A child of the ’60’s, I grew up with women declaring their independence, burning their bras, rallying around free sex, and, in essence, demonstrating for and demanding autonomy. Due to their efforts, the role of women in America was not only redefined but re-edified. Along with many young women of the time, my heroes were Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, and I considered them the progenitors of the women’s movement.
Lately, I’ve been wondering what happened to all those women of the ’60’s. Are they now complacent baby boomers or has the American woman’s demand for equality reached a point of appeasement which has lead to a lackadaisical attitude?
So I began researching the history of the women’s liberation movement and what I learned is that this seems to come about in waves, or cycles, of reaffirmation. I also discovered that there is a lot more history behind the women’s movement than the skirmishes of the mid 20th century. It all started with the 19th century and look at what these women have accomplished.
The first women’s rights convention was held in 1848 in Seneca Falls, NY, in which a Declaration of Sentiments was signed by 68 women and 32 men. This declaration, which set the agenda for the women’s rights movements, called for equal treatment of women and men under the law and establishing voting rights for women. Subsequently, in 1850, the first National Women’s Rights Convention took place in Worcester, Massachusetts.
In 1869, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton formed the National Woman Suffrage Association, and Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell, et al formed the American Woman Suffrage Association. Both groups, which strove to achieve voting rights for women, joined together in 1890 to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, states began adopting laws granting women the right to vote. In 1913, Lucy Burns and Alice Paul formed the Congressional Union, which was later renamed the National Women’s Party. Members fought hard for the passage of a federal amendment giving women the right to vote. On August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was signed into law, granting women the right to vote.
In 1896, the National Association of Colored Women was established. In 1935, Mary McLeod Bethune organized the National Council of Negro Women which lobbied against job discrimination, racism and sexism. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act barred employment discrimination against race and sex and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
The National Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) was formed in 1903 in an effort to improve wages and working conditions for women. In 1963, the Equal Pay Act was passed, making it illegal to pay a man more than a woman doing the same job. In 1970, the US Court of appeals ruled that an employer could not change the job titles of women in order to pay them less.
In 1916, Jeannette Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress, paving the way for subsequent female legislators.
Margaret Sanger founded the American Birth Control League in 1921, which, in 1942, evolved into the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
In 1923, Alice Paul (National Women’s Party) first wrote out the Equal Rights Amendment. It would be almost half a century before it was placed into law.
In 1955, the first lesbian organization in the US, the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) was founded, which developed into a political organization seeking acceptance of lesbians in America.
In 1961, Esther Peterson, director of the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, encouraged President Kennedy to convene a Commission on the Status of Women. Kennedy named Eleanor Roosevelt as its chair. In 1963, the commission issued a report documenting discrimination against women in almost every aspect of American life. State and local governments were quick to establish their own commissions seeking changes to be initiated.
In 1963, Betty Friedan published her book, “The Feminine Mystique”, which ignited the women’s movement. She went on to found the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966, which is the largest women’s rights group in America. She was also a key leader in the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1972.
In 1967, Lyndon Johnson’s Executive Order 11375 went into effect, ensuring women and minorities receive the same educational and employment opportunities as white males.
Gloria Steinem co-founded “New York Magazine” in 1968, and in 1971, helped co-found “Ms. Magazine”, the National Women’s Political Caucus and the Women’s Action Alliance. Ms. Steinem, along with Betty Friedan, is now considered one of the icons of the modern feminist movement.
In 1972, sex discrimination was banned in schools, resulting in an increase in women in athletics programs across America.
In 1973, via Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a woman’s right to an abortion.
In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed, prohibiting discrimination against pregnant women.
In 1984, EMILY’s List (Early Money is Like Yeast) was established, providing a financial network for pro-choice Democratic women seeking national political office. Through this organization, increasing numbers of women have run for and been elected to Congress.
In 1986, re; Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, the Supreme Court ruled that sexual harassment is a form of illegal job discrimination.
In 1994, the Violence Against Women’s Act tightened federal penalties for sex offenders and provided special training of law enforcement officers as well as funded services for victims of rape and domestic violence.
Although I’ve touched on the highlights of the American woman’s search and subsequent demand for equality in all areas of her life, there are thousands upon thousands of women who have, in their own way, their own life, and through their own circumstances, demanded and fought for their right for respect and egalitarianism. I salute these women who, through hardships we will probably never know or realize, have paved the way for those behind them.