Women's Rights Movement in the United States

Women's Rights Movement in the United States

In the early nineteenth century, women held the status of second-class citizens. They were looked down as intellectually and physically unequal to men. They had no legal rights and were confined to their houses. They had to fight to earn their right to vote.
Historyplex Staff
Last Updated: Jun 27, 2018
Even though called a citizen of a free country, women had no rights per se during the 19th century in the United States. Strong social customs and negligible legal rights, especially for married women, made them slaves within their homes.
Unmarried women, since the colonial times could exercise many legal rights as men. But, social customs forced them to marry early. After marriage, they were considered to be sub-sets of their husbands. They did not have the right to own property, maintain their wages, sign a contract, or vote. Women were stereotyped as delicate and weak.
It was thought that any physical or intellectual activity would be injurious to the frail women body. This refrained them from pursuing any serious education or career. As mere objects of beauty, they were considered inferior to men and religion further pushed them in the background by preaching on strict, well-defined gender roles.
When Frances 'Fanny' Wright visited America, she set fire with her speeches on women's rights during 1828-1829. In the age when it was improper for a woman to speak in public places, she gave lectures which were strong worded and revolutionizing.
She scandalized the audience with her views on the rights of women to seek information regarding birth control and divorce.
The Seneca Falls Convention
The World Anti-Slavery Convention was held in London in 1840. This convention was attended by an American delegation. The women in this delegation were forced to sit in the galleries as observers citing gender as the reason.
Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were a part of this delegation. They could not swallow the ill-treatment and decided to hold their own convention to 'discuss the social, civil, and religious rights of women.'
Stanton used the Declaration of Independence as the basis for her Declaration of Sentiments. She presented this declaration in her home-town chapel at Seneca Falls, in uptown New York. She brought forward the plight of women and recommended the necessary change. The Seneca Falls meeting was attended by Susan B. Anthony.
This meeting lead to a long partnership between Stanton and Anthony, who became the movement's most outspoken advocates. Lucy Stone, another proactive member of the cause, found similarities between women and slaves. She thought both were expected to be passive, cooperative, and obedient. Both had a legal status unequal to that of the white male.
During the same year, Ernestine Rose, played an important role in getting a law passed in the state of New York which would allow married women to keep their properties in their own name. The Married Women's Property Act, the first of its kind, spurred up other state legislatures to enact similar laws.
In 1869, Stanton and Anthony with the help of Rose, founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NSWA). Its aim was to amend the constitution for giving women the right to vote.
During the American Civil War, the women's suffrage movement was shadowed by the war effort. Stanton, Anthony, and Sojourner Truth, actively petitioned the emancipation of slaves. They thought by the end of the war, women and slaves will be granted rights similar to that of the white man.
Unfortunately, the government considered the women's rights issues and the slave issues to be separate. They thought Blacks were better vote-banks than women. Abraham Lincoln declared, "This Hour belongs to the Negro" and wanted to address one issue at a time.
This side-lining of the women's rights issue made the women activists frustrated. The fourteenth amendment defined 'citizenship' and 'voters' as 'male'. This gave rise to the question whether women were considered citizens of the United States.
The approval which gave voting rights to black men in the fifteenth constitution, further alienated the women's movement. These amendments caused disagreements among the women activists, bringing a division to the movement. Elizabeth Stanton and Susan Anthony formed the radical NSWA.
A conservative group was formed in Boston by Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and Henry Blackwell, called the American Woman Suffrage Movement (AWSA). In 1890, the merger of these two group, led to the formation of the National Woman Suffrage Movement (NAWSA) which was led by Elizabeth Stanton.
During the 1872 Presidential elections, Susan Anthony was arrested for attempting to vote for Ulysses S. Grant. Six years after her arrest, the Woman's Suffrage Amendment was introduced to the U.S. Congress. The women's movement gained momentum during the 1890s and early 1900s.
During the World War I, the women's movement suffered a slump. After hundreds of protest marches, petitions, demonstrations, the nineteenth amendment was passed by both houses of the Congress. President Woodrow Wilson finally ratified it in 1920.
Amendment XIV
#1. 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 sex.
#2. Congress shall have power to enforce this Article by appropriate legislation.
Ratified August 26, 1920
Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)
Right to vote was not enough to stop the discrimination on the basis of gender. Women did not have the right to hold most political offices until the 1970s. The national Woman's Party took ERA to the Congress in the 1920s. It never reached the Senate or the House for vote and was always kept back under a committee.
The ERA was supported by the Republican Party in the beginning. But, it was strongly opposed by the American Federation of Labor and nine other labor unions. These unions did not want to compete with women. In the 92nd United States Congress, the ERA was finally presented to the state legislatures for ratification as Article V of the Constitution.
The ERA's approval was endorsed by President Richard Nixon. The 92nd Congress set a seven-year time limit for its ratification. By 22nd March, 1979, 35 of the 38 states ratified the act. Just before the deadline, five states who had earlier ratified ERA, abolished it.
In the 95th Congress, Representative Elizabeth Holtzman of New York proposed extension of the ERA's ratification deadline to June 30, 1982. In 1981, a United District Court ruled the extension unconstitutional.
An appeal was made in the Supreme Court. The Supreme court ordered the case dismissed as moot on October 4, 1982. It thereby declared that the 1972 ERA failed to win ratification. The ERA has never been ratified, despite the heated debates and arguments.
Over the centuries, the world has progressed greatly. There is no stone left unturned by women in proving that they are equal to men. Yet, women are a minority in the most powerful political offices. The number of women office holders is far less than the expected number. It is up to the women to break-free from the barriers they have set upon themselves.