Women’s History in America
Presented by Women’s International Center
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WOMEN’S RIGHTS. Throughout most of history women generally have
had fewer legal rights and career opportunities than men. Wifehood and
motherhood were regarded as women’s most significant professions. In the
20th century, however, women in most nations won the right to vote and
increased their educational and job opportunities. Perhaps most important,
they fought for and to a large degree accomplished a reevaluation of traditional
views of their role in society.
Early Attitudes Toward Women
Since early times women have been uniquely viewed as a creative source
of human life. Historically, however, they have been considered not only
intellectually inferior to men but also a major source of temptation and
evil. In Greek mythology, for example, it was a woman, Pandora, who opened
the forbidden box and brought plagues and unhappiness to mankind. Early
Roman law described women as children, forever inferior to men.
Early Christian theology perpetuated these views. St. Jerome, a 4th-century
Latin father of the Christian church, said: “Woman is the gate of the
devil, the path of wickedness, the sting of the serpent, in a word a perilous
object.” Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century Christian theologian, said that
woman was “created to be man’s helpmeet, but her unique role is in conception
. . . since for other purposes men would be better assisted by other men.”
The attitude toward women in the East was at first more favorable. In
ancient India, for example, women were not deprived of property rights
or individual freedoms by marriage. But Hinduism, which evolved in India
after about 500 BC, required obedience of women toward men. Women had
to walk behind their husbands. Women could not own property, and widows
could not remarry. In both East and West, male children were preferred
over female children.
Nevertheless, when they were allowed personal and intellectual freedom,
women made significant achievements. During the Middle Ages nuns played
a key role in the religious life of Europe. Aristocratic women enjoyed
power and prestige. Whole eras were influenced by women rulers for instance,
Queen Elizabeth of England in the 16th century, Catherine the Great of
Russia in the 18th century, and Queen Victoria of England in the 19th
The Weaker Sex?
Women were long considered naturally weaker than men, squeamish, and
unable to perform work requiring muscular or intellectual development.
In most preindustrial societies, for example, domestic chores were relegated
to women, leaving “heavier” labor such as hunting and plowing to men.
This ignored the fact that caring for children and doing such tasks as
milking cows and washing clothes also required heavy, sustained labor.
But physiological tests now suggest that women have a greater tolerance
for pain, and statistics reveal that women live longer and are more resistant
to many diseases.
Maternity, the natural biological role of women, has traditionally been
regarded as their major social role as well. The resulting stereotype
that “a woman’s place is in the home” has largely determined the ways
in which women have expressed themselves. Today, contraception and, in
some areas, legalized abortion have given women greater control over the
number of children they will bear. Although these developments have freed
women for roles other than motherhood, the cultural pressure for women
to become wives and mothers still prevents many talented women from finishing
college or pursuing careers.
Traditionally a middle-class girl in Western culture tended to learn
from her mother’s example that cooking, cleaning, and caring for children
was the behavior expected of her when she grew up. Tests made in the 1960s
showed that the scholastic achievement of girls was higher in the early
grades than in high school. The major reason given was that the girls’
own expectations declined because neither their families nor their teachers
expected them to prepare for a future other than that of marriage and
motherhood. This trend has been changing in recent decades.
Formal education for girls historically has been secondary to that for
boys. In colonial America girls learned to read and write at dame schools.
They could attend the master’s schools for boys when there was room, usually
during the summer when most of the boys were working. By the end of the
19th century, however, the number of women students had increased greatly.
Higher education particularly was broadened by the rise of women’s colleges
and the admission of women to regular colleges and universities. In 1870
an estimated one fifth of resident college and university students were
women. By 1900 the proportion had increased to more than one third.
Women obtained 19 percent of all undergraduate college degrees around
the beginning of the 20th century. By 1984 the figure had sharply increased
to 49 percent. Women also increased their numbers in graduate study. By
the mid-1980s women were earning 49 percent of all master’s degrees and
about 33 percent of all doctoral degrees. In 1985 about 53 percent of
all college students were women, more than one quarter of whom were above
The Legal Status of Women
The myth of the natural inferiority of women greatly influenced the
status of women in law. Under the common law of England, an unmarried
woman could own property, make a contract, or sue and be sued. But a married
woman, defined as being one with her husband, gave up her name, and virtually
all her property came under her husband’s control.
During the early history of the United States, a man virtually owned
his wife and children as he did his material possessions. If a poor man
chose to send his children to the poorhouse, the mother was legally defenseless
to object. Some communities, however, modified the common law to allow
women to act as lawyers in the courts, to sue for property, and to own
property in their own names if their husbands agreed.
Equity law, which developed in England, emphasized the principle of
equal rights rather than tradition. Equity law had a liberalizing effect
upon the legal rights of women in the United States. For instance, a woman
could sue her husband. Mississippi in 1839, followed by New York in 1848
and Massachusetts in 1854, passed laws allowing married women to own property
separate from their husbands. In divorce law, however, generally the divorced
husband kept legal control of both children and property.
In the 19th century, women began working outside their homes in large
numbers, notably in textile mills and garment shops. In poorly ventilated,
crowded rooms women (and children) worked for as long as 12 hours a day.
Great Britain passed a ten-hour-day law for women and children in 1847,
but in the United States it was not until the 1910s that the states began
to pass legislation limiting working hours and improving working conditions
of women and children.
Eventually, however, some of these labor laws were seen as restricting
the rights of working women. For instance, laws prohibiting women from
working more than an eight-hour day or from working at night effectively
prevented women from holding many jobs, particularly supervisory positions,
that might require overtime work. Laws in some states prohibited women
from lifting weights above a certain amount varying from as little as
15 pounds (7 kilograms) again barring women from many jobs.
During the 1960s several federal laws improving the economic status
of women were passed. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 required equal wages for
men and women doing equal work. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited
discrimination against women by any company with 25 or more employees.
A Presidential Executive Order in 1967 prohibited bias against women in
hiring by federal government contractors.
But discrimination in other fields persisted. Many retail stores would
not issue independent credit cards to married women. Divorced or single
women often found it difficult to obtain credit to purchase a house or
a car. Laws concerned with welfare, crime, prostitution, and abortion
also displayed a bias against women. In possible violation of a woman’s
right to privacy, for example, a mother receiving government welfare payments
was subject to frequent investigations in order to verify her welfare
claim. Sex discrimination in the definition of crimes existed in some
areas of the United States. A woman who shot and killed her husband would
be accused of homicide, but the shooting of a wife by her husband could
be termed a “passion shooting.” Only in 1968, for another example, did
the Pennsylvania courts void a state law which required that any woman
convicted of a felony be sentenced to the maximum punishment prescribed
by law. Often women prostitutes were prosecuted although their male customers
were allowed to go free. In most states abortion was legal only if the
mother’s life was judged to be physically endangered. In 1973, however,
the United States Supreme Court ruled that states could not restrict a
woman’s right to an abortion in her first three months of pregnancy.
Until well into the 20th century, women in Western European countries
lived under many of the same legal disabilities as women in the United
States. For example, until 1935, married women in England did not have
the full right to own property and to enter into contracts on a par with
unmarried women. Only after 1920 was legislation passed to provide working
women with employment opportunities and pay equal to men. Not until the
early 1960s was a law passed that equalized pay scales for men and women
in the British civil service.
Women at Work
In colonial America, women who earned their own living usually became
seamstresses or kept boardinghouses. But some women worked in professions
and jobs available mostly to men. There were women doctors, lawyers, preachers,
teachers, writers, and singers. By the early 19th century, however, acceptable
occupations for working women were limited to factory labor or domestic
work. Women were excluded from the professions, except for writing and
The medical profession is an example of changed attitudes in the 19th
and 20th centuries about what was regarded as suitable work for women.
Prior to the 1800s there were almost no medical schools, and virtually
any enterprising person could practice medicine. Indeed, obstetrics was
the domain of women.
Beginning in the 19th century, the required educational preparation,
particularly for the practice of medicine, increased. This tended to prevent
many young women, who married early and bore many children, from entering
professional careers. Although home nursing was considered a proper female
occupation, nursing in hospitals was done almost exclusively by men. Specific
discrimination against women also began to appear. For example, the American
Medical Association, founded in 1846, barred women from membership. Barred
also from attending “men’s” medical colleges, women enrolled in their
own for instance, the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania, which was
established in 1850. By the 1910s, however, women were attending many
leading medical schools, and in 1915 the American Medical Association
began to admit women members.
In 1890, women constituted about 5 percent of the total doctors in the
United States. During the 1980s the proportion was about 17 percent. At
the same time the percentage of women doctors was about 19 percent in
West Germany and 20 percent in France. In Israel, however, about 32 percent
of the total number of doctors and dentists were women.
Women also had not greatly improved their status in other professions.
In 1930 about 2 percent of all American lawyers and judges were women
in 1989, about 22 percent. In 1930 there were almost no women engineers
in the United States. In 1989 the proportion of women engineers was only
In contrast, the teaching profession was a large field of employment
for women. In the late 1980s more than twice as many women as men taught
in elementary and high schools. In higher education, however, women held
only about one third of the teaching positions, concentrated in such fields
as education, social service, home economics, nursing, and library science.
A small proportion of women college and university teachers were in the
physical sciences, engineering, agriculture, and law.
The great majority of women who work are still employed in clerical
positions, factory work, retail sales, and service jobs. Secretaries,
bookkeepers, and typists account for a large portion of women clerical
workers. Women in factories often work as machine operators, assemblers,
and inspectors. Many women in service jobs work as waitresses, cooks,
hospital attendants, cleaning women, and hairdressers.
During wartime women have served in the armed forces. In the United
States during World War II almost 300,000 women served in the Army and
Navy, performing such noncombatant jobs as secretaries, typists, and nurses.
Many European women fought in the underground resistance movements during
World War II. In Israel women are drafted into the armed forces along
with men and receive combat training.
Women constituted more than 45 percent of employed persons in the United
States in 1989, but they had only a small share of the decision-making
jobs. Although the number of women working as managers, officials, and
other administrators has been increasing, in 1989 they were outnumbered
about 1.5 to 1 by men. Despite the Equal Pay Act of 1963, women in 1970
were paid about 45 percent less than men for the same jobs; in 1988, about
32 percent less. Professional women did not get the important assignments
and promotions given to their male colleagues. Many cases before the Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission in 1970 were registered by women charging
sex discrimination in jobs.
Working women often faced discrimination on the mistaken belief that,
because they were married or would most likely get married, they would
not be permanent workers. But married women generally continued on their
jobs for many years and were not a transient, temporary, or undependable
work force. From 1960 to the early 1970s the influx of married women workers
accounted for almost half of the increase in the total labor force, and
working wives were staying on their jobs longer before starting families.
The number of elderly working also increased markedly.
Since 1960 more and more women with children have been in the work force.
This change is especially dramatic for married women with children under
age 6: 12 percent worked in 1950, 45 percent in 1980, and 57 percent in
1987. Just over half the mothers with children under age 3 were in the
labor force in 1987. Black women with children are more likely to work
than are white or Hispanic women who have children. Over half of all black
families with children are maintained by the mother only, compared with
18 percent of white families with children.
Despite their increased presence in the work force, most women still
have primary responsibility for housework and family care. In the late
1970s men with an employed wife spent only about 1.4 hours a week more
on household tasks than those whose wife was a full-time homemaker.
A crucial issue for many women is maternity leave, or time off from
their jobs after giving birth. By federal law a full-time worker is entitled
to time off and a job when she returns, but few states by the early 1990s
required that the leave be paid. Many countries, including Mexico, India,
Germany, Brazil, and Australia require companies to grant 12-week maternity
leaves at full pay.
Women in Politics
American women have had the right to vote since 1920, but their political
roles have been minimal. Not until 1984 did a major party choose a woman
Geraldine Ferraro of New York to run for vice-president (see Ferraro).
Jeanette Rankin of Montana, elected in 1917, was the first woman member
of the United States House of Representatives. In 1968 Shirley Chisholm
of New York was the first black woman elected to the House of Representatives
(see Chisholm). Hattie Caraway of Arkansas first appointed in 1932 was,
in 1933, the first woman elected to the United States Senate. Senator
Margaret Chase Smith served Maine for 24 years (1949-73). Others were
Maurine Neuberger of Oregon, Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas, Paula Hawkins
of Florida, and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland.
Wives of former governors became the first women governors Miriam A.
Ferguson of Texas (1925-27 and 1933-35) and Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming
(1925-27) (see Ross, Nellie Tayloe). In 1974 Ella T. Grasso of Connecticut
won a governorship on her own merits.
In 1971 Patience Sewell Latting was elected mayor of Oklahoma City,
at that time the largest city in the nation with a woman mayor. By 1979
two major cities were headed by women: Chicago, by Jane Byrne, and San
Francisco, by Dianne Feinstein. Sharon Pratt Dixon was elected mayor of
Washington, D.C., in 1990.
Frances Perkins was the first woman Cabinet member as secretary of labor
under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Oveta Culp Hobby was secretary
of health, education, and welfare in the Dwight D. Eisenhower Cabinet.
Carla A. Hills was secretary of housing and urban development in Gerald
R. Ford’s Cabinet. Jimmy Carter chose two women for his original Cabinet
Juanita M. Kreps as secretary of commerce and Patricia Roberts Harris
as secretary of housing and urban development. Harris was the first African
American woman in a presidential Cabinet. When the separate Department
of Education was created, Carter named Shirley Mount Hufstedler to head
it. Ronald Reagan’s Cabinet included Margaret Heckler, secretary of health
and human services, and Elizabeth Dole, secretary of transportation. Under
George Bush, Dole became secretary of labor; she was succeeded by Representative
Lynn Martin. Bush chose Antonia Novello, a Hispanic, for surgeon general
Reagan set a precedent with his appointment in 1981 of Sandra Day O’Connor
as the first woman on the United States Supreme Court (see O’Connor).
The next year Bertha Wilson was named to the Canadian Supreme Court. In
1984 Jeanne Sauve became Canada’s first female governor-general (see Sauve).
In international affairs, Eleanor Roosevelt was appointed to the United
Nations in 1945 and served as chairman of its Commission on Human Rights
(see Roosevelt, Eleanor). Eugenie Anderson was sent to Denmark in 1949
as the first woman ambassador from the United States. Jeane Kirkpatrick
was named ambassador to the United Nations in 1981.
Three women held their countries’ highest elective offices by 1970.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike was prime minister of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) from
1960 to 1965 and from 1970 to 1977 (see Bandaranaike). Indira Gandhi was
prime minister of India from 1966 to 1977 and from 1980 until her assassination
in 1984 (see Gandhi, Indira). Golda Meir was prime minister of Israel
from 1969 to 1974 (see Meir). The first woman head of state in the Americas
was Juan Peron’s widow, Isabel, president of Argentina in 1974-76 (see
Peron). Elisabeth Domitien was premier of the Central African Republic
in 1975-76. Margaret Thatcher, who first became prime minister of Great
Britain in 1979, was the only person in the 20th century to be reelected
to that office for a third consecutive term (see Thatcher). Also in 1979,
Simone Weil of France became the first president of the European Parliament.
In the early 1980s Vigdis Finnbogadottir was elected president of Iceland;
Gro Harlem Brundtland, prime minister of Norway; and Milka Planinc, premier
of Yugoslavia. In 1986 Corazon Aquino became president of the Philippines
(see Aquino). From 1988 to 1990 Benazir Bhutto was prime minister of Pakistan
the first woman to head a Muslim nation (see Bhutto).
In 1990 Mary Robinson was elected president of Ireland and Violeta Chamorro,
of Nicaragua. Australia’s first female premier was Carmen Lawrence of
Western Australia (1990), and Canada’s was Rita Johnston of British Columbia
(1991). In 1991 Khaleda Zia became the prime minister of Bangladesh and
Socialist Edith Cresson was named France’s first female premier. Poland’s
first female prime minister, Hanna Suchocka, was elected in 1992.
At the end of the 18th century, individual liberty was being hotly debated.
In 1789, during the French Revolution, Olympe de Gouges published a ‘Declaration
of the Rights of Woman’ to protest the revolutionists’ failure to mention
women in their ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’. In ‘A Vindication of
the Rights of Women’ (1792) Mary Wollstonecraft called for enlightenment
of the female mind.
Margaret Fuller, one of the earliest female reporters, wrote ‘Woman
in the Nineteenth Century’ in 1845. She argued that individuals had unlimited
capacities and that when people’s roles were defined according to their
sex, human development was severely limited.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a leading theoretician of the women’s rights
movement. Her ‘Woman’s Bible’, published in parts in 1895 and 1898, attacked
what she called the male bias of the Bible. Contrary to most of her religious
female colleagues, she believed further that organized religion would
have to be abolished before true emancipation for women could be achieved.
(See also Stanton, Elizabeth Cady.)
Charlotte Perkins Gilman characterized the home as inefficient compared
with the mass-production techniques of the modern factory. She contended,
in books like ‘Women and Economics’ (1898), that women should share the
tasks of homemaking, with the women best suited to cook, to clean, and
to care for young children doing each respective task.
Politically, many feminists believed that a cooperative society based
on socialist economic principles would respect the rights of women. The
Socialist Labor party, in 1892, was one of the first national political
parties in the United States to include woman suffrage as a plank in its
During the early 20th century the term new woman came to be used in
the popular press. More young women than ever were going to school, working
both in blue- and white-collar jobs, and living by themselves in city
apartments. Some social critics feared that feminism, which they interpreted
to mean the end of the home and family, was triumphing. Actually, the
customary habits of American women were changing little. Although young
people dated more than their parents did and used the automobile to escape
parental supervision, most young women still married and became the traditional
housewives and mothers.
Women in Reform Movements
Women in the United States during the 19th century organized and participated
in a great variety of reform movements to improve education, to initiate
prison reform, to ban alcoholic drinks, and, during the pre-Civil War
period, to free the slaves.
At a time when it was not considered respectable for women to speak
before mixed audiences of men and women, the abolitionist sisters Sarah
and Angelina Grimke of South Carolina boldly spoke out against slavery
at public meetings (see Grimke Sisters). Some male abolitionists including
William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Frederick Douglass supported
the right of women to speak and participate equally with men in antislavery
activities. In one instance, women delegates to the World’s Anti-Slavery
Convention held in London in 1840 were denied their places. Garrison thereupon
refused his own seat and joined the women in the balcony as a spectator.
Some women saw parallels between the position of women and that of the
slaves. In their view, both were expected to be passive, cooperative,
and obedient to their master-husbands. Women such as Stanton, Lucy Stone,
Lucretia Mott, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth were feminists and
abolitionists, believing in both the rights of women and the rights of
blacks. (See also individual biographies.)
Many women supported the temperance movement in the belief that drunken
husbands pulled their families into poverty. In 1872 the Prohibition party
became the first national political party to recognize the right of suffrage
for women in its platform. Frances Willard helped found the Woman’s Christian
Temperance Union (see Willard, Frances).
During the mid-1800s Dorothea Dix was a leader in the movements for
prison reform and for providing mental-hospital care for the needy. The
settlement-house movement was inspired by Jane Addams, who founded Hull
House in Chicago in 1889, and by Lillian Wald, who founded the Henry Street
Settlement House in New York City in 1895. Both women helped immigrants
adjust to city life. (See also Addams; Dix.)
Women were also active in movements for agrarian and labor reforms and
for birth control. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a leading Populist spokeswoman
in the 1880s and 1890s in Kansas, immortalized the cry, “What the farmers
need to do is raise less corn and more hell.” Margaret Robins led the
National Women’s Trade Union League in the early 1900s. In the 1910s Margaret
Sanger crusaded to have birth-control information available for all women
Fighting for the Vote
The first women’s rights convention took place in Seneca Falls, N.Y.,
in July 1848. The declaration that emerged was modeled after the Declaration
of Independence. Written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, it claimed that “all
men and women are created equal” and that “the history of mankind is a
history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward
woman.” Following a long list of grievances were resolutions for equitable
laws, equal educational and job opportunities, and the right to vote.
With the Union victory in the Civil War, women abolitionists hoped their
hard work would result in suffrage for women as well as for blacks. But
the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, adopted in 1868 and
1870 respectively, granted citizenship and suffrage to blacks but not
Disagreement over the next steps to take led to a split in the women’s
rights movement in 1869. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony,
a temperance and antislavery advocate, formed the National Woman Suffrage
Association (NWSA) in New York. Lucy Stone organized the American Woman
Suffrage Association (AWSA) in Boston. The NWSA agitated for a woman-suffrage
amendment to the Federal Constitution, while the AWSA worked for suffrage
amendments to each state constitution. Eventually, in 1890, the two groups
united as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Lucy
Stone became chairman of the executive committee and Elizabeth Cady Stanton
served as the first president. Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt,
and Dr. Anna Howard Shaw served as later presidents.
The struggle to win the vote was slow and frustrating. Wyoming Territory
in 1869, Utah Territory in 1870, and the states of Colorado in 1893 and
Idaho in 1896 granted women the vote but the Eastern states resisted.
A woman-suffrage amendment to the Federal Constitution, presented to every
Congress since 1878, repeatedly failed to pass.
Excerpted from Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia
Copyright (c) 1994, 1995 Compton’s NewMedia, Inc.
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