to their pursuit of suffrage.
The AWSA fought for women’s suffrage at the state level. The group was marginally successful. Between 1870 and 1910, eleven states adopted women’s suffrage. The AWSA merged with the NWSA to form the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1890.
Women aspiring to move beyond their jobs as housewives and into the labor force, higher education, etc. referred to themselves as “the Woman Movement” prior to 1910. Members of this movement advocated women’s suffrage under the reasoning that voting rights were necessary if women were to successfully move into the workforce.
The term feminism first saw usage as a euphemism for the women’s rights movement. Feminism focused predominately on sexual and financial independence. The movement revolved around women’s rights and development. It encouraged women to take up jobs in industry. However, feminism was a self-contradictory movement. It demanded that all women unite as one gender in order to eliminate gender-based distinctions.
Margaret Sanger formed the American Birth Control League in 1921 to convince judges to allow birth control education, which was considered obscene literature (and therefore illegal) at the time. The organization was only a partial success. While it managed to introduce the issue of birth control to public debate, it failed to make any changes in law at the time. The organization later became known as Planned Parenthood.
Harriot Stanton Blatch, daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, served as the figurehead of the women’s rights movement during the Progressive Era. Blatch campaigned for an improvement in women’s working conditions and saw suffrage as a means to achieve her goal.
The Progressive Era saw many tactics used by supporters of women’s suffrage. The NAWSA instituted a letter writing campaign and a series of publications. The National Woman’s Party, led by Alice Paul, organized marches across the country. Eventually, these tactics ushered in a major victory. Women were granted suffrage by Congress in the 19th Amendment in 1920. With this key tool women were equipped to push harder than ever for their rights.
At the same time, The Great War was raging in Europe. Women rushed to fill the positions left vacant by the doughboys that rushed off to assist the Allies in the trenches. Women who were already in the workforce moved up to take on more prestigious jobs. Domestic servants became factory workers. Clerks moved up to stenography. Their success in supporting the war effort also helped to make way for the 19th Amendment.
Women still lacked political clout in spite of the passage of the 19th Amendment. They formed lobbying groups to make up for their lack of influence. The League of Women Voters was formed from the NAWSA. The League of Women Voters encouraged women to run for public office. However, its most important contributions came in the form of lobbying actions. The League pushed for the passing of the Shepard-Towner Act (1921), which set aside funds for the creation of maternity and pediatric clinics. The league also pushed for the Cable Act of 1922. This act ensured that a woman who married a foreign national would not lose her status as an American citizen. In actuality, little was achieved by these early lobbying groups due to the massive factioning of the groups.
Women took on more responsibility during The Great Depression. They now had to manage the family’s finances and make every penny matter in addition to their typical roles as wife and mother. Many women also had to work a career in with their responsibilities in order to make ends meet.
The women’s rights movement was actually held back slightly during this period in spite of the fact that women were taking on (and succeeding with) increased responsibility. Many people (including a great majority of women) felt that wives should not work if their husbands were already employed. This opinion was also apparently held by many businesses. Married women were frequently refused employment by schools and businesses. Women who became married while they were employed were frequently fired.
The number of women in the workplace grew from 10.5 million to about 13 million during the 30’s. Married women made up more than a quarter of the female work force by 1940 in spite of this trend as wives and mothers sought to keep their families from slipping below the poverty line.
President Roosevelt’s New Deal included a few means of helping working women, but only after significant prodding by women’s lobbying groups such as the League of Women Voters (which happened to be supported by Eleanor Roosevelt). Women were granted higher minimum wage (although still significantly lower than men’s minimum wage) and reasonable hours via the Fair Labor Standards Act. However, most of the programs of the New Deal were more of a raw deal for women. Women were rarely hired by the newly created Federal Emergency Relief Administration and were never hired by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Also, the Social Security Act of 1935 excluded many jobs that we’re predominately filled by women.
World War II provided women with an opening in to heavy industrial jobs and a new foothold on labor. It became acceptable, almost overnight, for women to fill the roles of welders, riveters, shell loaders, and other former man-only jobs. The typical working woman before the war was young and single. Many of the women entering the workforce during the war were over 45 and/or married. A great deal of women relocated to war production areas, which is even more stunning.
Of course, all this progress was not without its downside. Women in heavy industry typically made only slightly above half of what their male counterparts did. Jobs were defined as men’s or women’s work, and many factories were also defined by which gender was supposed to work within. Many women were forced out of their jobs at the end of the war in spite of the fact that most (up to 80% in some areas) wanted to remain in the workforce.
The female workforce had grown to 23.8 million women by the 1960’s. However, women remained disproportionately poor when compared to men. On average, women were paid less almost half as much as their male counterparts and their jobs frequently lacked any sort of guaranteed minimum wage or Social Security. Many women, especially single mothers, ended up relying on welfare in order to put food on the table.
In 1961, Esther Peterson (the only female member of Kennedy’s cabinet) prodded President Kennedy to form the President’s Committee on the Status of Women. The committee’s report pushed for the removal of barriers blocking social equality of women. The federal government did not react to the results of the committee’s study. The National Organization for Women (NOW) was formed in 1966 to lobby for government action.
A new generation of radical feminists emerged in the wake of NOW. These women introduced the term “sexism” which encompassed all discrimination against women… legal, social, and economic. These typically white and well educated women made use of shock and parody to make their goals known.
Women now strived further for equality in the workplace (especially with regards to earnings). Additionally, women wanted reliable child day care so that they would not have to worry about the wellbeing of their children while at work, thus relieving them of yet another burden.
Women entered college and professional schools in record numbers with the help of Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972. This opened up still more job opportunities for them as well as a means to bridge the income gap with men.
The Supreme Court rulings on the Reed v. Reed and Frontiero v. Richardson cases gave women greater confidence when entering the job market. These rulings hindered companies’ ability to discriminate based on sex.
Another important right of women was strengthened by the Supreme Court in 1973. The Roe v. Wade decision ensured that women have the right to determine what goes on with regard to their own bodies and lives. The decision upheld a woman’s right to have an abortion until the third trimester.
In conclusion, women’s power in society was akin to trench warfare prior to the late 19th century. Little progress was made in spite of the best efforts of women’s rights supporters. After the late 19th century, the struggle for women’s power progressed like a modern conventional war (from the American military perspective). Massive amounts of ground were gained in short bursts. Occasionally some ground was lost. Women have yet to completely achieve their goal of equality. But, the goal is within their reach. The final battle for women’s rights will be one of my generation’s major mileposts.