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 or male elders 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 women do not have legal identities but are instead "covered," first by their fathers' identities and later, ostensibly, by their husbands' identities. 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." The US Constitution guaranteed these rights. 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 first decades of the twenty-first century. According to the United Nations, no country in the world had achieved gender equality as of 2022, and no countries were on track to achieve it by 2030. Beginning in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women, reviving debates about the value of unpaid and underpaid domestic and caretaking work performed predominantly by women. The pandemic widened pre-existing social inequalities, including health disparities among women based on race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, and disability.
Many advocates consider the June 2022 US Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization a significant setback for women's rights. Dobbs eliminated the federally protected right to abortion and gave state legislature broad authority to determine abortion law. In the decision, the conservative majority in the court overturned Roe v. Wade (1973), which had prohibited states from intervening in people's reproductive health care choices through the first trimester of pregnancy. According to the Guttmacher Institute, as of August 2022, 58 percent of US girls and women ages thirteen to forty-four lived in states that were either hostile or extremely hostile to abortion.
- 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 considered 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.
- Many advocates believe that the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that legalized abortion at the federal level, in 2022 represents a major setback for women's rights and may lead to the erosion of other achievements by the women's movement.
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 discriminating against 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. The ratification effort was renewed 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. Lawmakers have made efforts to remove the 1982 deadline for state ratification and to restart the state-by-state ratification process. As of July 2022, however, their attempts remained stalled in the US Senate.
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.
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 beliefs that marriage implies consent and that nonconsensual sex cannot exist within marriage persist.
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 acknowledgment to the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in workplaces, homes, and public spaces.
Access to health care and reproductive autonomy, or the freedom to control one's own reproductive future, remain pillars of the movement for women's rights. Reproductive autonomy relies on access to knowledge and tools for preventing and terminating pregnancy as well as freedom from coercive or forced sterilization. The US Supreme Court ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) prohibits the state from banning contraceptives on the basis that decisions regarding pregnancy and parenthood are private matters. Historians and activists, however, cite sterilization programs that existed in several 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.
Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization (2022), which challenged a Mississippi law prohibiting nearly all abortions beyond fifteen weeks of pregnancy, was the first case regarding pre-viability gestational age the Supreme Court had agreed to hear since Roe v. Wade. In its decision, the court rejected the reasoning of Roe v. Wade, denying any constitutional right to abortion, and returning the authority to legislate abortion to state lawmakers. The Dobbs ruling intensified advocates' concerns the conservative majority on the court will target other rulings that serve as cornerstones of women's reproductive autonomy, such as Griswold v. Connecticut (1965).
The Dobbs decision was the culmination of a decades-long project by antiabortion activists; politicians, lawyers and judges, and reproductive rights advocates had had been preparing for the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Before the court released its decision in Dobbs, some states had moved to protect access to abortion, many others had moved to ban or severely restrict access in the event Roe was overturned, and yet others were poised to revert to pre-1973 abortion law. In 2010 the Guttmacher Institute classified ten states as "hostile" and zero states as "very hostile" to abortion rights. By 2021 it had classified fifteen states as "hostile" and six states as "very hostile." As of August 2022, legal abortions were nearly impossible to obtain in twelve states.
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTIONS
- What is the doctrine of separate spheres, and how does it affect gender norms and roles in the United States in the twenty-first century?
- Why do you think increased women's representation in Congress has not resulted in federal legislation to protect abortion and reproductive rights nationwide? Explain your answer.
- What steps, if any, should your state government take to compensate women for unpaid or underpaid domestic labor? Explain your reasoning.
POLITICAL PARTICIPATION AND WOMEN'S LEADERSHIP
Commentators noted a marked rise in women's political and social activism 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 twenty-five seats in the Senate (out of a total of one hundred) 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, women held the second and third positions in the line of presidential succession. As of August 2022, 122 women served in the House of Representatives and twenty-four women served in the Senate. Women held twelve cabinet-level positions in the Biden administration and four of nine seats on the Supreme Court. Despite these gains, women filled only about 27 percent of all national congressional seats, about 30 percent of all state legislative 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, 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 during the first several months of the pandemic in US states where women were serving as governors than in states with male governors.
With the majority of Americans opposed to the reversal of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court's decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization sparked immediate and widespread protest. Girls, women, and supporters of women's and reproductive rights demonstrated across the country. Advocates outside the United States staged marches in solidarity with American women. Many Democratic lawmakers and leaders including President Biden, Vice President Harris, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi condemned the ruling. However, efforts to pass a law protecting abortion access nationwide failed in the Senate. Women's and reproductive rights advocates have predicted the court's overturning of Roe v. Wade will motivate record voter turnout among young voters in the 2022 midterm elections.