The History of Women’s Rights – 1865 Through the Present


This article will discuss the evolution and broadening of women’s rights in the United States since the late 1800s through today. Beginning prior to the Civil War, women fought hard for equal rights, including the right to vote, which was not granted until 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment. During the eras of Progressivism and the New Deal, women continued to strive for change in their family, social and sexual mores, and struggled for participation in the work force and political arena.

In the 1940s, women continued gaining ground when they were given the right to serve in the military and became significantly more involved in the labor force. In the 1960s, with the advent of feminism, the focus on women’s rights became even more pressing, as women fought hard for social equality and equal pay. While it is true that today women have achieved both legal and economic progress, they still face many challenges, including unequal pay and balancing the demands of a career with the needs of the family.

1865-1876: Suffrage

When the Declaration of Independence was penned in 1776, it claimed that all men were created equal, but made no mention of women’s rights, or of their equality. Several leading advocates of women’s rights, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, found this to be unacceptable and, along with other like-minded women, Stanton created what she referred to as a “Womanisfesto,” which was modeled after the Declaration of Independence (Roberts, 2005). This idea was conveyed at one of the first women’s rights conventions in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York.

One of the most important resolutions contained within the document was a demand for equal voting rights for women. While some of the participants at the convention found this concept to be shocking, Stanton believed that suffrage was the only way for women to ever be truly equal. She stated that she believed “the power to make the laws was the right through which all other rights could be secured” (Roberts, 2005, ¶5). However, it was not for another 72 years after the Seneca Falls convention that this right would become a part of the United States Constitution with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

1877-1920: Social reform

The Progressive Era from the 1890s to the 1920s was an important period of growth for the women’s movement, particularly in the area of social reform. During this time, many women began seeking what Jane Addams referred to as “the larger life” of public affairs (Davidson, et al., 2008). This included many social activities that were generally considered traditional roles, such as raising children, keeping house and preparing meals, but were now expanded to include making decisions about and becoming more involved in community affairs (Davidson, et al., 2008).

Activists also extended their activities to include broader social politics and reform. They “sponsored policies that created a kind of social democracy for poor mothers, impoverished working women, victims of industrial accidents and exploited homeworkers” (Lipschultz, 1996, ¶4).

Nineteenth Amendment

While social reform was an important aspect of this era, the most pivotal event that took place with regard to women’s rights was undoubtedly the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. The first Territory to make suffrage permanent for women was Wyoming in 1869. (Roberts, 2005).

In 1878, an amendment was introduced in Congress, but was defeated in 1887, after being neglected for nine years. By 1919, 28 states had ratified the amendment and, with the eventual support of President Woodrow Wilson, by 1920 “35 of the required 36 states had voted for ratification” (Roberts, 2005, Wyoming section, ¶5). Finally, in 1920, after two roll calls and a tied vote, Republican Harry T. Burn switched sides and voted for ratification in what is now referred to as the “War of the Roses.”


During the time period between the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 and the feminist movement in the 1960s, it was often thought that the women’s movement had died. According to Taylor (1989), after the suffrage victory, feminist activism was “transformed as a result of organizational success, internal conflict, and social changes that altered women’s common interests” (p. 763). Because of these social changes, the two major organizations involved with the women’s movement split into opposing directions.

The National Woman’s Party (NWP), which was by far the more radical of the two groups, focused strongly on the passage of an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which alienated the more mainstream activists. On the other hand, the more conservative National American Woman Suffrage Association took a different direction and formed the League of Women Voters, which opposed the passage of the ERA and focused on educating women and advocating a broad range of reforms. Thus, although feminist activism continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s, “in the face of increasing hostility between the two camps of the suffrage movement, cooperation developed on only a few issues” (Taylor, 1989, p. 763).

Race was also an issue in the ongoing struggle for women’s rights. Many suffrage groups consisted of white women who feared that “black participation in the movement would confirm southern perceptions that expanding the sufferance to women would disrupt well-established black disenfranchisement in that region” (Dumenil, 2007, ¶4).

This era was also an important time for women in the military and the labor force. In 1943, the Women’s Army Corps was created, and women were given “full army status, equal ranks, and equal pay” (Davidson, et al., 2008, p. 775). Men, however, continued to dominate the ranks of the military and, throughout World War II, there were as many as 12 million men enlisted.

Women were now seen as an unused source of labor and as demand for women employees soared, their participation in the workforce grew significantly; “from around a quarter in 1940 to more than a third by 1945” (Davidson, et al., 2008. p. 779).

However, even though the economic welfare and status of women improved somewhat with their advancements in both the military and labor force, attitudes about gender remained mostly unchanged. When the war ended, the birthrate soared and many women returned to working at home. It would be more than a decade before America’s stance on women’s rights and attitudes about gender would undergo a revolutionary change.


Beginning in the late 1950s, continuing changes in social trends began establishing a positive climate for the growth of feminism. The birthrate began to decline significantly and contraceptive methods, such as the birth control pill, “permitted more sexual freedom and small family size” (Davidson, et al., 2008, p. 906). American’s attitudes towards abortion, dating, marriage and healthcare were also beginning to change and these social issues became “part and parcel of women’s liberation” (Hansen, 2008, ¶6).

However, while these social concerns were important to feminists, the movement was really about establishing equality of opportunity. According to Hanson (2008), the most compelling arguments for feminism were that women should receive equal pay for equal work, that they should not be mere appendages of their husbands, and that having children should not preclude a women from pursuing a career.

The case for feminism was further advanced with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which prohibited sex discrimination in employment, and by substantial legislation in the 1970s, which was passed with the assistance of women serving in Congress (Morse, 2007). This included freedom of choice in reproductive rights (1973), minimum wage protection for domestic workers (1974), and prohibition of employment discrimination against pregnant women (1978) (Morse, 2007).

1976 – Present

In the past few decades, “significant steps have been taken to improve the education, health, family life, economic opportunity and political empowerment for women” (Morse, 2007, ¶2). However, there are still problems today that must be overcome in order to ensure that women’s rights continue to improve and expand. One of the most important of these rights is that of equal pay for equal work. While the 2005 U.S. Census found that women accounted for 59% of the workforce, they earn only $0.77 for every $1.00 that men earn performing the same job (Morse, 2007).

Balancing the demands of a career with those of raising a family is another challenge that women are facing in this decade. Without the same support systems in place that are available to men with children, working women often feel that in order to be successful in one endeavor, they must do so at the expense of the other. In fact, one study conducted concluded that 42% of women working in a corporate setting were childless by the age of 40, while only 14% planned to be (Morse, 2007).

In conclusion, since the mid 1800’s, advocates of women’s rights have struggled to achieve significant advances in the economic, political and social status of women. Specifically, these activists successfully rallied for suffrage for women, gained advancements in both the military and the labor force and pushed forward social reforms that greatly increased the equality of women in the workforce. While it is true that the rights of women have come a long way over the past 150 years, women still have some obstacles to overcome in furtherance of complete equality.


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