This timeline provides milestones in the women’s rights movement.
The American colonies adopt the English system of property ownership for married women as stated by Judge John Wilford Blackstone: “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in the law. The very being and legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated into that of her husband under whose wing and protection she performs everything.” As a result, women cannot own property in their own name or keep their own earnings.
The original 13 states pass laws that prohibit women from voting. Abigail Smith Adams, wife of John Adams, the second president, and mother of John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, writes that women “will not hold ourselves bound by any laws which we have no voice.”
Through the influence of the Rev. John Pierpont, the first high school for girls opens in Boston but quickly closes because of a lack of support. In 1851, Superintendent Nathan Bishop will propose a Normal School to train young women to become elementary school teachers. Developed by Horace Mann, Normal Schools were established in 1839 as teacher training academies to provide raise and ensure the level of quality for teachers. In 1852, Girls’ High School will be established in Boston.
Mississippi is the first state to grant women the right to hold property in their own name, with their husband’s permission.
Lucretia Mott and several other women delegates attend the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London but, as women, are forced to sit in the gallery and are not allowed to participate.
About 300 activists, including 40 men, gather for a two-day convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., to strategize how to obtain women’s suffrage nationwide. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, along with 60 other women and 32 men, sign and issue the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, modeled on the Declaration of Independence, which calls for equal treatment of women and men under the law and voting rights for women. Former slave Frederick Douglass addresses the crowd, showing unity between the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements. Two years later, the first National Women’s Rights Convention is held in Worcester, Mass., and attracts more than 1,000 participants.
Elizabeth Blackwell graduates from Geneva Medical School in Geneva, N.Y., and becomes the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States. In 1957, she will help found the New York Infirmary for Women and Children to train other female physicians.
Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton start the Women’s New York Temperance Society, the first organization in a growing movement for moderation in alcohol consumption. The movement’s call for prohibition leads to the adoption of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution outlawing the manufacture, sale or transport of alcohol starting Jan. 16, 1919. The amendment is then repealed by ratification of the 21st Amendment on Dec. 5, 1933.
The American Equal Rights Association is founded by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martha Coffin Pelham Wright and Ernestine Rose. Its mission is to promote equal rights, with an emphasis on gaining the right to vote for women.
The National Labor Union, one of the nation’s first organized labor advocacy groups, calls for a law requiring equal pay for equal work, the concept that a woman must be paid the same salary as a man for doing the same or equivalent job with the same qualifications.
Disagreements over the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments and the relationship between women’s suffrage and the movement for racial equality split the women’s rights movement with allegiances divided between two main organizations: the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association. With the passage of the 15th Amendment (the first step toward ratification), which granted the right to vote to men of color and former slaves, but not women, the National Women’s Suffrage Association, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, broke with their abolitionist and Republican supporters. Accusing them of emphasizing civil rights for African Americans at the expense of women’s rights, Stanton and Anthony lobbied for a constitutional amendment to give women the right to vote at the federal level. At the same time, the American Woman Suffrage Association worked for voting rights state by state.
The Agnes Irwin School is founded in Philadelphia to provide an educational setting in which young women can prepare for college. The founder, Agnes Irwin, goes on to become the first dean of Radcliffe College in Massachusetts.
The Territory of Wyoming passes the first law giving women over age 21 the right to vote. When Wyoming joins the Union in 1890, it becomes the first state to permit women the right to vote in all elections, although in 1887, Kansas permitted women to vote in municipal elections. In 1893, Colorado grants women the right to vote, followed by Utah and Idaho in 1896; Washington state in 1910; California in 1911; Oregon, Kansas and Arizona in 1912; Illinois in 1913; Montana and Nevada in 1914; New York in 1917; Michigan, South Dakota and Oklahoma in 1918.
Four years after the end of the Civil War, the 15th Amendment, the final Reconstruction amendment, grants the right to vote to newly freed slaves and other men of color in the United States. The 15th Amendment provides: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
A Wyoming court allows women to sit on grand juries, finding that their service will “give them the best possible opportunities to aid in suppressing the dens of infamy which curse the country.”
Congress enacts a federal law that grants female federal employees equal pay for equal work. This same right was not extended to the vast majority of female employees who work for private companies or state and local governments until the adoption of the Equal Pay Act nearly a century later in 1963.
After Susan B. Anthony casts her first vote as an attempt to test whether the 14th Amendment would be interpreted broadly to guarantee women the right to vote, she is tried and convicted in Canandaigua, N.Y., of “unlawful voting.”
An “Act of the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use” is passed by Congress. The act, more commonly known as the Comstock Act – after anti-obscenity activist Anthony Comstock – makes it a crime to publish, distribute or possess information about contraception or abortion, or to distribute or possess devices or medications used for those purposes.
Lawmakers were responding to increasing concern about abortion, the institution of marriage, and the changing role of women in society.
In Minor v. Happersett, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a Missouri law that allows only men to vote. It rejects a claim by Virginia Minor, who was not allowed to register to vote, that the law denies her one of the “privileges or immunities” of citizenship guaranteed in the 14th Amendment. The Court says that while women are “persons” under the 14th Amendment, they are a special category of “non-voting” citizens and that states remain free to grant or deny women the right to vote.
Denied the right to practice law in Washington, D.C., Belva Lockwood drafts legislation that would allow women to practice law in federal courts and lobbied for it in Congress. Her lobbying will pay off after three years when Congress passes her proposal. Lockwood later will run for president of the United States, in 1884 and 1888, as the nominee of the Equal Rights Party, although neither she nor other women can vote.
Two rival women’s voting rights groups, the National Women’s Suffrage Association and the American Women’s Suffrage Association merge to form one organization, the National American Women’s Suffrage Association. The new organization works for passage of a constitutional amendment to guarantee women the right to vote.
Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Mary Church Terrell, Anna Julia Cooper and other leaders of the more than 100 African American women’s clubs unite to form an organization to promote equality for women, raise funds for projects that benefit women and children and oppose segregation and racial violence.
By 1900, every state has passed legislation modeled after New York’s Married Women’s Property Act (1848) granting married women the right to keep their own wages and to own property in their own name.
The Women’s Trade Union League, a national labor group, is created to advocate for improved wages and working conditions for women and encourage women to join the labor movement. The leaders will go on to form the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU).
In 1903, Oregon passed a law limiting the number of hours a woman could work in a laundry to 10 hours a day. Laundry owner Curt Muller sued, saying the law was an unconstitutional violation of employers’ “liberty to contract” with employees. In this case, Muller v. State of Oregon, the Court votes unanimously to uphold the law. Although seemingly a victory for women because it improved their working conditions, the decision proves to be a setback in the drive toward equality because men face none of the same limits and because women need special protection that their male counterparts did not need.
Women garment workers strike in New York for better wages and working conditions in the Uprising of the 20,000. More than 300 shops eventually sign union contracts. Garment worker Rose Schneiderman in the magazine Life and Labor explained the aim of the strike: “What the woman who labors wants is to live, not simply exist–the right to life as the rich woman has it, the right to . . . the sun, and music, and art . . . The worker must have bread, but she must have roses too.”
The Congressional Union is founded by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns and sets as its goal the passage of a federal constitutional amendment that would give women the right to vote. The organization is later renamed the National Women’s Party
Margaret Sanger, a feminist and family planning activist who later will found the American Birth Control League, the predecessor to Planned Parenthood, publishes “The Woman Rebel,” a book calling for the legalization of contraceptives. The U.S. Postal Service bans the book from all U.S. mails in accordance with the Comstock Law, a federal law that made it a crime to publish, distribute, or possess information about contraception or abortion, or to distribute or possess devices or medications used for those purposes. Two years later, Sanger will start a birth control clinic to test the validity of a New York law prohibiting contraception, and she is arrested. By 1918, Sanger had won her lawsuit, although the full constitutional right to use birth control was not established until 1963 in Griswold v. Connecticut.
The National Women’s Party organizes protests at the White House in support of women’s voting rights. Mrs. S.H.B. Gray of Colorado writes, “I have no son to give my country to fight for democracy abroad, and so I send my daughter to Washington to fight for democracy at home.” Police arrest the demonstrators and charge them with obstructing traffic. Alice Paul, the party leader, argues to one judge: “We do not consider ourselves subject to this court, since as an disenfranchised class we have nothing to do with the making of the law which has put us in this position.” Some of those arrested refuse to pay their fines and are sent to prison. After the party publicizes the harsh prison conditions, President Woodrow Wilson pardons the protesters in December 1917.
Jeannette Rankin of Montana is the first women to serve in either branch of Congress. She is elected at a time when women in most states are still not allowed to vote.
Upon ratification of the 19th Amendment, the National American Woman Suffrage Association establishes the League of Women Voters to encourage women to use their newly acquired right to vote. Today, the League promotes greater participation in the democratic process and advocates on a wide range of public policy issues, such as health care reform, campaign finance reform and environmental protection. The League of Women Voters also sponsors debates between candidates for political office, including presidential debates.
The Department of Labor creates the Women’s Bureau to collect information about women in the workforce and safeguard working conditions for women.
After a 72-year fight, the ratification of the 19th Amendment formally guarantees women the right to vote. It is quietly signed into law at a ceremony to which the press and suffragists are not invited.
At the First American Birth Control Conference in New York City, Margaret Sanger, a feminist and family planning activist, announces the creation of the American Birth Control League. The organization works to educate women and the medical and scientific communities about contraceptives and advocates in state legislatures for safe, accessible birth control, including the establishment of local clinics and counseling services. The organization will evolve into the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942.
In a South Carolina murder case, the defense argues that the exclusion of women from the jury pool after passage of the 19th Amendment was a reversible error. In Mittle v. South Carolina, the South Carolina Supreme Court rejects the defendant’s claim, finding that the 19th Amendment cannot be read to grant a right to vote or participate in jury service. Rather, the court finds it simply says that gender cannot be a basis for discrimination when determining voting qualifications. If men are allowed to vote, women are as well. The U.S. Supreme Court refuses to accept the case for review.
Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party succeed in having a constitutional amendment introduced in Congress that said: “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.” In 1943, it will be revised to what is known today as the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1972, after Congress’ approval, the ERA will be sent to the states for ratification with a seven-year deadline.
The ERA quickly secures 22 of the necessary 38 state ratifications, but the pace slows as opposition organizes – only eight ratifications in 1973, three in 1974, one in 1975, and none in 1976. Although Congress grants an extension for ratification until 1982, the ERA does not succeed in getting three more state ratifications before the deadline. It is reintroduced in Congress on July 14, 1982, and has been before every session of Congress since that time.
For her many accomplishments and advocacy efforts on behalf of peace, Jane Addams is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Addams holds a long record of activism on many fronts: In 1889, she helped found Hull House, part of the Settlement House Movement, in a poor Chicago neighborhood. Hull House offered medical care, child care and legal aid as well as classes for immigrants to learn English, vocational skills, music, art and drama. Later, she campaigned for women’s right to vote and worked to change state laws on child labor, the factory inspection system and the juvenile justice system. She also fought for laws to protect immigrants from exploitation, limit the work hours of women, require education for children and recognize labor unions. In 1915, in an effort to avert war, she organized the Women’s Peace Party and the International Congress of Women, which met at The Hague and made serious diplomatic attempts to thwart the war. She was the first president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union, and a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Seeking to ensure that men would be able to find work as the nation recovers from the Depression, Congress passes the National Recovery Act, which forbids more than one family member from holding a government job. This results in many women losing their jobs.
Florence Ellinwood Allen is appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, becoming the first woman judge in a federal court. She eventually will become chief judge of the court. Previously, Allen was the first woman justice to serve on Ohio’s Supreme Court, as well as the first woman to serve on any state Supreme Court. She also served as an assistant county prosecutor and a state court judge after earning a law degree from the New York University School of Law in 1913.
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.
President Franklin Roosevelt signs into law the Fair Labor Standards Act. Among other things, the legislation establishes a 25 cents per hour minimum wage. The bill is one of the early labor bills to treat men and women equally.
During World War II, the United States sends millions of young men into military service abroad. A massive government and industry media campaign persuades women to take jobs during the war to replace the men who joined the military. Artist Norman Rockwell creates an image of a tough yet innocent woman holding a rivet gun who came to be known as Rosie the Riveter. The image was to inspire women to join the war effort by taking part in what was traditionally considered “men’s work.” Nearly seven million women respond; two million as industrial “Rosie the Riveters” and 400,000 join the military. However, after the war, women found that they were expected to return to the home.
Despite that more than seven million women joined the labor force during World War II, men returning from war are immediately expected to replace women in industrial jobs. Surveys show that 80 percent of the women want to continue working. Nevertheless, the 1950s will usher in an era that promotes stay-at-home motherhood over jobs in the workforce.
Florida’s Claude Pepper introduces a bill in the U.S. Senate that required employers to pay women the same wages that men earn for performing the same duties. A similar bill was introduced in 1872, but was limited to women who worked as federal employees. Although defeated, the bill will be passed as the Equal Pay Act in 1963.
Simone De Beauvoir’s controversial feminist book, The Second Sex, is published in the United States. The phrase “women’s liberation,” or women’s lib, is first used in this book.
The Food and Drug Administration approves the use of birth control pills, which had been outlawed by the Comstock Law. Many contemporary family planning activists give credit to Margaret Sanger, the first woman to openly write about birth control after the passage of the Comstock Law and the first woman to open a birth control clinic in the United States
In Hoyt v. Florida, the U.S. Supreme Court upholds Florida’s rules that automatically exempt women from jury service and does not place women on jury lists. Women could, however, volunteer and register for jury service. The Court finds that women’s exclusion was justified because a “woman is still regarded as the center of home and family life.”
President John F. Kennedy establishes the President’s Commission on the Status of Women and appoints Eleanor Roosevelt as chairwoman. Although she dies in 1962, a report is issued in 1963 documenting substantial discrimination against women in the workplace. It makes specific recommendations for improvement including fair hiring practices, paid maternity leave, and affordable childcare.
Betty Friedan’s best-seller, The Feminine Mystique, describes what she called the “problem that has no name.” By 1970, five million copies will have been sold, spurring the creation of the modern feminist movement. Based on interviews of women from Friedan’s 1942 graduating class at Smith College, the book reveals that some women, particularly those living in the suburbs, felt isolated and hopeless because their role as wives and mothers made them financially, intellectually and emotionally dependent on their husbands.
The Equal Pay Act, first proposed 20 years earlier, is enacted. The law establishes that employers must give equal pay for men and women performing the same job duties regardless of the race, color, religion, national origin or sex of the worker.
At the time, women who work full-time, year-round are earning 59 cents on average for every dollar earned by men, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Title VII bars employment discrimination by private employers, employment agencies and unions based on race, sex and other grounds. To investigate complaints and enforce penalties, it establishes the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which receives 50,000 complaints of sex discrimination in its first five years.
In Griswold v. Connecticut, the U.S. Supreme Court overturns one of the last state laws, in Connecticut, prohibiting the prescription or use of contraceptives by married couples. The Court’s landmark decision — coming five years after oral contraceptives became available to American women and 49 years after Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. — legalizes the use of birth control and paves the way for the widespread acceptance of contraception that now exists in this country. The ruling was extended to single women several years later in Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U. S. 438 (1972).
Betty Friedan and other feminists organize the National Organization for Women, which becomes one of the nation’s largest women’s rights groups. It mission is to end sexual discrimination by lobbying, litigation and public demonstrations.
President Lyndon Johnson issues Executive Order 11375, which expands affirmative action policies of 1965 to cover discrimination based on sex. As a result, federal agencies and contractors must take active measures to ensure that women, as well as minorities, have the same employment and educational opportunities as men.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rules that help-wanted ads specifying gender are no longer permissible. The ruling is immediately challenged in court. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court will uphold the EEOC’s ruling, which opens the path for women to apply for higher-paying jobs previously open only to men.
In an effort to change domestic relations laws that were based on stereotypes that men worked outside the home and that women’s primary role was to take care of children and the house, California amends its divorce laws and allows couples to separate and divorce without first having to prove that one of the spouses was at fault for the breakup of the marriage.
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules in Bowe v. Colgate Palmolive Co. that an employer cannot divide jobs into categories reserved for one sex or the other. In this case, the employer would not allow women who had seniority – more years with the company than their male co-workers – to apply for promotions or even take a weight-lifting test that would qualify them for the better-paid position. The Court rules that any tests or considerations for hiring and promotions must be offered on a sex-neutral basis. Any seniority policy, which favors long-term employees, must cover both men and women equally.
In the first major demonstration of the women’s rights movement since the suffragist protests, thousands of women march in New York City and in cities across the nation in the first Women’s Strike for Equality. The National Organization for Women calls the strike to mark the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment’s ratification.
However, at the time of the protest, women still had not achieved equality with men in many areas, such as the workplace In many states, women could not get credit cards, make wills, or own property without a husband. Basic rights, such as serving on juries, were not given to women.
In Reed v. Reed, the U.S. Supreme Court, for the first time, says a state law that treats men and women differently violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. The Idaho law gave automatic preference to men to become an administrator of a will. The plaintiffs had argued that the long history of discrimination against women required the Court to view sex discrimination the same way it treats race discrimination. The state should be required to justify any differing treatment with the most compelling reasons.
Although the Court finds that women are entitled to equal protection under the 14th Amendment, it refuses to extend a higher level of legal protection as it has in race discrimination cases. Nevertheless, the Court finds that the Idaho statute is unreasonable and thus unconstitutional. For the next five years, the Court will struggle with how to decide the constitutionality of laws that treated women differently.
Congress passes Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which requires that schools receiving federal funds provide equal access to educational programs for both men and women. Among other things, passage of Title IX is credited with the explosive growth of women and girls in athletics at the high school, collegiate, and professional levels. The law will take effect in 1976 after withstanding repeated court challenges.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issues guidelines that define sexual harassment as illegal sex-based discrimination under Title VII. The guidelines define harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature in three circumstances: when submission is made either explicitly or implicitly a condition of an individual’s employment; it is used as the basis for a hiring decision; or it has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment. Under the guidelines, employers who adopt anti-harassment policies and training are protected against some liability.
In Roe v. Wade, by a 7-2 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court establishes that a woman has a constitutional right to choose whether to carry her pregnancy to term, effectively nullifying strict anti-abortion laws in 46 states. The plaintiff, Norma McCorvey, took the pseudonym Jane Roe to challenge a Texas law that prohibited all abortions, except those necessary to save a woman’s life. the Court finds that even though the right to privacy is not specifically listed in the Bill of Rights, the Ninth Amendment allows “unenumerated” rights to be recognized as well.
The male-only draft used during the Vietnam War ends and all branches of the military are integrated by gender when they become all-volunteer forces. In 1976, U.S. military academies will be required to admit women. Over the years, military policy that prevented women from combat assignments will ease. In the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, women will become more fully involved on the battlefield.
In Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur, the U.S. Supreme Court determines that it is illegal to force pregnant women to take maternity leave on the assumption they are incapable of working. At issue in the case was a Cleveland school board requirement that pregnant schoolteachers take five months of unpaid maternity leave before their due date, based on an assumption that they would be physically unable to work during pregnancy. After the decision, more women worked until delivery and society began to view pregnancy as a normal and healthy condition rather than an incapacitating one.
The Equal Credit Opportunity Act passed by Congress prohibits discrimination in consumer credit practices on the basis of sex, race, marital status, religion, national origin, age, or receipt of public assistance.
Congress passes legislation that require the U.S. military academies to begin to admit women by 1976. The academies include West Point, the Air Force Academy and the Naval Academy at Annapolis.
Sandra Day O’Connor is the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court. She is nominated by President Ronald Reagan after Justice Potter Stewart retired in June 1981. The Senate approves her nomination with ninety-one votes.
The U.S. Supreme Court reaffirms the right to abortion while permitting new state restrictions. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court finds that Roe v. Wade established a “rule of law and a component of liberty we cannot renounce.” It also adopts a new standard for evaluating abortion restrictions. It had required evidence of a “compelling” state interest. Now, it will allow requirements that do not present a “substantial obstacle” to a woman seeking an abortion. The Court upholds Pennsylvania’s 24-hour waiting period and informed consent rules.
Twenty-four women are elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and six to the U.S. Senate, including Patty Murray from Washington, Carol Moseley Braun from Illinois, and Barbara Boxer from California
In United States v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court affirms that the male-only admissions policy of the state-supported Virginia Military Institute violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The lawsuit pits the federal government against the Commonwealth of Virginia over the male-only policy of the state’s Virginia Military Institute. The state built what it termed an equivalent women’s program nearby, called the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership, to bypass the constitutional mandate of equal protection of the laws. However, the Court finds that the women’s program is not comparable in prestige or academic programming to VMI and orders the men’s school to admit women.
Women make only 75.5 cents for every dollar that men earn, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Between 2002 and 2003, median annual earnings for full-time year-round women workers shrank by 0.6 percent, to $30,724, while men’s earnings remained unchanged, at $40,668. The 1.4 percent decrease in the wage ratio is the largest backslide since 1991.
The federal law expands workers’ right to sue for pay discrimination and relaxes the statute of limitations on such suits. Lilly Ledbetter had sued her employer, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., when she neared retirement and learned that she was paid much less than her male colleagues. But the U.S. Supreme Court threw out her case, saying she should have filed her suit within 180 days of the date that Goodyear first paid her less than her peers. Courts repeatedly had cited the decision as a reason for rejecting lawsuits claiming discrimination based on race, sex, age and disability. The new law changes the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which said discrimination complaints must be brought within 180 days of the discriminatory act.
The Supreme Court rules, 5-4, that the Affordable Care Act violates a federal law protecting religious freedom by requiring family-owned corporations to pay for insurance coverage for contraception. The coverage was challenged by two corporations, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, whose owners said they try to run their businesses based on Christian principles.
Justice Samuel Alito, in the majority opinion in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, stresses that the Court had decided only that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applied to “closely held” for-profit corporations run on religious principles. The Court rejects the government’s argument that neither the owners nor the corporations could bring a religious-freedom claim. “Protecting the free-exercise rights of corporations like Hobby Lobby … protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control those companies,” Alito writes. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion criticizes the ruling as a radical overhaul of corporate rights.