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For Women's suffrage see History of women's suffrage in the United States.

This is a history of the role of women throughout the history of the United States and of feminism in the United States.


Women in Colonial Times

The experiences of women during the colonial era varied greatly from colony to colony. In New England, the Puritan settlers brought their strong religious values with them to the New World, which dictated that a woman be subordinate to her husband and dedicate herself to rearing God-fearing children to the best of her ability. In the early Chesapeake colonies, very few women were present. Much of the population consisted of young, single, white indentured servants, and as such the colonies, to a large degree, lacked any social cohesiveness. African women entered the colony as early as 1619, although their status: free, slave or indentured servant remains a historical debate. Hispanic women also emerged in Spanish controlled areas such as New Mexico, California and Arizona. These women were of either Spanish, Indian, African or mixed descent.

Much later on in the colonial experience, as the values of the Enlightenment were imported from Britain, the philosophies of such thinkers as John Locke weakened the view that husbands were natural "rulers" over their wives and replacing it with a (slightly) more liberal conception of marriage. Women also lost most control of their property when marrying. Even single women could not sue anyone or be sued, or make contracts, and divorce was almost impossible until the late Italic texteighteenth century.

The American Revolution had a deep effect on the philosophical underpinnings of American society. One aspect that was drastically changed by the democratic ideals of the Revolution was the roles of women. The idea of republican motherhood was born in this period. The mainstream political philosophy of the day assumed that a republic rested upon the virtue of its citizens. Thus, women had the essential role of instilling their children with values conducive to a healthy republic. During this period, the wife's relationship with her husband also became more liberal, as love and affection instead of obedience and subservience began to characterize the ideal marital relationship. In addition, many women contributed to the war effort through fundraising and running family businesses in the absence of husbands.

Whatever gains they had made, however, women still found themselves subordinated, legally and socially, to their husbands, disenfranchised and with only the role of mother open to them. The desire of women to have a place in the new republic was most famously expressed by Abigail Adams to her husband:

I desire you would remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands.

However, The Declaration of Independence still remained androcentric, stating, "all men are created equal".

The Cult of True Womanhood

During the 1830s and 1840s, many of the changes in the status of women that occurred in the post-Revolutionary period– such as the belief in love between spouses and the role of women in the home– continued at an accelerated pace. This was an age of reform movements, in which Americans sought to improve the moral fiber of themselves and of their nation in unprecedented numbers. The wife's role in this process was important because she was seen as the cultivator of morality in her husband and children. Besides domesticity, women were also expected to be pious, pure, and submissive to men. These four components were considered by many at the time to be "the natural state" of womanhood, echoes of this ideology still existing today. The view that the wife should find fulfillment in these values is called the Cult of True Womanhood or the Cult of Domesticity.

Early Feminists

Early feminists active in the abolition movement increasingly began to compare women's situation with the plight of African American slaves. This new polemic squarely blamed men for all the restrictions of women's role, and argued that the relationship between the sexes was one-sided, controlling and oppressive.

Most of the early women's advocates were Christians, especially Quakers. It started with Lucretia Mott's effort to join the Quaker abolitionist men in the abolitionist movement. The result was that Quaker women like Lucretia Mott learned how to organize and pull the levers of representative government. Starting in the mid-1830s, they decided to use those skills for women's advocacy. It was those early Quaker women who taught other women their advocacy skills, and for the first time used these skills for women's advocacy. As these new women's advocates began to expand on ideas about men and women, religious beliefs were also used to support them. Sarah Grimké suggested in her Letters on the Equality of the Sexes (1858) that the curse placed upon Eve in the Garden of Eden was God's prophecy of a period of universal oppression of women by men. Early feminists set about compiling lists of examples of women's plight in foreign countries and in ancient times.

Seneca Falls and the growth of the movement

Anti-Suffrage political cartoon

At the Seneca Falls convention in 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton modeled her Declaration of Sentiments on the United States Declaration of Independence. Men were said to be in the position of a tyrannical government over women. This separation of the sexes into two warring camps was to become increasingly popular in feminist thought, despite some reform minded men such as William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips who supported the early women's movement.

As the movement broadened to include many women like Susan B. Anthony from the temperance movement, the slavery metaphor was joined by the image of the drunkard husband who batters his wife. Ideas that women were morally superior to men reflected the social attitudes of the day. They also led to the focus on women's suffrage over more practical issues in the latter half of the 19th century. Feminists assumed that once women had the vote, they would have the political will to deal with any other issues.

Victoria Woodhull argued in the 1870s that the 14th amendment to the United States Constitution already guaranteed equality of voting rights to women. She anticipated the arguments of the United States Supreme Court a century later. But there was a strong movement opposed to suffrage, and it was delayed another 50 years, during which time most of the practical issues feminists campaigned for, including the 18th amendment's prohibition on alcohol, had already been won.

Feminism during the Progressive Era

Speaker of the House Frederick Huntington Gillett signing the Suffrage Bill

Anarcho-communist organizer Emma Goldman theorized and advocated for an integrated philosophy of women's liberation, anti-capitalism and anti-authoritarianism. Aside from advocating free choice in sexual relations, she called for access to birth control. She served as a mentor to Margaret Sanger who went to found the American Birth Control League (which eventually became Planned Parenthood) and become an extremely visible advocate for access to family planning.[1]

Women's suffrage was finally guaranteed by Constitutional Amendment through the 19th Amendment. It was passed by Congressional vote in May and June 1919, and ratified by thirty-six states in a little over a year.

Depression and War

Rosie the Riveter: "We Can Do It!" - Many women first found economic strength in World War II-era manufacturing jobs.

The economic crisis known as the Great Depression (1929-40) saw massive new government intervention into the economy, with striking effects on issues of gender. Among the most important for women were systems of economic guarantees granted to retirees, their wives and children and their widows, through the Social Security Act.

Women played multiple roles on the United States home front during World War II (1941-1945). Sixteen million men served in uniform along with 350,000 women who were WACS, WAVES, SPARS, Marines and nurses. The munitions industries temporarily employed millions of women who had been housewives or students, or (most often) held low-paying service jobs. Rosie the Riveter became an icon of civilian and women's involvement in war.

After the war, women's employment status was not guaranteed, and much of the industrial economy rushed to rehire men. However, in many white collar sectors, such as banking and clerical work, the glass ceiling was moved significantly upward. Both during and after the war, women rarely earned as much in the occupations that became female-dominated (such as cashiers, tellers, and low-level loan officers) as their male colleagues had before.[2] Government investments, such as the GI Bill, fueled suburbanization, and the reuniting of separated spouses fostered the baby boom. With radical political activity suppressed by McCarthyism, consumerism being fostered by the retooling of wartime factories for domestic use, and the nuclear family at one of its historic peaks, women were home bound, as wives and mothers. Eventually a major backlash and reconsideration of women's roles occurred, in Betty Friedan's 1963 exposé The Feminine Mystique, which critiqued contemporary educated American women's socialization and restrictions and judged them to be intolerable.

The growth of modern feminism

The Women's Movement

The Women's Movement Reawakens

The Women's Movement of the 1960s and 1970s had its roots in the new opportunities and freedoms for women during World War II. Following war many women who were forced to return to their roles as housewives grew frustrated and suffocated, as the women who began to enter or reenter the workforce grew dissatisfied with their second class status, clearly visible in little to no room for advancement, unequal pay for the same work (fifty-nine cents on a man's dollar), sex-segregated help wanted ads, and the legality of sexual discrimination and sexual harassment, which did not exist as a legal concept at the time. Misogynistic social roles and inequities in education, among other things, fuels women's discontent. As this began to seep into national consciousness, President John F. Kennedy created a President's Commission on the Status of Women in 1961. The Commission report, The American Woman, revealing widespread sex discrimination in American life, was released in 1963, which is widely held as the year the movement began. That year Kennedy signed into law the Equal Pay Act and executive orders ending sex discrimination in the civil service as Gloria Steinem published her article I Was a Playboy Bunny, an inside the scenes look at the treatment of women of Playboy. The movement is usually dated back to February of 1963, when Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. Friedan's book led to a new consciousness of women's limited roles, and spoke to the discontent of housewives. Meanwhile, Kennedy's commission had established networks of feminist groups that lobbied for legislation for women. In 1964 the Civil Rights Act, originally intended to end discrimination for African Americans, was passed, having been amended to protect women as well, guaranteeing them full equality in the work place (Title VII).

Early victories

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in charge of the enforcement of Title VII, ignored sex discrimination complaints and it went largely unenforced for the next couple of years. Many women lashed out at the EEOC. In 1966, Congresswoman Martha Griffiths lashed out at the EEOC on the floor of Congress as women grew increasingly fed up. The National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded by Betty Friedan and others shortly thereafter. Organized protests began, and the "Women's Liberation Movement" burst onto the national stage. NOW won from President Lyndon Johnson an extension of affirmative action to women in 1967. That year, mass protests, particularly in New York City, led to many states passing laws which forced all "men's only" restaurants, clubs, and organizations to open their doors to women. In 1968, at last, feminists won a huge victory when the EEOC, having finally begun to treat sexual discrimination the same as racial discrimination, ruled illegal help wanted ads which segregated jobs on account of sex, opening many hitherto unattainable jobs to women. The Supreme Court upheld the ruling.

Early divisions

In 1968 NOW's "Bill of Rights for Women" supported abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment, which, for some of the early feminists, were too radical. Labor union women publicly resigned in protest at a time when the ERA was something championed by mostly Republicans and was opposed, fiercely, by labor. In the coming years labor would drop all opposition, and the Democratic Party would replace the Republicans as the Party of ERA. Pro-life women also resigned; in 1972 pro-life women organized Feminists for Life to campaign for both feminist issues, like the ERA, and also for legislation opposing abortion. The more conservative women who left NOW formed the Women's Equity Action League (WEAL) and continued to work with NOW on issued such as economic equality.


More radical than the women of NOW and WEAL were younger women, many of whom came to the new Women's Rights Movement from the New Left, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Antiwar Movement. In the summer of 1968 a young radical named Robin Morgan and the group New York Radical Women led hundreds of women to an Atlantic City protest against the Miss America pageant. The generational split and the conservative/moderate/liberal/radical divisions were soon apparent as the Movement began to gather speed. In 1970 the nation was shocked as, on August 26, the 50th anniversary of the Women's Suffrage Amendment's ratification, hundreds of thousands (millions?) of women, nationwide, went on strike in the "Women's Strike for Equality". In New York City, Friedan and the beautiful journalist Gloria Steinem, the Movement's new poster girl, led over 50,000 women in a march for equality.

The election of Richard Nixon in 1968 was opposed by many feminists, however Nixon, after initially ignoring women's rights, lent the feminist movement strong support in the early 1970s. Though he gained the feminists' fury with his veto of the Comprehensive Child Development Bill of 1972 (universal daycare), he strongly supported the Equal Rights Amendment and signed into law the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, helping to end sex discrimination in schools and athletics. Nixon also appointed another presidential commission on women and began to appoint, over the objections of many men in his administration, more women to positions of power.

In 1971 a bipartisan conference of women of diverse ideologies, including Rep. Shirley Chisholm, Rep. Bella Abzug, Friedan, and Gloria Steinem, founded the National Women's Political Caucus. At the founding conference Steinem delivered her famous Address to the Women of America, stating that "This is no simple reform; it really is a revolution". She talked about the goal of a society where there were no roles "other than those chosen or those earned. We are really talking about humanism". (Steinem herself had considered herself more of a humanist.)

"The personal is political" became the feminist catchphrase, as sexism in socialization, the family, romantic relationships and at the interpersonal level was targeted by many feminists. Anthologies such as Kate Millet's Sexual Politics and Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch were published, and became popular among more radical feminists.

Education and Sports

Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments and the Women's Educational Equity Act of 1975 removed great inequalities in education. Title IX opened doors for women athletes, as did Billie Jean King's 1973 Battle of the Sexes tennis victory. Women's sports began to organize and as Title IX was enforced, women athletes became common. Many of the elite men's colleges and universities began to admit women, and women's schools began to admit men. The nation's Military Academies were forced by Congress to admit women.

Employment and Economics

Feminist activism led to enforcement of the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 aimed to remove remaining inequalities in pay, hiring, and the workplace. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 made illegal discrimination in credit, a major problem for women seeking equality. As above mentioned, segregated newspaper ads were ruled illegal by the EEOC in 1968. In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act gave expecting mothers job protection. The courts also lent their support in striking down sexist laws. Alimony and divorce laws were equalized. State laws barring women from juries were overturned by the Supreme Court.

Rape and violence

Sexual assault and domestic violence became central targets of women's activism. The crime of rape began to assume its contemporary form, sex without consent, both legally and socially. Existing laws were extended to include marital rape (usually, in practice, of wives by husbands, made illegal in every state), and sex when a person is too physically or mentally incapacitated to consent. Susan Brownmiller's Against Our Will examined the history of rape. Feminists, led by Gloria Steinem and her Women's Action Alliance, worked to create domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers non-existent prior to the Women's Movement. Some extremist radical feminists argued that the dominant metaphor describing heterosexual relationships between men and women is itself rape and men raped women physically, economically and spiritually. However, these were a small minority and their views were attacked and criticized by the mainstream of women. Also within such radical extremists were Lesbian separatists, who appealed to lesbian women, advocating the complete independence of women from what was seen as a male-dominated society.


Access to contraception and abortion continued to be major issues for women's rights advocates. The contraceptive pill was approved by the FDA in 1960 for use by married women only. The "age of majority" law was changed from age 21 to 18 in 1972 because of Vietnam; men said if they were old enough to die, then they were old enough to vote. Vietnam therefore had an indirect effect on the availability of the contraceptive pill, as it made it more widely available for younger, non-married women. The first hormonal contraception method, the combined oral contraceptive pill, technologically revolutionized control over reproduction, while laws restricting access to birth control and abortion were rolled back by legislative action and judicial decisions such as Griswold v. Connecticut (contraception, 1965) and Roe v. Wade (abortion, 1973). Following the Griswold ruling that allowed all married persons access to contraception, the Supreme Court ruled in the early 1970s that all unmarried persons were also allowed contraception, under the Constitution's implied right to privacy. Numerous women's health collectives, women-run reproductive health clinics and several clandestine abortion services (most notably Jane, organized by members of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union) were organized prior to these rulings, providing immediate access and increasing pressure for legalization. Women's groups largely supported abortion rights, however there was a significant minority which spoke out in opposition. Feminists for Life was formed by pro-life women in 1972. Alice Paul, leading suffragette, author of the Equal Rights Amendment, and feminist activist until her 1977 death was passionately pro-life, over which she clashed with many of the new feminists.

Equal Rights Amendment

In 1972 the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution passed Congress. It had been proposed by Alice Paul and the National Woman's Party in the 1923 and reintroduced every Congress thereafter. In the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower became the first President to explicitly say that he favored the full "equality of women" and also endorsed the ERA. It passed the Senate twice that decade, but in a modified version which rendered it moot, and was unsupported by ERA advocates. After a long ratification effort the ERA expired in 1982, with 35 of the necessary 38 states need to pass it. Efforts to pass the Amendment that has gained 35 states already and to begin anew persist, but have lost much momentum. In 1983, a new ERA was narrowly defeated in Congress (ironically, it would have passed had not come of its co-sponsors switched their votes). By the 1980s the Women's Movement had already largely reformed the laws which made the ERA seem necessary from 1923 to the early 1970s. Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat from New York, reintroduced the ERA in the House of Representatives in 2009.

Women in the 1980s

Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter all supported the ERA, but in 1980, Ronald Reagan was the first President elected who did not. However, Reagan committed himself to achieving women's equality in other ways (i.e. rewriting specific laws and appointing commissions to make the laws equal and eliminate discrimination). Reagan also set a record in appointed women to high political offices. In 1980s society radical changes were already visible. Unlike before, women were now very visible in law, politics, business, the medical field, finance and other formerly male dominated jobs. Before the movement the equality of the sexes was widely held as a radical concept. It now was considered a basic American ideal.

The popular image of women was now a type of "Superwoman" who could "have it all". In 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman nominated for Vice President by a major party (the Democratic Party). That decade, women became Fortune 500 CEOs, presidents, and chairmen for the first time. The media also, beginning in the '70s with shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, portrayed women in powerful, independent, and diverse roles. The role of women would continue to change and advance in the 1990s and the new millennium (see below).


One of the most noticeable changes American women experienced during the 2000s was the increased sexualization of women. This sexualization also extended to teenage girls, and younger.

Feminists such as Ariel Levy contend that Western women have begun to sexually objectify themselves by choice, by wearing increasingly revealing clothing and engaging in lewd behavior. While these women see their own objectification as a form of empowerment, critics of this behavior contend that it has led to greater emphasis on a physical criterion for women's perceived self worth.[1]

Levy discusses this phenomenon in her 2005 book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. Levy followed the camera crew from the Girls Gone Wild video series, and argues that contemporary America's sexualized culture not only objectifies women, it encourages women to objectify themselves.[2]

Other books exploring this trend in American (and wider Western culture) include Pamela Paul's Pornified (2005), Carol Platt Liebau’s (2007) Prude, Meenakshi Gigi Durham's (2008) The Lolita Effect, and Sarracino & Scott’s The Porning of America (2008).

Progress towards integration in politics

Women's participation in national political life remained low long after the right to vote was gained in 1920. No more than two women served in the Senate at any time until 1994, and fewer than a dozen were Congressional Representatives until 1955. Current representation is 16 senators and 67 representatives, around 15% of the United States Congress. One quarter of women in Congress are people of color, which reflects the American population, but bucks the trend of the Congress.

No woman has been a major party presidential nominee, although several have run for the position of Vice President or sought their party's nomination. (Center for American Women and Politics, Women in Elected Office 2006) Still, the past generation has seen a remarkable shift in American's stated willingness to vote for a woman as president, according to polls more than 80% of Americans would vote for a female candidate. [3]

In 1879, Belva Lockwood became the first woman to practice law before the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 1981, Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman to become a member of the Supreme Court. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the second woman serving on the Court, and Sonia Sotomayor the third. On January 4, 2007 Nancy Pelosi became the first female Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. The 2008 presidential campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton is considered historic as she won an estimated 1,896 delegates for the Democratic Nomination. Alaska Governor Sarah Palin became the first female Republican Vice Presidential Nominee that same year.

See also


  • Brownmiller, Susan, In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution, Dial Books 1999, ISBN 0-385-31486-8
  • Crow, Barbara A., Radical Feminism: A Documentary Reader, New York University Press 2000. ISBN 0-8147-1555-9
  • Echols, Alice, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975, University of Minnesota Press 1990, ISBN 0-8166-1787-2
  • Flexner, Eleanor, Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States, Paperback Edition, Belknap Press 1996, ISBN 0-674-10653-9
  • Lerner, Gerda, Black Women in White America: A Documentary History, Random House 1988 ISBN 0-679-74314-6
  • Keetley, Dawn, editor, Public Women, Public Words: A Documentary History of American Feminism, 3 vls.:
    • Vol. 1: Beginnings to 1900, Madison, Wis. : Madison House, 1997
    • Vol. 2: 1900 to 1960, Lanham, Md. [u.a.] : Rowman & Littlefield, 2002
    • Vol. 3: 1960 to the present , Lanham, Md. [u.a.] : Rowman & Littlefield, 2002


  1. ^ 'Save the males': Ho culture lights fuses, but confuses, By KATHLEEN PARKER, NY Daily News, June 30, 2008. Based on "Save the Males" by Kathleen Parker, Copyright 2008, Random House, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group.
  2. ^ Yes, we are bovvered - Times Online

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