United StatesIn the 1900s, state and federal laws that discriminated against women posed some of the most significant obstacles in gaining womens rights. The earliest campaigns to improve womens legal status in the United States focused on gaining property rights for women. Women also led legislative efforts in the 19th and 20th centuries to ensure their voting and employment rights.
Beginning in the 1830s, states passed laws that gradually gave married women greater control over property. New York state passed the Married Womens Property Act in 1848, allowing women to acquire and retain assets independently of their husbands. This was the first law that clearly established the idea that a married woman had an independent legal identity. The New York law inspired nearly all other states to eventually pass similar legislation.
The Right to Vote
American women did not gain the right to vote until 1920, after amendments were made to the Constitution. The passage of the 14th Amendment in 1866 and the 15th Amendment in 1870 helped to focus the womens rights movement on suffrage. The 14th Amendment provided that all citizens were guaranteed equal protection under the law and that no citizen could be denied due process of law. The 15th Amendment stated that citizens could not be denied the right to vote on the basis of race, color, or previous status as a slave. Activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony argued that the 15th Amendment be expanded to guarantee suffrage to women. With the formation of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1890, the womens rights movement zeroed in almost exclusively on attaining the right to vote. In 1920 the 19th Amendment granted women this right. (In theory, the 19th Amendment should’ve extended voting rights to all women.)
Protective Labor Legislation
Increasing numbers of women began to enter the industrial labor force in the 19th century. As a result, some social reformers grew concerned about the impact of long hours and poor working conditions on women. The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, and the Womens Trade Union League, founded in 1903, began efforts to limit womens work hours and the types of work they could do. By 1908 the states had passed 19 laws limiting work hours or completely ending the option of night work for women. Even greater numbers of women entered the workforce during World War I (1914-1918), prompting the establishment of the Womens Bureau of the Department of Labor in 1920, which began the passage of legislation to protect working women.
Protective legislation has been challenged repeatedly in the courts. In Ritchie v. People (1895), the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that limiting womens work day to eight hours infringed upon a womans right to contract for her labor, and therefore violated her 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law. In Lochner v. New York (1905) the Supreme Court deemed all protective labor legislation to be unconstitutional. The Lochner decision was revised three years later in Muller v. Oregon (1908). In that case, American jurist Louis D. Brandeis argued that the womans role as a mother required that she be given special protection in the workplace. American courts repeatedly struck down statutes establishing minimum wages for women. In Adkins v. Childrens Hospital (1923), the Supreme Court decided that a minimum wage for women violated the right to freedom of contract. But the passage of the National Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) established a national minimum wage for both men and women. In 1969 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) declared protective legislation for women invalid.
Equal Rights Amendment
After the passage of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, members of the womens movement focused on gaining other rights for women. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns directed their efforts toward prohibiting all other inequities between men and women. Paul and Burns had founded the National Womens Party in 1916 which worked for womens suffrage. However, they believed that winning the right to vote marked only the beginning of the womens struggle for equality. In the early 1920s the National Womens Party aimed to pass an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution that would make illegal all forms of discrimination based on sex.
Under the influence of the National Womens Party, the U.S. Congress introduced the ERA in 1923, but the issue failed to gain significant support. Some people who had previously supported womens right to vote opposed the ERA. They included moderate social reformers and administrators in the Womens Bureau of the Department of Labor. These people opposed the ERA because they believed that strict enforcement of equal rights would mean the elimination of protective legislation for women. They thought that the ERA would be bad for the working-class woman.
In the 1960s the so-called “second wave” of the womens rights movement stirred up the ERA debate. President John F. Kennedy set up the first national Commission on the Status of Women in 1962. In 1963 the commission issued a report detailing employment discrimination, unequal pay, legal inequality, and insufficient support services for working women. Still, the majority of the commission members opposed the ERA, because they said that equal rights were already guaranteed in the Constitution.
The ERA policy became the 27th Amendment in 1972, but it had to be ratified by at least 38 states to become a law. In 1982 the ERA was defeated when only 35 states had passed the measure, three short of the 38 required for ratification.
Equal Pay Act
The 1963 report by the Commission on the Status of Women led directly to the passage of the Equal Pay Act the same year. The Equal Pay Act made it illegal to pay different wages to men and women who performed the same work. However, the new law had little effect on narrowing the wage gap between the sexes. Most female workers remained in jobs traditionally held by women, offering low wages and little prospect for advancement. In 1963 the average female worker made 58 cents for every dollar the average male made. In 1995 womens earnings had increased, but they were only 71 cents for every dollar that men earned.
Civil Rights Act (Title VII)
Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act barred employment discrimination based on sex, race, color, or ethnic origin. The act originally prohibited only racial and ethnic discrimination, but Virginia congressman Howard W. Smith added the word sex in an amendment to the act, hoping to ensure its defeat. Instead, Congresswoman Martha Griffiths and Senator Margaret Chase Smith led the campaign for approval of the act. Title VII also set up the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to enforce the act. However, women quickly realized that they needed more political influence if their grievances were to be heard by the EEOC.
Betty Friedan started the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 in an effort to increase womens political power in the United States. In its early years, NOW focused on the rights of women as individuals. This strategy appealed to professional women and failed to gain a large following. Membership in NOW expanded dramatically after the organization sponsored the Womens Strike for Equality, a massive demonstration on August 26, 1970 (the 50th anniversary of womens suffrage).