Women's movements, organized attempts to achieve political, legal, economic, and social equality for women. Following the English common law, the U.S. legal system long assigned women a special and inferior status. Although the Constitution did not use the words “men” and “women” but always “people,” “persons,” and “citizens,” the courts did not interpret these terms to include women. Rather, they classified women with children and imbeciles as incapable of managing their own affairs. Women were denied educations, barred from certain occupations and professions, and excluded from juries and public offices. Married women were virtually the property of their husbands. They were limited in their ability to own property, sign contracts, obtain credit, go into business, control their earnings, or write wills. The law regarded home and family as the special province of women, and it did all it could to confine them there in the belief that this was in the best interests of women themselves and of society as a whole.
Early in the 19th century, educated upper-class women began to enter public life through participation in the many reform movements of the period, especially the abolitionist crusade, often in the face of male hostility. The rebuff of women at a World Antislavery Convention in London in 1840 led directly to the organization of a U.S. women's rights movement at Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848.
From the start, a prime objective of the movement was to win for women the right to vote. After the Civil War, the 14th Amendment, in extending the status of citizen to former slaves, introduced the word “male” into the Constitution as a qualification for voting. The 15th Amendment, which enfranchised the former slaves, provided that the right to vote should not be denied or abridged “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” but not on account of sex. When women sought the right to vote on the basis of the 14th Amendment's “privileges and immunities” and “equal protection” clauses, the courts upheld the states' authority to fix voter qualifications.
The states, however, acted to improve the position of women. During the second half of the 19th century, all the states passed Married Women's Property Acts, which largely ended the subordination of women under the common law by dissolving the legal unity of husband and wife. Married women thereby acquired control over their own property and earnings. By 1900 women enjoyed many of the legal advantages of citizenship, the most significant exception being the right to vote. Chivalrous legislators still exempted them from certain responsibilities of citizenship, such as jury duty and poll and property taxes. This benign attitude underlay decisions of the courts early in the 20th century upholding the constitutionality of a number of state and federal laws intended to protect working women—but not men—by regulating their hours, pay, and working conditions.
In 1890 Wyoming entered the union with a state constitution providing for woman suffrage. In the next two decades many states gave women partial voting privileges. Twelve states had given women the unqualified right to vote by 1920 when ratification of the 19th Amendment secured the vote for women nationwide and established the principle of equal political rights for women.
The suffrage did not immediately bring about the removal of gender-based classifications, which, in the guise of protecting women, actually confined them to their traditional “separate place.” It was, rather, the social changes resulting from 2 world wars, a major depression, and, more recently, unprecedented national affluence that revolutionized the lives of women and gave new impetus to the feminist movement. Two developments were of particular importance: The development of new and widely accessible birth-control methods liberated women from the necessity of functioning largely as child-bearers and child-rearers; and the rising flood of women into the labor force, mostly into low-paying “women's work,” made women of all classes conscious of the disadvantages of their “separate place.”
Feminists now perceive all gender-based classifications as discriminatory, including the legislation intended to protect women in the workplace. Not only was that legislation based on the “separate place” doctrine, but experience showed that it prevented women who wanted to do so from working overtime at premium pay, taking higher-paying jobs that required heavy work, and getting promoted to supervisory positions. A series of federal laws and executive orders has now largely nullified that protective legislation. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 legally ended discrimination on the basis of sex in the payment of wages (though in actual practice this discrimination persists). The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ended discrimination in private employment on the basis of sex as well as race, color, religion, and national origin. Executive orders have made it illegal for the federal government and for federal contractors and subcontractors to discriminate on the basis of sex.
But other legal, economic, and social inequities remain. To remove these is the goal of the modern women's movement, whose origin is usually traced to the founding of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966. NOW was soon joined by numerous other women's organizations reflecting a variety of women's interests, including those of black, Hispanic, working, and poor women as well as abortion advocates and lesbians. The presence of these latter groups in the women's rights coalition provided a convenient target for opponents of the movement, who believed it to be the work of an elite of radical and professional women contemptuous of traditional values of home, family, and religion shared by many other women. As a result, by the 1970s, the women's movement in the United States was faced with a determined opposition. Progressives, following the mainstream of the traditional women's movement, continue to pursue greater individual autonomy, the elimination of all gender-based discrimination, and greater freedom and self-determination for women. Conservatives, representing a radical departure from and reversal of the goals and outlooks of the traditional women's movement, seek to maintain the traditional roles of men and women and to neutralize or reverse changes, particularly in the law, which they contend threaten the moral authority of the family. The conflict is strongest over the issue of a woman's right to have an abortion.
See also: Feminism.