The women’s rights movement of the late 19th century went on to address the wide range of issues spelled out at the Seneca Falls Convention. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and women like Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Sojourner Truth traveled the country lecturing and organizing for the next forty years. Eventually, winning the right to vote emerged as the central issue, since the vote would provide the means to achieve the other reforms. All told, the campaign for woman suffrage met such staunch opposition that it took 72 years for the women and their male supporters to be successful.
As you might imagine, any 72-year campaign includes thousands of political strategists, capable organizers, administrators, activists and lobbyists. The story of diligent women’s rights activism is a litany of achievements against tremendous odds, of ingenious strategies and outrageous tactics used to outwit opponents and make the most of limited resources. It’s a dramatic tale, filled with remarkable women facing down incredible obstacles to win that most basic American civil right – the vote.
Next: Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sex as well as race, religion, and national origin. The category “sex” was included as a last-ditch effort to kill the bill. But it passed, nevertheless. With its passage, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was established to investigate discrimination complaints. Within the commission’s first five years, it received 50,000 sex discrimination complaints. But it was quickly obvious that the commission was not very interested in pursuing these complaints. Betty Friedan, the chairs of the various state Commissions on the Status of Women, and other feminists agreed to form a civil rights organization for women similar to the NAACP. In 1966, the National Organization for Women was organized, soon to be followed by an array of other mass-membership organizations addressing the needs of specific groups of women, including Blacks, Latinas, Asians-Americans, lesbians, welfare recipients, business owners, aspiring politicians, and tradeswomen and professional women of every sort.
So it’s clear that, contrary to common misconception, the Women’s Rights Movement did not begin in the 1960s. What occurred in the 1960s was actually a second wave of activism that washed into the public consciousness, fueled by several seemingly independent events of that turbulent decade. Each of these events brought a different segment of the population into the movement.
This means that major changes in womens political activities, other than exercising their right to vote, have been long in coming. Today, women are struggling to gain equal participation in political office alongside men. Of interest is the use in over 41 countries of parity quotas and quota laws to achieve political gender balance. Responding to strong pressure by womens organizations, gender quotas have appeared in many new constitutions, like the one of Rwanda, and recently in the constitution of Iraq. This means that a certain number of parliamentary seats are reserved for women. The seats are distributed among the political parties in proportion to the number of seats awarded in parliament. In South Africa, a municipal law stipulates that 50 percent of all candidates for the local office have to be women. India in 1992 enacted a 33 percent policy to reserve seats for women in Parliament and throughout the State Government. The final effectiveness of this policy is unknown, but so far, as many as one million women have gotten an opportunity to enter institutions as members and office bearers; many more have participated in elections and as campaigners for state legislatures. Most dramatic has been the change in the landscape of local politics. In some cases, women for the first time have sat with village leaders, and sometimes even had a turn heading village affairs.
Help-wanted ads in newspapers were segregated into “Help wanted – women” and “Help wanted- men.” Pages and pages of jobs were announced for which women could not even apply. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled this illegal in 1968, but since the EEOC had little enforcement power, most newspapers ignored the requirement for years. The National Organization for Women (NOW), had to argue the issue all the way to the Supreme Court to make it possible for a woman today to hold any job for which she is qualified. And so now we see women in literally thousands of occupations which would have been almost unthinkable just one generation ago: dentist, bus driver, veterinarian, airline pilot, and phone installer, just to name a few.
During this same time, thousands of young women on college campuses were playing active roles within the anti-war and civil rights movement. At least,that was their intention. Many were finding their efforts blocked by men who felt leadership of these movements was their own province, and that women’s roles should be limited to fixing food and running mimeograph machines. It wasn’t long before these young women began forming their own “women’s liberation” organizations to address their role and status within these progressive movements and within society at large.
These various elements of the re-emerging Women’s Rights Movement worked together and separately on a wide range of issues. Small groups of women in hundreds of communities worked on grassroots projects like establishing women’s newspapers, bookstores and cafes. They created battered women’s shelters and rape crisis hotlines to care for victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence. They came together to form child care centers so women could work outside their homes for pay. Women health care professionals opened women’s clinics to provide birth control and family planning counseling — and to offer abortion services — for low-income women. These clinics provided a safe place to discuss a wide range of health concerns and experiment with alternative forms of treatment.
Similarly Iran, which had granted women suffrage in 1963 and passed numerous womens equal rights legislation in the 70s, repealed all these gains when the revolutionary government of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power in 1979. Women were eliminated from all decision-making positions within the government, dress requirements were enforced, and womens organizations were declared corrupt and disbanded. The future looks brighter today. A growing urban, middle class is making some progress by situating womens rights within the cultural framework of Iran, and noting that in order to modernize, Iran must improve the status of women.
In 1923, Alice Paul, the leader of the National Woman’s Party, took the next obvious step. She drafted an Equal Rights Amendment for the United States Constitution. Such a federal law, it was argued, would ensure that “Men and women have equal rights throughout the United States.” A constitutional amendment would apply uniformly, regardless of where a person lived.
In 1956 in Egypt, thirty-three years after feminists had first demanded suffrage, the revolutionary government granted women the right to vote. But from the start, the state and official Islam obstructed womens political rights by banning feminist organizations and suppressing the public expression of their views. Thus the same year that the state granted women the right to vote, women were suppressed as independent political actors.
In ridicule, the entire text of the Declaration of Sentiments was often published, with the names of the signers frequently included. Just as ridicule today often has a squelching effect on new ideas, this attack in the press caused many people from the Convention to rethink their positions. Many of the women who had attended the convention were so embarrassed by the publicity that they actually withdrew their signatures from the Declaration. But most stood firm. And something the editors had not anticipated happened: Their negative articles about the women’s call for expanded rights were so livid and widespread that they actually had a positive impact far beyond anything the organizers could have hoped for. People in cities and isolated towns alike were now alerted to the issues, and joined this heated discussion of women’s rights in great numbers!