UPDATED: Oct 19, 2019
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Today, we live in a country where women have the same rights as men. Women can hold the same jobs, do the same things, vote just like men do, and have equal power. However, it took decades of effort to get to this point.
Women did not get the rights that they have today overnight, nor was the fight for equality an easy one. It was a fight full of passion, tears, and hard times. It was fought by women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Emmeline Parkhurst. The movement for women's rights began over 150 years ago, in 1848. Today, we are living the dream of the women who set into motion the changes we see today.
Major Milestones in Women's Rights
July 13, 1848 was the day on which changes regarding women's rights started to occur. This is when we know the Women's Rights Movement to have begun after a group of women sat down to drink tea and discuss how they felt lesser than men. The five women who were drinking their tea on that hot New York afternoon set a date for a convention. Two days later, they picked a location and placed an ad in the Seneca County Courier.
The convention was held, and it marked the beginning of change. Three hundred men and women showed up and signed their names to end discrimination against women. These women had hoped that their one small convention in upstate New York would spark others around the country to hold their own conventions.
A few years down the line in 1851, Sojourner Truth delivered a speech that is still famous today. Her speech was called “Ain't I a Woman?” and in it, she discussed what men thought women should have and how they should be catered to. She mentioned how women would be helped over mud puddles and in and out of carriages, also mentioning how they needed the best of everything, including a place to live.
Then, she went on to talk about how, even as a woman, she never had any of these things. She instead was made to work fields and plow, asking the audience, “Ain't I a woman?” One of the most remarkable things Sojourner said was:
“If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back and get it right side up again. And now they are asking to do it; the men better let them!”
In 1868, however, despite years of effort, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution was passed, and although it expanded many rights, it defined the terms 'citizens' and 'voters' as male. However, the fight continued and women were finally given the right to vote with the 19th Amendment.
- Fordham University: Sojourner Truth:"Ain't I a Woman?", December 1851
- National Women’s History Alliance: Living the legacy: The women’s rights movement (1848-1998)
- Stanford University: A timeline of women’s legal history in the United States
Men had always been considered to be the primary breadwinners, but women didn't think that was fair, because they were capable of working as well.
One thing that started the movement for the equal employment of women was a need of former slaves. The women who served as slaves needed work after they were freed as a way to provide for themselves and their families. Labor unions, such as The Knights of Labor, opened membership to women so that they would be able to receive pay, equal to that of men, for the jobs they did. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, job conditions worsened significantly, and women would be forced to work long hours for little pay. Additionally, women were given a lower minimum wage than men, and on top of having to hold down a job, they still needed to balance their home life as well. It was difficult.
In 1939, when the men went off to war, women had to take over their employment. These were service and professional jobs. Icons, such as Rosie the Riveter, would be used to encourage women to enter the workforce. For once, women felt a sense of independence and freedom. It was short-lived, however, because the men returned from war and reclaimed their jobs, leaving women to either return to less masculine jobs or be unemployed once again.
Later in the mid-20th century, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 was enacted, giving women the right to work the same jobs as men for equal pay. This encouraged many women to return to the workforce again. All these events shaped the labor force we know today.
- The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: The evolution of women in the workforce (1865-2015)
- S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: The equal pay act of 1963
- National Women’s Law Center: Equal pay and the wage gap
What we know as the Woman Suffrage Movement began in 1848 at the convention in Seneca Falls, New York. While it was not the first actual meeting in support for women's rights, it was the one that Suffragists viewed as sparking change.
The Suffragists were led by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and other pioneers of women's rights. They circulated petitions and got others around the country involved in lobbying Congress. The leadership of the Suffrage Movement would eventually pass to two different organizations. The National American Woman Suffrage Association was led by Carrie Chapman Catt and it was a moderate organization. The National Woman's Party was led by Alice Paul and was more of a militant organization that took more radical actions, including picketing the White House to convince the President to pass a women’s suffrage amendment.
- National Women’s History Museum: The woman suffrage movement
- University of Rochester: Suffrage history
- Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities: 75 Suffragists
Human Rights and Women's Rights
Today, we focus on maintaining and improving upon those rights. Women should continue to have the rights to live free from violence, slavery, and discrimination, in addition to having the right to be educated, to own property, to vote, and to earn an equal wage.
This being said, many people believe there is no difference between women's rights and human rights because every person should be granted the same rights, regardless of gender or any other physically defining features.
- United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner: Women’s rights are human rights
- Human Rights Watch: Women’s rights
Famous Women and Quotes
"The older I get, the greater power I seem to have to help the world. I am like a snowball – the further I am rolled the more I gain."
– Susan B. Anthony
"The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls. Every truth we see is ours to give the world, not to keep for ourselves alone, for in so doing we cheat humanity out of their rights and check our own development."
– Elizabeth Cady Stanton
"The vote is the emblem of your equality, women of America, the guarantee of your liberty. That vote of yours has cost millions of dollars and the lives of thousands of women. Money to carry on this work has been given usually as a sacrifice, and thousands of women have gone without things they wanted and could have had in order that they might help get the vote for you. Women have suffered agony of soul which you can never comprehend, that you and your daughters might inherit political freedom. That vote has been costly. Prize it! The vote is a power, a weapon of offense and defense, a prayer. Understand what it means and what it can do for your country. Use it intelligently, conscientiously, prayerfully."
– Carrie Chapman Catt
- Bentley University: 50 inspiring quotes from fearless women
- Xavier University: Quotes by and for women
The Future of Women's Rights
Women's rights are something that activists will continue to fight for in the future. Women will keep working to fight for better pay and health benefits from their employers as well as flexibility in work to balance family and employment.
The struggle for equality still continues in other countries, and many women’s right activists are finding that their energy is needed overseas in countries where their sisters have yet to attain the same access to equal rights, equal pay, marriage and divorce rights, child custody, and more.
- Boston University: Feminism past and present: Ideology, action, and reform
- Global Fund for Women: Women’s human rights
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