History of Women’s Rights in the United States
Timeline of Key Events in the Efforts to Gain Equality, Access, and Choice for Women in the United States
1848: The first women’s rights convention is held in Seneca Falls, New York. After 2 days of discussion and debate, 68 women and 32 men sign a Declaration of Sentiments, which outlines grievances and sets the agenda for the women’s rights movement. A set of 12 resolutions is adopted calling for equal treatment of women and men under the law and voting rights for women.
1850: The first National Women’s Rights Convention takes place in Worcester, Mass., attracting more than 1,000 participants. National conventions are held yearly (except for 1857) through 1860.
1869: May — Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton form the National Woman Suffrage Association. The primary goal of the organization is to achieve voting rights for women by means of a Congressional amendment to the Constitution.
Nov. — Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, and others form the American Woman Suffrage Association. This group focuses exclusively on gaining voting rights for women through amendments to individual state constitutions.
Dec. 10 — The territory of Wyoming passes the first women’s suffrage law.
The following year, women begin serving on juries in the territory.
1890: The National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association merge to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). As the movement’s mainstream organization, NAWSA wages state-by-state campaigns to obtain voting rights for women.
1891: Ida B. Wells, an African-American journalist, launches a nationwide anti-lynching campaign after the murder of three black businessmen in Memphis, TN.
1893: Colorado is the first state to adopt an amendment granting women the right to vote. Utah and Idaho follow suit in 1896, Washington State in 1910, California in 1911, Oregon, Kansas, and Arizona in 1912, Alaska and Illinois in 1913, Montana and Nevada in 1914, New York in 1917; Michigan, South Dakota, and Oklahoma in 1918.
1896: The National Association of Colored Women is formed, bringing together more than 100 black women’s clubs. Leaders in the black women’s club movement include Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Mary Church Terrell, and Anna Julia Cooper.
1903: The National Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) is established to advocate for improved wages and working conditions for women.
1913: Alice Paul and Lucy Burns form the Congressional Union to work toward the passage of a federal amendment to give women the vote. The group is later renamed the National Women’s Party. Members picket the White House and practice other forms of civil disobedience.
1916: Margaret Sanger opens the first U.S. birth-control clinic in Brooklyn, N.Y. Although the clinic is shut down 10 days later and Sanger is arrested, she eventually wins support through the courts and opens another clinic in New York City in 1923. Also, Jeanette Rankin of Montana becomes the first woman to be elected to represent her state in the U.S. House of Representatives.
1919: The federal women’s suffrage amendment, originally written by Susan B. Anthony and introduced in Congress in 1878, is passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate. It is then sent to the states for ratification.
1920: The Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor is formed to collect information about women in the workforce and safeguard good working conditions for women.
Aug. 26 — The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote, is signed into law by Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby.
1921: Margaret Sanger founds the American Birth Control League, which evolves into the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942.
1935: Mary McLeod Bethune organizes the National Council of Negro Women, a coalition of black women’s groups that lobbies against job discrimination, racism, and sexism.
1936: The federal law prohibiting the dissemination of contraceptive information through the mail is modified and birth control information is no longer classified as obscene. Throughout the 1940s and 50s, birth control advocates are engaged in numerous legal suits.
1955: The Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the first lesbian organization in the United States, is founded. Although DOB originated as a social group, it later developed into a political organization to win basic acceptance for lesbians in the United States.
1960: The Food and Drug Administration approves birth control pills.
1961: President John Kennedy establishes the President’s Commission on the Status of Women and appoints Eleanor Roosevelt as chairwoman. The report issued by the Commission in 1963 documents substantial discrimination against women in the workplace and makes specific recommendations for improvement, including fair hiring practices, paid maternity leave, and affordable child care.
1963: Betty Friedan publishes her highly influential book The Feminine Mystique, which describes the dissatisfaction felt by middle-class American housewives with the narrow role imposed on them by society. The book becomes a best seller and galvanizes the modern women’s rights movement.
June 10 — Congress passes the Equal Pay Act, making it illegal for employers to pay a woman less than what a man would receive for the same job.
1964: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act bars discrimination in employment on the basis of race and sex. At the same time it establishes the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to investigate complaints and impose penalties.
1965: In Griswold v. Connecticut , the Supreme Court strikes down the one remaining state law prohibiting the use of contraceptives by married couples.
1966: The National Organization for Women (NOW) is founded by a group of feminists including Betty Friedan. The largest women’s rights group in the U.S., NOW seeks to end sexual discrimination, especially in the workplace, by means of legislative lobbying, litigation, and public demonstrations.
1967: Executive Order 11375 expands President Lyndon Johnson’s affirmative action policy of 1965 to cover discrimination based on gender. As a result, federal agencies and contractors must take active measures to ensure that women as well as minorities enjoy the same educational and employment opportunities as white males.
1968: The EEOC rules that sex-segregated help wanted ads in newspapers are illegal. This ruling is upheld in 1973 by the Supreme Court, opening the way for women to apply for higher-paying jobs hitherto open only to men.
1969: California becomes the first state to adopt a “no fault” divorce law, which allows couples to divorce by mutual consent. By 1985 every state has adopted a similar law. Laws are also passed regarding the equal division of common property.
1970: In Schultz v. Wheaton Glass Co ., a U.S. Court of Appeals rules that jobs held by men and women need to be “substantially equal” but not “identical” to fall under the protection of the Equal Pay Act. An employer cannot, for example, change the job titles of women workers in order to pay them less than men.
1971: Ms. Magazine is first published as a sample insert in New York magazine; 300,000 copies are sold out in 8 days. The first regular issue is published in July 1972. The magazine becomes the major forum for feminist voices, and cofounder and editor Gloria Steinem is launched as an icon of the modern feminist movement.
1972: Mar. 22 — The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification. Originally drafted by Alice Paul in 1923, the amendment reads: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The amendment died in 1982 when it failed to achieve ratification by a minimum of 38 states.
Also on Mar. 22 — In Eisenstadt v. Baird the Supreme Court rules that the right to privacy includes an unmarried person’s right to use contraceptives.
June 23 — Title IX of the Education Amendments bans sex discrimination in schools. It states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” As a result of Title IX, the enrollment of women in athletics programs and professional schools increases dramatically.
Women’s advocates in St. Paul, Minnesota start the first hotline for battered women.
Women’s advocates and Haven House in Pasadena, California establish the first shelters for battered women.
1973: As a result of Roe v. Wade, , the Supreme Court establishes a woman’s right to safe and legal abortion, overriding the anti-abortion laws of many states.
1974: The Equal Credit Opportunity Act prohibits discrimination in consumer credit practices on the basis of sex, race, marital status, religion, national origin, age, or receipt of public assistance. In Corning Glass Works v. Brennan , the U.S. Supreme Court rules that employers cannot justify paying women lower wages because that is what they traditionally received under the “going market rate.” A wage differential occurring “simply because men would not work at the low rates paid women” is unacceptable.
1976: The National Organization for Women announces the formation of a task force, co-chaired by Del Martin, to examine the problem of battering. It demands research into the problem and money for shelters. Pennsylvania establishes the first State coalition against domestic violence. It also becomes the first State to create a statute providing for order of protection for victims of domestic violence. La Casa de la Madres in San Francisco, California is opened. This was the first battered women’s shelter established by women of color. The first marital rape law is enacted in Nebraska, making it illegal for a husband to rape his wife.
1977: Oregon becomes the first state to enact legislation mandating arrest in domestic violence cases.
1978: The Pregnancy Discrimination Act bans employment discrimination against pregnant women. Under the act, a woman cannot be fired or denied a job or a promotion because she is or may become pregnant, nor can she be forced to take a pregnancy leave if she is willing and able to work.
1979: Office on Domestic Violence is established in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but is closed in 1981. First congressional hearings are held on the issue of domestic violence. After 12 black women are murdered in Boston, a public outcry about the lack of media attention to violence against women of color leads to the formation of the Combahee River Collective.
1980: The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence holds the first national conference in Washington, DC, which is attended by more than 600 battered women’s advocates from 49 States. The conference gains federal recognition of critical issues facing battered women and inspires the creation of several State coalitions.
1981: Sandra Day O’Connor is the first woman ever appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. At the request of women’s organizations, President Carter proclaims the first “National Women’s History Week,” incorporating March 8, International Women’s Day. The National Black Women’s Health Project founded to establish community-based self-help groups. In San Jose, California, a strike of city workers wins salaries based on comparable worth for nearly 1500 women, a national first. Kirchberg v. Feenstra overturns state laws designating a husband “head and master,” having unilateral control of property owned jointly with his wife.
1984: EMILY’s List (Early Money Is Like Yeast) is established as a financial network for pro-choice Democratic women running for national political office. The organization makes a significant impact on the increasing numbers of women elected to Congress. Passage of the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act through grassroots lobbying efforts earmarks federal funding for programs serving domestic violence victims.
1985: Thurman v. Torrington is the first federal case in which a battered woman sues a city for police failure to protect her from her husband’s violence. Tracy Thurman, who remains scarred and partially paralyzed from stab wounds inflicted by her husband, wins a $2 million judgment against the city. The suit leads to Connecticut’s passage of a mandatory arrest law. U.S. Surgeon General issues report identifying domestic violence as a major health problem. Evelyn White publishes Chain, Chain Change: For Black Women Dealing with Physical and Emotional Abuse , the first book about African American women and abuse. Wilma Mankiller becomes first woman installed as principal chief of a major Native American tribe, the Cherokee in Oklahoma.
1986: Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson , the Supreme Court finds that sexual harassment is a form of illegal job discrimination. New York Women Against Rape, a women of color-led organization, holds the first conference against violence for women of color. Amy Eilberg is the first woman ordained as a rabbi by the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly.
1987: National Coalition Against Domestic Violence establishes the first national toll-free domestic violence hotline. Responding to the National Women’s History Project, the U.S. Congress declares March to be National Women’s History Month.
1988: The U.S. Surgeon General declares wife abuse as the leading health hazard to women. Rev. Barbara Harris, an African-American, becomes the first female bishop of the Episcopal Church.
1990s: Women in their twenties, calling themselves “the third wave,” form myriad on- and off-campus organizations to tackle their generation’s particular concerns and vulnerabilities. LaDonna Harris, Native American activist, estimates that women make up one-quarter of most tribal councils, and fill half the seats on many. The number of black women in elective office has increased from 131 in 1970 to 1,950 in 1990.
1992: In Planned Parenthood v. Casey , the Supreme Court reaffirmed the validity of a woman’s right to abortion under Roe v. Wade . The case successfully challenged Pennsylvania’s 1989 Abortion Control Act, which sought to reinstate restrictions previously ruled unconstitutional.
1993: Funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services leads to the creation of the Domestic Violence Resource Network, which includes the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence; the Battered Women’s Justice Project; the Resource Center on Domestic Violence: Child Protection and Custody; and the Health Resource Center on Domestic Violence. Fifty states have revised their laws so that, depending on the degree of additional violence used, husbands can be prosecuted for sexually assaulting their wives. A family and medical leave bill—providing time off for pregnancy or family illness—is signed into law by President Clinton. Take Our Daughters to Work Day debuts, designed to build girls self-esteem and open their eyes to a variety of career possibilities for women. With the increased number of female members, the 103rd Congress passes into law 30 bills on women’s issues during its first year, 33 during its second. The previous record for any year: 5. Women hold a record number of positions in state as well as federal government.
1994: The Violence Against Women Act tightens federal penalties for sex offenders, funds services for victims of rape and domestic violence, and provides for special training of police officers. President Clinton signs the Violence Against Women Act as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Congress adopts the Gender Equity in Education Act to train teachers, promote math and science learning by girls, counsel pregnant teens, and prevent sexual harassment.
1996: United States v. Virginia , 518 U.S. 515 (1996), affirms that the male-only admissions policy of the state-supported Virginia Military Institute violates the 14th Amendment. U.S. women’s spectacular success in the Summer Olympics (19 gold medals, 10 silver, 9 bronze) is the result of large numbers of females active in sports since the passage of Title IX. Dr. Beth E. Richie publishes Compelled to Crime, the Gender Entrapment of Battered Women. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE) funded by the Federal Violence Against Women Act, begins operation, responding to 8,841 calls during its first month.
1997: Elaborating on Title IX, the Supreme Court rules that college athletics programs must actively involve roughly equal numbers of men and women to qualify for federal support. President Clinton signs an anti-stalking law, which makes interstate stalking and harassment a federal offense, even if the victim has not obtained a protection order. Sacred Hoop, the National Resource Center to End Violence Against Indian Women, begins providing technical assistance and guidance to Native communities. Forty Latin American activists, clinicians, and researchers from the United States and Puerto Rico met in Washington, DC for the National Symposium on La Violencia Domestica: An Emerging Dialogue Among Latinos , with the support of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. From this Symposium, the National Latino Alliance for the Elimination of Domestic Violence was formed. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awards funds to Cangleska, Inc. to operate Sacred Circle, a special-issue resource center to aid tribes and tribal organizations to stop violence against Native women.
1998: Madeleine Albright is confirmed as the first woman U.S. secretary of state. U.S. Army General Claudia Kennedy becomes the first woman three-star general. The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) debuts. The U.S. Department of Justice announces grants totaling $53.8 million for 90 jurisdictions to help investigate and prosecute domestic violence. The grants are through the Violence Against Women Act, Grants to Encourage Arrest Policies. Asian Institute on Domestic Violence holds its first national forum on domestic violence. The Violence Against Women Act II is introduced, calling for the reauthorization of funding scheduled to expire in the year 2000.
2002: Women’s Health USA 2002 , a detailed statistical analysis is published by Maternal and Child Health Bureau.
2004: In an unprecedented move to combat sex tourism, the Hawaii State legislature passed HB 2020, an Act relating to prostitution, which the Lt. Governor signed into law, as Act 82, on May 19, 2004. The Act makes it a felony offense, with a sentence of up to 5 years in prison, to sell or offer to sell travel services for the purpose of engaging in prostitution and authorizes suspension or revocation of a travel agency registration for engaging in these acts. Many states in the United States have laws against promoting prostitution, which could be used to prosecute sex tour operators. Hawaii is the first state, however, to specifically criminalize the activities of sex tour operators. The new law recognizes the link between sex tourism and trafficking.
2005: The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Title VII retaliation case, Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. Sheila White , sends a message to victims of workplace discrimination that they will be protected if they come forward. After 3 years of debate the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves sales of Plan B, the “morning-after” contraceptive pill without a prescription for women over 18 years of age. Women under 18 years of age still need a prescription. The FDA’s approval of Plan B is a significant step forward for women’s health. Women’s rights groups continue to fight against this age restriction.
2006: About 20 women and their children staged a July 2 breastfeeding sit-in outside a Victoria’s Secret store in Racine, Wis., after a nursing mom was asked to breastfeed in the store’s bathroom last month instead of in the fitting room, ABC News reported. Rebecca Cook said her response was, “No, I don’t eat in the bathroom and my daughter doesn’t eat in the bathroom.” The news of the shunned mother spread and about 15 women in Westlake, Ohio, protested also, nursing their babies outside a Victoria’s Secret store. While company policy officially allows mothers to nurse inside the store, not all states allow mothers to nurse in public.
© Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice, Second Edition, Routledge, 2007