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Civil Rights in the United States

Women’s Rights in the United States

Women's Suffrage Movement

Decades after the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, which issued the first call for expanded women's rights, the women's suffrage movement achieved its goal with the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted all women the right to vote.

Historically, American women had few civil rights. Women could not vote or serve on juries. Married women could not own property or sign contracts. Generally, they had no legal existence apart from their husbands, although widows could own property.

In 1848 the first women's rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York, where attendees approved a Declaration of Sentiments for women's rights. Modeled on the U.S. Declaration of Independence, it stated, "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal." The document went on to list injustices to women, including denying women the right to vote while subjecting them to the laws and taxes created by men.

The women's suffrage movement was the fight for women's right to vote that began in the mid-19th century. Wyoming, while still a territory, granted women full voting rights in 1869. Other western states gave women voting rights as well, though in some states these rights were only partial, such as the right to vote in school board elections. For decades women's organizations pushed for the right to vote. In the early 20th century, efforts intensified through marches and protests. Several women were arrested for picketing the White House demanding voting rights. The push culminated with the 19th Amendment, the constitutional amendment ratified in 1920 granting all women the right to vote.

Spread of Women's Suffrage

Beginning in the late 19th century, the right to vote for women grew gradually, primarily in western states. With passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, the right was extended to all women.

Antidiscrimination Laws and Equal Rights for Women

Although Congress passed laws banning discrimination on the basis of sex in employment and education, offering some protections to women, the Equal Rights Amendment was never ratified, and discrimination and sexual harassment have remained problems for women.

Winning the right to vote did not eliminate other forms of inequality. Job opportunities for women were limited, even if they were well educated. During World War II, women entered the workforce in record numbers, encouraged by the government to take jobs left vacant by men who had entered the military. After the war, however, most women lost those jobs to returning soldiers.

Two decades later, several federal laws advanced the rights of women. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination in hiring, firing, compensation, and other conditions of employment on the basis of sex. In 1963 Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, a law that prohibits wage discrimination based on a worker's sex and allows women to sue employers who discriminate in pay. The 2007 Supreme Court decision Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company required women workers who wished to sue for pay discrimination based on the 1964 Civil Rights Act to file their suit within six months of the discrimination taking place. This severely limited women's rights to sue. Two years later, Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to remove that time limit. By the 2010s, however, women still earned about 83 cents for every dollar men earned. Some analysts argued that this disparity did not result from discrimination but from other factors, including the jobs women held compared to those of men and the fact that many women withdrew from the workforce for a period to bear and raise children. Women faced another form of job discrimination as well. Driven in part by changes to the economy and in part by a larger share of women who wished to pursue a career, the percentage of married women who worked rose. Their participation was assisted by the increased availability of birth control as well. While some women gained prominent positions in business and other fields, many noted the existence of a "glass ceiling" that prevented them from gaining leadership roles in equal numbers to men.

Title IX is a section of the Education Amendments of 1972 that banned discrimination on the basis of sex in any education program that received federal funds. One visible change that resulted was the increased opportunities for female students to participate in athletics. In the wake of Title IX, the number of female students attending colleges and universities, including law schools and medical schools, also rose.

Many of these changes were sparked by the reinvigorated women's movement that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. The National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded in 1966 after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission initially refused to enforce the ban on sex-based employment discrimination enacted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The organization urged the government to pay attention to the concerns of women, including the need for health care and pregnancy leave.

NOW also called for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which stated that "equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." It had first been introduced in Congress in 1923 but had never been passed and sent to the states for ratification. In 1972 Congress finally approved the amendment and sent it to the states for ratification, which would require the approval of 38 states. Although many states quickly ratified the ERA, organized opposition to the amendment emerged. The amendment was sent for ratification shortly before the Supreme Court issued the Roe v. Wade (1973) ruling. This controversial ruling declared most state antiabortion laws unconstitutional. Opponents of the ERA portrayed support for the amendment as equivalent to support for Roe v. Wade and portrayed ERA supporters as "antifamily." Some opposition to the ERA came from women who had concerns that it could negatively affect women. For example, they feared it could deprive women of the right to alimony in the case of divorce or lead to women being drafted into the military. The ERA was ratified by 35 states by 1977, falling three states short. Congress extended the deadline for ratification to 1982, but no more states ratified it. In 2017 and 2018, two more state legislatures (Nevada and Illinois, respectively) ratified the amendment. Should a third do so, providing the needed 38, ratification would probably be challenged in court because the congressional deadline had been passed.

Sexual harassment in the workplace remained a problem for women. Beginning in 1976, federal courts began recognizing sexual harassment as a form of workplace discrimination. Initially, this meant sexual harassment in the form of demanding sexual favors as a condition of being hired or promoted. In 1986 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sexual harassment that creates a "hostile work environment" is also sexual discrimination. The U.S. Supreme Court recognized same-sex sexual harassment in 1998. News reports of sexual harassment involving prominent people sparked the "Me Too" movement in the late 2010s, demonstrating that sexual harassment remains a common problem in the workplace.