Women's Rights

The rights and roles of women in society continue to evolve and vary considerably across the globe. Read the overview below to gain a balanced understanding of the issue and explore the previews of opinion articles that highlight many perspectives on feminism.

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Women's Rights Topic Overview

"Women's Rights." Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection, Gale, 2021.

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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 formed the basis of US 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. Issues related to the rights of women in the United States largely fell 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 of coverture, which came to North America from England with colonial settlers, determined women's lesser 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 by themselves, own property or inherit it in most cases, retain control of earned wages, claim rights to their children, or withhold consent to sexual intercourse.

Though the formalized US women's rights movement did not take shape until the mid-nineteenth century, a long tradition of women working for greater autonomy had begun in the Colonial and Revolutionary eras. The arguments for women's rights were shaped by the Declaration of Independence, which declared "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights." These rights were guaranteed by the US Constitution. However, the rights proclaimed to "all men" by the Constitution were limited to white, property-holding men, who were allowed to vote and participate in government. At the same time, a variety of legal and social sanctions continued to limit women's involvement in public and civic life.

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 convention 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 finally achieved more than seventy years later with the ratification 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. Some critics argue that women in high-income nations like the United States have achieved their full rights. However, multiple national and international organizations including the World Economic Forum and the United Nations have found that, as of 2021, no country in the world has achieved gender equality. In 2020, according to Pew Research Center, 57 percent of US adults indicated the United States had not done enough to advance women's rights. In the same survey, 67 percent of US adults believed people not seeing gender discrimination where it really does exist is a bigger problem than people seeing discrimination where it does not exist.

The status of women's rights was tested by the twin health and economic crises presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit the United States beginning in March 2020. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected women, particularly women of color. Cultural and political observers note that the pandemic has widened pre-existing gender inequalities and revived debates about the value of unpaid and underpaid domestic and caretaking work performed predominantly by women. Meanwhile, women in policymaking and leadership positions have been credited with crafting federal pandemic relief programs passed in 2021 that addressed the needs of women and children.


  • Women's rights issues in the United States primarily fall under three broad categories: economic independence, bodily and sexual autonomy, and political participation.
  • Patriarchy refers to a society in which men hold a disproportionately large share of power. Laws and norms are said to be patriarchal when they perpetuate this gendered imbalance of power.
  • Coverture, which shaped how women's lesser status was written into law, is the concept that female persons do not have legal identities but are instead "covered" by their fathers' or husbands' identities.
  • Consent is central to women's rights, especially in the contexts of marriage and relationships, reproductive autonomy, health care, sexual harassment and assault, and rape.
  • Concerns over consent and women's rights have extended into the workplace, where sexual harassment remains prevalent across industries, as amplified by the #MeToo movement.
  • Pursuing greater and more diverse political representation has been a primary strategy for achieving women's rights. Research suggests responses to COVID-19 were more effective in places where women held leadership positions. 


Economic Independence

Stemming from coverture, the doctrine of separate spheres defined the gendered divisions of US 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 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 federal 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 secure 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 (such as 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 necessary thirty-eight states had ratified it by the extended 1982 deadline. Attempts to revive the ratification effort continued in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election. Nevada, Illinois, and Virginia ratified the ERA in 2017, 2018, and 2020, respectively, bringing the total to thirty-eight states. A joint resolution to remove the 1982 deadline for state ratification of the ERA was introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate in January 2021. The House passed the resolution in March 2021, but the Senate did not bring it up for a vote. A second bipartisan resolution to restart the state-by-state ratification process was introduced in March 2021.


Bodily and Sexual Autonomy

The economic circumstances of women have always influenced their health and safety, and women's legal status has historically limited their sexual agency and bodily autonomy. The status of enslaved Black women in the antebellum period enabled white people 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. While most conversations surrounding reproductive rights focus on pregnancy prevention and termination, reproductive autonomy also includes the freedom to reproduce when one chooses to do so. Supreme Court rulings such as Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and Roe v. Wade (1973) are foundational to US women's reproductive rights because they affirm decisions regarding pregnancy and parenthood are private matters. 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 women with disabilities without their knowledge or consent.

Consent is central to bodily autonomy. 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 to sex. By 1993 marital rape had become illegal in every state, but the belief that marriage implies consent and that nonconsensual sex cannot exist within marriage persists in 2021.

The idea that women are property has arguably extended into women's professional worlds where sexual harassment is prevalent. The #MeToo movement, referring to a social media hashtag introduced by social activist Tarana Burke in 2006, emerged as an influential anti-harassment campaign in late 2017. Women from all walks of life took to social media to share their stories of sexual harassment, assault, and rape. These stories brought wide public acknowledgement to the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in workplaces, homes, and public spaces.

In 2021 bodily autonomy came to the forefront again in the debate over abortion laws. Policy and legal experts contend that abortion rights are in serious jeopardy in the early 2020s for the first time since Roe v Wade, which upheld a woman's right to privacy when making decisions regarding her own pregnancy, including having an abortion, with some restrictions after the first trimester. Despite the US Supreme Court repeatedly upholding and affirming the Roe decision during its nearly fifty-year history, state legislatures have continued to pass laws attempting to restrict abortion and access to abortion. In a report published in 2020, the Guttmacher Institute classified twenty-nine states as hostile to abortion rights. That year, six states were deemed "very hostile" and fifteen states "hostile" to abortion rights, while in 2010 zero states were classified "very hostile" and ten states were "hostile." According to the Guttmacher Institute, by midyear, 2021 had already become the "most devastating" year on record for legislative attacks on abortion rights in the United States, as ninety new abortion restrictions had been enacted by July 1.

The ideological balance of the sitting US Supreme Court justices in 2021 favored conservative interpretations of the US Constitution, and six of the nine judges leaned toward antiabortion stances. The Court announced in May 2021 that it would hear a case regarding a Mississippi law that would prohibit nearly all abortions beyond fifteen weeks of pregnancy. Arguments were scheduled to take place December 2021, which will be the first time the Court has heard a case regarding pre-viability gestational age since Roe v. Wade. Additionally, in September 2021 the Court issued a controversial 5–4 decision that it would not block a new Texas law banning all abortions after six weeks of pregnancy from taking effect while a lawsuit filed against it moved through lower courts.


  • What is the doctrine of separate spheres, and how does it affect gender norms and roles in the twenty-first-century United States?
  • Do you think increased women's representation in Congress will lead to federal legislation to protect abortion and reproductive rights nationwide? Why or why not?
  • What steps, if any, should your state government take to compensate women for unpaid or underpaid domestic labor? Explain your answer.


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. Many women's rights supporters credit opposition to Trump and his administration with fueling historic results of the 2018 midterm elections. Prior to the November 2018 election, eighty-four women were serving in the House and twenty-three women were serving in the Senate. In January 2019, nearly a century after women gained the right to vote, more than one hundred seats in the US House of Representatives (out of a total of 435) and 25 seats in the Senate (out of a total of 100) were occupied by women for the first time. Representative Nancy Pelosi (D–CA)—the first woman elected to serve as Speaker of the House, serving in the post from 2007 to 2011—reclaimed the speakership in 2019. With the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in 2021 and Pelosi continuing to serve as Speaker, the second and third positions in the line of presidential succession were held by women. As of September 2021, 119 women serve in the House of Representatives and twenty-four women serve in the Senate. The Biden administration also appointed women to eleven cabinet-level positions in 2021. Despite these gains, in August 2021 women filled only about 25 percent of all national congressional seats, 33 percent of Supreme Court seats, and 18 percent of state governorships.

Because women lack equity in political representation and continue to face societal hurdles, they have been hit harder economically and socially by the COVID-19 pandemic than men. Women in the United States have taken on a greater share of unpaid child and elder care responsibilities than men and have suffered greater job losses and left the workforce at rates higher than men. According to a 2021 Pew analysis, Black women and Latinas represented 46 percent of all women who had left the workforce despite representing less than 33 percent of the total female US labor force. Nevertheless, the presence of women in decision-making roles, both in government and other sectors, is associated with more effective pandemic responses. A 2020 analysis published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, for instance, found lower COVID-19 fatality rates in US states where women were serving as governors than in states with male governors.


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