The Historical And Ongoing Struggle For Women's Civil Rights In The US

9 January 2015
 Categories: Law, Blog


Roughly half the population of the US is female, yet the evolution of women's rights here has been slow, and it still involves serious issues. Here is a brief history and update on US civil rights for women.  

American History and Women's Rights

Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote a Declaration of Sentiments in the mid 1800's that outlined the women's civil rights issues of the day, in which she cleverly co-opted much of the language of the Declaration of Independence, as she discussed these points:

  • Women were not allowed to vote.

  • Laws that women had to follow were enacted solely by men in congress.

  • Once a woman married, any property and money the wife earned could legally be controlled by her husband.

  • The inequality of wages between men and women.

  • Women had to pay taxes to support a government that gave them no voice.

  • The mores and laws of the time prevented women from entering many lucrative and fulfilling professions.

  • Divorce and child custody laws were clearly favorable to males and discriminatory towards females.

  • Higher Education was denied to females; colleges refused to admit them.

At the first women's rights convention that was held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, 32 men and 68 women signed this declaration which outlined the agenda for equal civil rights for women in the following years.

It took 71 years for the federal woman suffrage amendment to be passed in congress, allowing women the right to vote in 1919.

In 1916, Margaret Sanger was arrested for opening a birth control clinic in Brooklyn, N.Y. This event brought to the forefront issues about reproductive health rights to contraception and education for women. Although she was able to open another clinic in 1923, Sanger and other women faced an uphill battle for helping women control what goes on with their own bodies, and with respect to childbearing.

Women and the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s

Being a woman of color means fighting both sexism and racism, but there were some effective female fighters in the civil rights movement that began in the 1950s and 1960s (for racial equality). Unfortunately, many of their names and accomplishments are not fully appreciated in the history of this movement due to sexism, religious beliefs, and some reluctance for receiving fanfare.

In this movement women:

  • Did a lot of the grunt work and volunteering.

  • Raised significant amounts of money to fund the events and causes.

  • Supported their husbands who were taking the lead, including Coretta Scott King, Myrlie Evers Williams and Betty Shabazz.

Still, some women did make names for themselves at the time. Rosa Parks, long depicted as merely a tired worker who refused to give up her seat on a bus, was actually very active in the movement and calculated her actions to aid in publicity for it.  Ella Baker, Septima Poinsette Clark, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Vivian Malone Jones are all names to know for their tireless work to gain racial equality, equal education, and governmental regulation to protect those rights.

Two of the notable things the movement accomplished was the verdict in Brown v. The Board of Education (which banned school segregation) and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which banned racial discrimination in public accommodations and services offered by hotels and restaurants. The most important thing the Civil Rights Act did though, was to guarantee equal opportunities in education and employment regardless of race.

Modern Civil Rights Issues for Women

In this century, women still face discrimination in employment and wages. In a court case in 2006, Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., it was brought to light that women working there were statistically making 20% (80 cents on the dollar) less than the male employees. Congress subsequently passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, so women can have more legal power to fight economic discrimination.

Serious women's employment and economic issues include:

  • 40% of U.S. single parent family households are headed by female wage earners.

  • Women work 2/3s of the labor-intensive minimum wage jobs (which may provide little or no benefits) in this country.

  • Many women still have to make the "impossible choice between family care" and keeping their jobs. "Nationwide paid family leave and paid sick day policies" are very much needed to address this.

  • 70% of the nation's poor are women and their children.

Reproductive rights issues are still a hot topic in the US due to attempts to constrict women's rights through legislation. These include:

  • Extensive availability of preventive methods of contraception.

  • Fair and legal abortions and emergency contraception for rape victims.

  • Reproductive health services and education.

  • Invasive medical health procedures being foisted on women in many states.

Other contemporary women's civil rights issues include: social security and pension reform, violence towards women, racial and LGBT rights, and obtaining the controversial and elusive equal rights amendment to the constitution. (For more information on civil rights, contact a lawyer such as Marie A. Mattox, P.A.)