Women's Rights Topic Overview
"Women's Rights." Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection, Gale, 2018.
Movements for the equal rights of women in the United States have been shaped in response to a system of patriarchal social norms and laws that, according to historians and social scientists, formed the basis of American cultural, political, and economic life. Patriarchy refers to a society in which fathers hold legal authority over dependent women and children or, more broadly, to a society in which a disproportionately large share of power is held by men. As of 2018, issues related to the rights of women in the United States largely fall under three categories: economic independence, or the rights to education, work, and property ownership; bodily autonomy, or the rights to control one's own sexual and reproductive choices; and political participation, or the rights to organize, vote, and run for office.
The patriarchal concept and practice of coverture, which came to North America from England with colonial settlers, determined women's lesser economic, bodily, and political status by forming colonial law and subsequent state laws. As a doctrine, coverture refers to the idea that female persons do not have legal identities but are instead "covered," first by their fathers' identities and later, ostensibly, by their husbands'. Through coverture's influence, men's authority was codified in law and suffused throughout everyday life. With no legal individual identity, women could not enter into business contracts, own or inherit property, retain control of earned wages, claim rights to their children, or withhold consent to sexual intercourse.
Although the formalized US women's rights movement did not begin to take shape until the mid-nineteenth century, historians have identified a longer tradition of American women working toward greater autonomy. During the colonial period, women like Anne Marbury Hutchinson agitated for the right to voice religious opinions. The fight for women's rights was further shaped by the Declaration of Independence, which declared that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights," which were then guaranteed by the US Constitution. While the Constitution proclaimed the rights of white, property-holding men to vote and participate in government, a variety of legal and social sanctions continued to limit women's access to and involvement in public and civic life.
In the post-Revolutionary years, women writers like Judith Sargent Murray argued for women's access to education and economic independence. The first document to emerge from an organized women's rights collective in the United States was the Declaration of Sentiments, which was drafted using the Declaration of Independence as a model and ratified at the first convening of women's rights advocates in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Historians trace the origins of the movement for US women's suffrage (voting rights for women) to the Seneca Falls Convention, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass argued in favor of granting women the right to vote. Women's suffrage was achieved nearly seventy-five years later with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.
Despite the achievements of women's rights activists throughout the twentieth century, feminist scholars argue that the remnants of coverture still operate in legal and social institutions in the twenty-first century. In June 2018 the United Nations Working Group on Discrimination against Women in Law and in Practice delivered a report warning of an "unprecedented pushback" against women's rights occurring globally. Although some critics argue that women in high-income nations like the United States have achieved equality, the Working Group's report declared that "no country in the world has successfully eliminated discrimination against women."
Stemming from coverture, the doctrine of separate spheres defined the gendered divisions of American society from before industrialization until the latter half of the twentieth century. Women and men were relegated to separate, largely segregated roles and social spaces. While it was seen as both appropriate and proper for men to participate in the economic, political, and social life of the public sphere, women were consigned to domestic and family-oriented roles in the private sphere. The doctrine of separate spheres primarily governed white women of the middle and upper classes, as women of color and poor and working-class white women often had no choice but to seek employment outside the home. These women were often employed as domestic workers in wealthy white households or in factories, where employers could legally pay women lower wages than men for the same job.
Married women argued for property rights, which could provide a measure of economic security if a woman was widowed or abandoned by her husband. Connecticut passed a law allowing women to write wills as early as 1809, but more comprehensive legislation intended to undo coverture's most strict provisions did not come until 1848 when New York state enacted the Married Women's Property Act. In the following decade, multiple other states passed similar laws, often modeled upon the New York statute. These early laws ranged from allowing women to retain separate ownership of property to extending widows' rights to defining the circumstances in which a woman could bring a lawsuit. Through the slow acquisition of married women's property rights, more women, both married and unmarried, gained the ability to survive independently from men.
The undoing of coverture persisted well into the twentieth century, with laws such as the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 and the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 continuing the work of expanding women's capacity to achieve financial independence. The former act prohibited financial institutions from discriminating against women in credit and loan approvals, and the latter prohibited employers from firing employees who become pregnant. In 1969 California became the first state to legalize no-fault divorce, which removed the legal requirement of providing evidence of wrongdoing (like adultery or abuse) before being granted a divorce, a system that had often functioned to keep women in unwanted or unsafe marriages. New York became the last state to legalize no-fault divorce in 2010.
Activists in the 1970s also revived the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which was first proposed in the 1920s and would have amended the US Constitution to guarantee women's equal rights. The ERA passed Congress in 1972, but only thirty-five of the thirty-eight states needed had ratified it by the 1982 deadline. Attempts to revive the ratification effort have continued in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election, with Nevada ratifying the ERA in 2017 and Illinois following suit in 2018, bringing the total to thirty-seven states. Resolutions to extend the 1982 deadline or allow for the state-by-state ratification process to begin again according to a new timeline were introduced in Congress by Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) and Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) in 2017.
Bodily and Sexual Autonomy
The economic circumstances of women have always influenced their health and safety, and women's legal status has functioned historically to limit their sexual agency and bodily autonomy. The status of enslaved black women in the antebellum period enabled white men to commit a range of physical, sexual, and psychological abuses against them with impunity. Women working in factories during the Industrial and Progressive Eras risked injury and death under the same unsafe working conditions as men yet did so at significantly lower wages. Predominantly Latina farmworkers in the 1960s and onward became ill from pesticide contamination that also made it likelier their children would be born with congenital birth defects.
Access to health care and reproductive autonomy remain pillars of the movement for women's rights. In a report published in 2018, for example, the Guttmacher Institute classified twenty-nine states as either hostile or extremely hostile to abortion rights. Most conversations surrounding reproductive rights have focused on pregnancy prevention and termination, but feminist scholars note that reproductive autonomy also extends to protecting the ability to reproduce when one chooses to do so. Supreme Court rulings such as Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and Roe v. Wade (1972) affirm that decisions regarding pregnancy and motherhood are private and are foundational to US women's reproductive rights. Historians and activists, however, cite sterilization programs that existed in multiple states during the twentieth century to illustrate how marginalized women have been deprived of these decisions. Such programs attempted to control the reproduction of populations considered "less desirable" by sterilizing incarcerated women, black women, Latinas, immigrants, and disabled women without their knowledge or consent.
Consent is a central issue for women in the twenty-first century, especially in the context of sexual harassment and assault. Under coverture, marital rape was legally impossible, underscoring how patriarchal understandings of sex and gender have deprived girls and women of agency, or the capacity to act or exert power. Because a woman was absorbed into her husband's identity, she did not have the capacity to withhold or grant consent. By 1993 marital rape had become illegal in every state, but the belief that nonconsensual sex cannot exist within marriage persists in 2018.
The idea that women are property has arguably extended into women's professional worlds, with sexual harassment prevalent across industries and most positions of power occupied by men. The #MeToo movement, referring to a social media hashtag introduced by social activist Tarana Burke in 2006 that gained international recognition in late 2017, has emerged as an influential anti-harassment campaign. Described by the New York Times as a "cultural reckoning," #MeToo gained traction in the aftermath of multiple serious sexual harassment and assault allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein. High-profile and everyday women alike took to social media to share their stories of sexual harassment, assault, and rape, publicizing how prevalent the violation of women's bodies and agency is in their workplaces, homes, and public spaces.
Political Participation and Women's Leadership
A marked rise in women's political and social activism was noted in the wake of the 2016 election of US president Donald Trump, as symbolized by the historic scale and diverse scope of the Women's March, held in cities and towns across the globe on January 21, 2017. The president's subsequent public defense of an alleged domestic abuser, the announcement that sexual and domestic violence would no longer be accepted as legitimate claims for asylum-seekers, the separation of immigrant children from their parents and guardians at the border, the rescission of Title IX guidance, threats to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, and the confirmation of two conservative judges believed to oppose abortion rights to the Supreme Court have all fueled women's increased political action.
Women's rights advocates contend that the events surrounding the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court in 2018 reflect the country's ongoing patriarchal values that blame, shame, objectify, and discredit women. When allegations of sexual assault were brought against Kavanaugh following his hearings before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, many feminists and political commentators noted a similarity to the confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991. That year, Anita Hill, a black female law professor, came forward with allegations of workplace sexual harassment against Thomas and testified before the all-white, all-male committee. The behavior of the committee suggested that they did not consider Thomas's alleged actions to be a significant problem, if they believed that they had occurred at all, and Thomas was confirmed to the court. The consensus among critics was that the Hill hearings had revealed how little men in power seemed to grasp the gravity of sexual harassment and violence against women.
The mishandling of the Hill hearings—and their publicity via cable television news—is credited as a primary contributor to a subsequent influx of women into Congress. In 1992, referred to as the Year of the Woman, the elections saw record numbers of women running for office and winning seats in both houses of Congress. The number of women in the House of Representatives increased from twenty-eight to forty-seven, and the number of women serving in the US Senate increased from three to seven. Yet by the time Christine Blasey Ford, a psychology professor and high school acquaintance of Kavanaugh, offered testimony regarding her allegations against the judge in 2018, only four of the twenty-one members of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary were women; only two were women of color. All of the women were in the minority Democratic party; all eleven committee Republicans were white men. The eleven Republicans voted in favor of advancing Kavanaugh's nomination; he was confirmed by a majority of the Senate to the Supreme Court on October 6, 2018 in a 50 to 48 vote. Only five of the fifty votes in his favor were cast by women.
Prior to the Kavanaugh hearings and the 2018 midterm elections in November 2018, eighty-four women were serving in the House and twenty-three women were serving in the Senate. After unprecedented gains in the 2018 midterms, the 116th Congress, which will be called into session in January 2019, will see 126 women serving in Congress. Nearly a century after gaining the right to vote, more than 100 seats in the US House of Representatives (out of a total of 435) will be occupied by women for the first time. Among them are the first two Muslim American women and the first two Native American women ever elected to Congress.