This is a history of women in the United States since 1776, and of the Thirteen Colonies before that. The reliable sources on the topic were thin before the 1960s. Since then the study of women’s history has been a major scholarly and popular field, with many scholarly books and articles, museum exhibits, and courses in schools and universities.
Colonial history of the United States:
The experiences of women during the colonial era varied somewhat from colony to colony, but there were some overall patterns. Most of the British settlers were from England and Wales, with smaller numbers from Scotland and Ireland. Groups of families settled in New England, while individuals came to the Southern colonies. The American colonies absorbed the thousands of Dutch and Swedish settlers. After 1700 most immigrants to Colonial America arrived as indentured servants—young unmarried men and women seeking a new life in a much richer environment. After the 1660s a steady flow of black slaves arrived, chiefly from the Caribbean. Food supplies were much more abundant than in Europe, and there was an abundance of fertile land that needed farm families. However, the disease environment was hostile in the malaria-ridden South, where a large portion of the arrivals died within five years. The American-born children were immune from the fatal forms of malaria.
In New England, the Puritan settlers from England brought their strong religious values highly organized social structure with them. They believed a woman be subordinate to her husband and dedicate herself to rearing God-fearing children to the best of her ability.
There were ethnic differences in the treatment of women. Among Puritan settlers in New England, wives almost never worked in the fields with their husbands. In German communities in Pennsylvania, however, many women worked in fields and stables. German and Dutch immigrants granted women more control over property, which was not permitted in the local English law. Unlike English colonial wives, German and Dutch wives owned their own clothes and other items and were also given the ability to write wills disposing of the property brought into the marriage.
The first English people to arrive in America were the members of the Roanoke Colony who came to North Carolina in July 1587, with 17 women, 91 men, and 9 boys as the founding colonists. On August 18, 1587, Virginia Dare was born; she was the first English child born in the territory of the United States. It is not known what happened to the members of the Roanoke colony; however, it is likely that they were attacked by Native Americans, and those not killed were assimilated into the local tribes.
History of New England:
The New England regional economy grew rapidly in the 17th century, thanks to heavy immigration, high birth rates, low death rates, and an abundance of inexpensive farmland. The population grew from 3000 in 1630 to 14,000 in 1640, 33,000 in 1660, 68,000 in 1680, and 91,000 in 1700. Between 1630 and 1643, about 20,000 Puritans arrived, settling mostly near Boston; after 1643 fewer than fifty immigrants a year arrived. The average size of a completed family 1660–1700 was 7.1 children; the birth rate was 49 babies per year per 1000 people, and the death rate was about 22 deaths per year per thousand people. About 27 percent of the population comprised men between 16 and 60 years old.
The benefits of economic growth were widely distributed, with even farm laborers better off at the end of the colonial period. The growing population led to shortages of good farm land on which young families could establish themselves; one result was to delay marriage, and another was to move to new lands further west. In the towns and cities, there was strong entrepreneurship, and a steady increase in the specialization of labor. Wages for men went up steadily before 1775; new occupations were opening for women, including weaving, teaching, and tailoring. The region bordered New France, which used Indian warriors to attack outlying villages. Women were sometimes captured. In the numerous French and Indian Wars the British government poured money in to purchase supplies, build roads and pay colonial soldiers. The coastal ports began to specialize in fishing, international trade and shipbuilding—and after 1780 in whaling. Combined with a growing urban markets for farm products, these factors allowed the economy to flourish despite the lack of technological innovation.
Tax-supported schooling for girls began as early as 1767 in New England. It was optional and some towns proved reluctant. Northampton, Massachusetts, for example, was a late adopter because it had many rich families who dominated the political and social structures and they did not want to pay taxes to aid poor families. Northampton assessed taxes on all households, rather than only on those with children, and used the funds to support a grammar school to prepare boys for college. Not until after 1800 did Northampton educate girls with public money. In contrast, the town of Sutton, Massachusetts, was diverse in terms of social leadership and religion at an early point in its history. Sutton paid for its schools by means of taxes on households with children only, thereby creating an active constituency in favor of universal education for both boys and girls.
Colonial schoolhouse in Hollis, New Hampshire
Historians point out that reading and writing were different skills in the colonial era. School taught both, but in places without schools reading was mainly taught to boys and also a few privileged girls. Men handled worldly affairs and needed to read and write. Girls only needed to read (especially religious materials). This educational disparity between reading and writing explains why the colonial women often could read, but could not write and could not sign their names—they used an “X”.
Hispanic New Mexico:
Hispanic women played a central role in traditional family life in the Spanish colonies of New Mexico; their descendants comprise a large element in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Gutierrez finds a high level of illegitimacy, especially among the Indians who were used as slaves. He finds, “Aristocrats maintained mistresses and/or sexually exploited to their slaves but rarely admitted to fathering illegitimate children.”
The American Indian woman has been a symbolic paradox. Depending on man’s needs, she has been continually viewed as either the civilized princess or the destructive squaw. A highly favorable image has surrounded Pocahontas, the daughter of the Native American chief Powhatan in Virginia. The legend that she saved John Smith of Jamestown from being clubbed to death by her father in 1607 is supported only by Smith’s reports, and he gave several versions. When the colonists were starving, “every once in four or five days, Pocahontas with her attendants brought him (Smith) so much provision that saved many of their lives that else for all this had starved with hunger.” She was taken prisoner by the colonists in 1612, when she was seventeen. She converted to Christianity and married planter John Rolfe in 1614. It was the first recorded interracial marriage in American history. This marriage brought a peace between the colonists and the Powhatans, and in 1615 she gave birth to her first child, Thomas. She and Rolfe sailed to England in 1616, where she was presented at the court of King James I; she died soon after. Townsend argues that Pocahontas was not a powerful princess, but just one of many of the chief’s daughters. She was assertive, youthful, and athletic; she returns Rolfe’s love while also observing the Algonquin practice of constructing alliances through marriage, and she accepts Christianity as complementing her Algonquin religious worldview. Many leading families in Virginia to this day proudly claim her as an ancestor. There were many tales about her in Virginia and England, reflecting myth, culture, romanticism, colonialism, and historical events as well as narratives of intermarriage, heroic women, and gender and sexuality as metaphors for national, religious, and racial differences.
Jamestown, the first English settlement in America, was established in 1607 in what is now Virginia. The first women to arrive in Jamestown, (known in the ship’s manifest as) Mistress Forrest, wife of Thomas Forrest, Esq and her fourteen-year-old maid, Anne Burras, arrived in late 1608. In December 1608 Anne Burras married a carpenter and laborer named John Laydon in the first wedding ceremony held in Jamestown, and in 1609 they had a child named Virginia Laydon (not to be confused with Virginia Dare), who was the first child born in Jamestown. The first American slaves since those in Lucas Vasquez de Allyon’s unsuccessful colony in 1526–1527 were brought to Jamestown in 1619. These slaves were from the Caribbean, and there were twenty of them, including three women.
Also in 1619, 90 young single women from England went to Jamestown to become wives of the men there, with the women being auctioned off for 150 pounds of tobacco each (to be paid to the shipping company), as that was the cost of each woman’s travel to America. Such women were called “tobacco brides”. There were many such voyages of women to America for this purpose (the 1619 voyage being the first), with the women promised free passage and trousseaus for their trouble.
On November 21, 1620, the Mayflower arrived in America (specifically in what is today Provincetown, Massachusetts), bringing the Pilgrims. There were 102 people aboard – 18 married women traveling with their husbands, seven unmarried women traveling with their parents, three young unmarried women, one girl, and 73 men. Three fourths of the women died in the first few months; while the men were building housing and drinking fresh water the women were confined to the damp and crowded quarters of the ship. By the time of the first Thanksgiving in autumn 1621, there were only four women from the Mayflower left alive.
In the 1630s Anne Hutchinson began to hold religious meetings in her home, which attracted the attendance not only of women but of prominent men, including affluent young civil officials. Hutchinson’s charisma indeed was so great that it became a threat to the ability of the clergy to govern; this was especially clear when some of her male supporters refused to join the militia in pursuit of Pequot natives. The authorities, led by Reverend John Winthrop (who was also the colony’s governor), first attacked her indirectly by banishing her brother-in-law, a minister who shared her views. Hutchinson herself was summoned to trial late in 1637 and also banished, but allowed to remain under house arrest until the end of winter. In March 1638, she was again brought before the court and formally excommunicated; she and her children soon joined her husband, who had prepared a home for them in the new colony of Rhode Island, which had been founded less than two years earlier by other dissidents exiled from Massachusetts. At nearly 47, Anne Hutchinson was once again pregnant and so severely ill that her physical condition had interfered with her ability to defend herself on trial. Her medical problem probably was a gross tumor of the placenta that had killed the fetus she delivered in late summer, but Puritan leadership – who saw all events in theological terms – deemed this “monstrous birth” to have been the judgment of God. In 1642, at age 51, she took her six children to the Dutch colony that now is New York; however, a year later, disgruntled Algonquians attacked her home, killing everyone but her youngest daughter Susanna, who was taken captive. Today a river and a highway in that area bear the Hutchinson name. In 1660 Mary Dyer, a Quaker who had been among Hutchinson’s followers, was hanged in Massachusetts for repeatedly returning to Massachusetts and proselytizing for Quakerism.
In 1648 Margaret Brent, an upper class English immigrant to the Colony of Maryland, was the first woman in the English North American colonies to appear before a court of the Common Law. Appointed as Lord Baltimore’s representative, on January 21, 1648, Brent attended the Provincial Court’s assembly to request a voice in the council; she also asked for two votes in its proceedings (one as an independent landowner and the other as Lord Baltimore’s attorney.) Governor Thomas Greene refused her request, as the assembly at the time considered such privileges for women to be reserved for queens. Brent left but said that she “Protested against all proceedings. Unless she may be present and have vote as aforesaid.”
In 1655 Elizabeth Key Grinstead, who was a slave in Virginia, won her freedom in a lawsuit based on her father’s status as a free Englishman (her mother was a slave and her father was her mother’s owner), helped by the fact that her father had baptized her as Christian in the Church of England. However, in 1662 the Virginia House of Burgesses passed a law stating that any child born in the colony would follow the status of its mother, slave or free. This was an overturn of a longheld principle of English Common Law, whereby a child’s status followed that of the father; it enabled white men who raped slave women to hide the mixed-race children born as a result and removed their responsibility to acknowledge, support, or emancipate those children.
Witchcraft trial at Salem Village (1876 illustration).
In the small Puritan community of Salem Village, Massachusetts, the Salem witch trials began in 1692. They began when a group of girls gathered in the evenings in the home of Reverend Parris to listen to stories told by one of his slaves, Tituba. They played fortune-telling games, which were strictly forbidden by the Puritans. The girls began acting strangely, leading the Puritan community to suspect that the girls were victims of witchcraft. The girls named three townswomen as witches – Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osbourne; Tituba confessed to having seen the devil and also stated that there was a coven of witches in the Salem Village area. The other two women insisted they were innocent, but had a formal legal trial where they were found guilty of practicing witchcraft.
The affected girls accused other townspeople of torturing them with witchcraft, and some on trial also named others as witches. By the end of the trials in 1693, 24 people had died, some in jail but 19 by hanging, and one by being pressed to death. Some of the accused confessed to being witches, but none of those were hanged, only those who maintained their innocence; those who were hanged include 13 women and 6 men.
Salem was the beginning, but it was quickly followed by witchcraft scares in 24 other Puritan communities, with 120 more accused witches. Outside Salem, the episodes were short and not dramatic, and usually involved only one or two people. Most were older women, often widowed or single, with a history of bickering and disputes with neighbors. In October 1692, the governor of Massachusetts halted court proceedings, restricted new arrests, and then dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer, thereby ending the witch hunts.
The Salem witchcraft story is the staple of scholarship, school textbooks, and the popular imagination – to this day Salem attracts hordes of tourists, as well as a few practicing witches. Recent scholarship on the witch trials emphasizes the central role of religion in the minds of every participant, and downplays the older scholarly emphasis on social and political aspects. Religious conflict and the fear of Satan’s attempt to destroy the local village Puritan church now appear to have been the driving forces in Massachusetts.
“Housewife” is a term referencing a woman’s occupation as a wife as an occupation reserved to the private sphere of the home. In Colonial America, few occupations were available to women due to the legal institution of coverture, as well as the tradition of patriarchy. Under coverture, a woman had no legal identity when married and everything she did was under a woman’s father or husband’s authority. In the American colonies, since a majority of the women were married, this meant that the available occupations for women were limited to being a “housewife” or in New England colonies, a “Goodwife. It was within the colonial household that women had a responsibility to care for her children, husband, and servants.”.
The home was the center of the housewife’s responsibilities. It was the housewife’s obligation to keep the home clean, food prepared,the children well behaved, and the servants obedient. According to Ulrich, the housewife’s domain, depending upon wealth, would also include “cellars, pantries, brew houses, milk houses, wash houses and butteries”.
Not only was she responsible for cooking, baking, milking, spinning, washing, cleaning, child care, but she was also responsible for home manufacturing. A responsible housewife was supposed to be resourceful with her family’s budget which led to manufactured goods being a vital contribution to the success of a household. Since home manufactured goods such as dairy products and textiles were created within the home and by a wife, a woman’s husband was the owner of the goods and also the money received in exchange for the goods produced. When necessary, it was also the responsibility of the colonial housewife to help her husband in agriculture endeavors or to assist their artisan husbands. Wives would often keep small gardens or even help their husbands in the fields when necessary.
Most importantly about the colonial American housewife, was that she was viewed as integral to the family and social structures.The occupation of Housewife included roles as Mother and Wife. Children were important in Colonial America, and it was the woman’s job to mix love and discipline. Mothers were responsible for the spiritual and civic wellbeing of her children. Good housewives raised good children who would become upstanding citizens in the community. The Housewife’s role as mother was integral to the family structure and community structure. As a wife, the woman was to be dutiful, obedient, faithful, and subservient to her husband. Legal statuettes and societal norms allowed for husbands to exert power over their wives, which could result in violent circumstances. Some housewives were able to file for divorces, but these instances were not the norm.
In 1650 Anne Dudley Bradstreet became America’s first published poet, with the publication of her book of poetry entitled The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America. It was also published in London that same year, making Bradstreet the first female poet ever published in both England and the New World. Bradstreet linked sexual and cultural reproduction and posited the nuclear family as the place where individual and community identities are formed; she located education within a familial rather than an institutional setting. The earliest known work of literature by an African American and by a slave, Lucy Terry’s poem “Bars Fight,” was composed in 1746 and was first published in 1855 in Josiah Holland’s “History of Western Massachusetts “. The poem describes a violent incident that occurred between settlers and Native Americans in Deerfield, Massachusetts in 1746. Former slave Phillis Wheatley became a literary sensation in 1770 after she wrote a poem on the death of the evangelical preacher George Whitefield. In 1773, 39 of Phillis Wheatley’s poems were published in London as a book entitled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. This was the first published book by an African American.
In 1756 Lydia Chapin Taft of Uxbridge, Massachusetts became the only colonial woman known to vote, casting a vote in the local town hall meeting in place of her deceased husband. From 1775 until 1807, the state constitution in New Jersey permitted all persons worth fifty pounds who resided in the state for one year to vote; free black people and single women therefore had the vote until 1807, but not married women, as their property ownership was invariably limited.
In the 1740s evangelists ignited a religious revival—called the First Great Awakening—which energized Protestants up and down the 13 colonies. It was characterized by ecstatic emotionalism and egalitarianism, which split several denominations into old and new factions. They expanded their membership among the white farmers; women were especially active in the Methodist and Baptist churches that were springing up everywhere. Although the women were rarely allowed to preach, they had a voice and a vote in church affairs, and were especially interested in close monitoring of the moral behavior of church members. The Awakening led many women to be introspective; some kept diaries or wrote memoirs. The autobiography of Hannah Heaton (1721–94), a farm wife of North Haven, Connecticut, tells of her experiences in the Great Awakening, her encounters with Satan, her intellectual and spiritual development, and life on the farm.
The evangelicals worked hard to convert the slaves to Christianity and were especially successful among black women, who played the role of religious specialists in Africa and again in America. Slave women exercised wide-ranging spiritual leadership among Africans in America in healing and medicine, church discipline, and revivalistic enthusiasm.
Using the colonies of Virginia and Maryland as a case study, Mellen argues that women in the mid-18th century, had a significant role in the world of print and the public sphere. The voice of women was spread through books, newspapers, and popular almanacs. Some women writers sought equal treatment under the law and became involved in public debates even before the Stamp Act controversy of 1765.
A powerful coercive tool the Americans used to protest British policies after 1765 was the boycott of imported British consumer goods. Women played an active role in encouraging patriotic boycotts and monitoring compliance. They refused to purchase imports, while emphasizing the virtues of avoiding luxury by using homespun clothing and other locally made products. Breen says, “the consumer boycott was a brilliantly original American invention.” O’Dowd, however, shows that it has roots in Ireland.
The Revolution had a deep effect on the philosophical underpinnings of American society. One aspect that was drastically changed by the democratic ideals of the Revolution was the roles of women.
The idea of republican motherhood was born in this period and reflects the importance of Republicanism as the dominant American ideology. Republicanism assumed that a successful republic rested upon the virtue of its citizens. Thus, women had the essential role of instilling their children with values conducive to a healthy republic. During this period, the wife’s relationship with her husband also became more liberal, as love and affection instead of obedience and subservience began to characterize the ideal marital relationship. In addition, many women contributed to the war effort through fundraising and running family businesses in the absence of husbands.
Whatever gains they had made, however, women still found themselves subordinated, legally and socially, to their husbands, disenfranchised and with only the role of mother open to them.
Deborah Sampson was the only woman who fought in the Revolutionary War (1775–1783). Women were not allowed to join the army, but in 1782 Deborah disguised herself as a man and joined the 4th Massachusetts Regiment, going by the name of Robert Shurtliff of Uxbridge and soon saw action in the front lines against the British. When shot in the thigh she removed the musket ball herself, fearful of having her identity discovered. However, her leg never healed properly, and her gender was finally revealed when she was hospitalized for a wound-related infection in 1783. But despite her deception, she was given an honorable discharge in recognition of her fine service. Furthermore, in the American Revolution women served on the battlefield as nurses and under many other jobs. In 1776 at the battle of Fort Washington, Margaret Corbin fired her husband’s cannon after he was killed, and was herself severely wounded in the battle, later receiving a pension from Congress in recognition of her service, making her the first American woman ever to receive a government pension. Also, in 1778 at the battle of Monmouth, Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley fired her husband’s cannon after he was wounded in battle. Mary’s deed, although a true story, is the source of the “Molly Pitcher” legend.
In March 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John Adams, who was rounding up support in Congress for a declaration of independence, recommending< “In the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands.” Her husband wrote back, “As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh…Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems.” The 1787 Constitution does not mention the term “Man” but refers to “Persons” or “People”.
Zagarri argues the Revolution created an ongoing debate on the rights of woman and created an environment favorable to women’s participation in politics. She asserts that for a brief decade, a “comprehensive transformation in women’s rights, roles, and responsibilities seemed not only possible but perhaps inevitable.”
However the opening of possibilities also engendered a backlash that actually set back the cause of women’s rights and led to a greater rigidity that marginalized women from political life.
Quakers were strong in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and had developed equalitarian views of the role of women. They believed that all human beings, regardless of sex, had the same Inner light. Quakers were represented among the Founding Fathers by John Dickinson and Thomas Mifflin, although Mifflin was expelled by the Society of Friends because of his leadership role in the Continental Army.
Two notable books published in the late 1700s by American women were American Cookery and The Gleaner.American Cookery, written in 1796 by Amelia Simmons, was the first known cookbook written by an American. It was popular and was published in many editions, but only four copies of the original 1796 edition are known to have survived. The Gleaner, a three-volume book of political essays and plays published in 1798 by Judith Sargent Murray, was the first self-published book by a woman in America. It became a minor classic, and was read by George Washington and John Adams.
During the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804–1806), which was the first overland expedition undertaken by Americans to the Pacific coast and back, the Shoshone woman Sacagawea was the only woman to accompany the 33 members of the permanent party to the Pacific Ocean and back. She joined the expedition in November 1804, after the explorers (Lewis and Clark) made winter camp at Fort Mandan in present-day North Dakota. The two captains hired her husband, the French-Canadian fur trapper Toussaint Charbonneau, as an interpreter, with the understanding that she would come along to interpret the Shoshone language, which she did. Sacagawea was only about 16 and was pregnant at the time.
Clear-cut gender norms prevailed among the farm families who settled in the Midwestern region between 1800 and 1840. Men were the breadwinners who considered the profitability of farming in a particular location – or “market-minded agrarianism” – and worked hard to provide for their families. They had an almost exclusive voice regarding public matters, such as voting and handling the money. During the migration westward, women’s diaries show little interest in and financial problems, but great concern with the threat of separation from family and friends. Furthermore, women experienced a physical toll because they were expected to have babies, supervise the domestic chores, care for the sick, and take control of the garden crops and poultry. Outside the German American community, women rarely did fieldwork on the farm. The women set up neighborhood social organizations, often revolving around church membership, or quilting parties. They exchanged information and tips on child-rearing, and helped each other in childbirth.
The “Cult of Domesticity” was a new ideal of womanhood that emerged at this time. This ideal rose from the reality that a 19th-century middle-class family did not have to make what it needed in order to survive, as previous families had to, and therefore men could now work in jobs that produced goods or services while their wives and children stayed at home. The ideal woman became one who stayed at home and taught children how to be proper citizens. Nevertheless, many women of the time did work outside the home; for example, in the War of 1812 (1812–1815) Mary Marshall and Mary Allen worked as nurses aboard American commodore Stephen Decatur’s ship United States. Furthermore, during the War of 1812, in 1814 when the British army was advancing to the White House, First Lady Dolley Madison insisted on staying until the Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington was rescued, and personally took the Declaration of Independence with her before leaving. With the help of volunteers and a wagon, she also took with her President Madison’s working papers from his desk, his books, some paintings, and the White House silver and china.
Many women in the 19th century were involved in reform movements, particularly abolitionism.
In 1831, Maria W. Stewart (who was African-American) began to write essays and make speeches against slavery, promoting educational and economic self-sufficiency for African Americans. The first woman of any color to speak on political issues in public, Stewart gave her last public speech in 1833 before retiring from public speaking to work in women’s organizations.
Although her career was short, it set the stage for the African-American women speakers who followed; Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman, among others. Since more direct participation in the public arena was fraught with difficulties and danger, many women assisted the movement by boycotting slave-produced goods and organizing fairs and food sales to raise money for the cause.
To take one example of the danger, Pennsylvania Hall was the site in 1838 of the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, and as 3,000 white and black women gathered to hear prominent abolitionists such as Maria Weston Chapman, the speakers’ voices were drowned out by the mob which had gathered outside. When the women emerged, arms linked in solidarity, they were stoned and insulted. The mob returned the following day and burned the hall, which had been inaugurated only three days earlier, to the ground.
Furthermore, the Grimké sisters from South Carolina (Angelina and Sarah Grimké), received much abuse and ridicule for their abolitionist activity, which consisted of traveling throughout the North, lecturing about their first-hand experiences with slavery on their family plantation.
Even so, many women’s anti-slavery societies were active before the Civil War, the first one having been created in 1832 by free black women from Salem, Massachusetts Fiery abolitionist, Abby Kelley Foster, was an ultra-abolitionist, who also led Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony into the anti-slavery movement.
In 1821, Emma Willard founded the Troy Female Seminary in Troy, New York, which was the first American educational institution to offer young women a pre-college education equal to that given to young men.
Mary Lyon (1797-1849) founded Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1837; it was the first college opened for women and is now Mount Holyoke College, one of the Seven Sisters. Lyon was a deeply religious Congregationalist who, although not a minister, preached revivals at her school. She greatly admired colonial theologian Jonathan Edwards for his theology and his ideals of self-restraint, self-denial, and disinterested benevolence. Georgia Female College, now Wesleyan College opened in 1839 as the first Southern college for women.
Oberlin College opened in 1833 as Oberlin Collegiate Institute, in the heavily Yankee northeastern corner of Ohio. In 1837 it became the first coeducational college by admitting four women. Soon they were fully integrated into the college, and comprised from a third to half of the student body. The religious founders especially evangelical theologian Charles Grandison Finney, saw women as inherently morally superior to men. Indeed, many alumnae, inspired by this sense of superiority and their personal duty to fulfill God’s mission engaged in missionary work. Historians have typically presented coeducation at Oberlin as an enlightened societal development presaging the future evolution of the ideal of equality for women in higher education
The enrollment of women grew steadily after the Civil War. In 1870, 8,300 women comprised 21% of all college students. In 1930, 480,000 women comprise 44% of the student body.
Another reform movement women were heavily involved with was the rights of those confined in institutions. Dorothea Dix was one of the most notable such reformers. Prior to the Civil War’s beginning in 1861 (when she became the Union’s Superintendent of Female Nurses), she investigated the conditions of many jails, mental hospitals, and almshouses, and presented her findings to state legislatures. Due to her work, many hospitals were built, along with additions and improvements made to existing facilities. In contrast to popular attitudes of the time that such things were not necessary, she insisted on a therapeutic setting for the curable insane and a humanely comfortable setting for those regarded as incurable.
he first wave of feminism began with the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention, held at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, on July 19 and 20, 1848.
This Convention was inspired by the fact that in 1840, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton met Lucretia Mott at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, the conference refused to seat Mott and other women delegates from America because of their gender. Stanton, the young bride of an antislavery agent, and Mott, a Quaker preacher and veteran of reform, talked then of calling a convention to address the condition of women.
An estimated three hundred women and men attended the Convention, including notables Lucretia Mott and Frederick Douglass. At the conclusion, 68 women and 32 men signed the “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions”, which was written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the M’Clintock family.
The style and format of the “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” was that of the “Declaration of Independence;” for example the “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” stated, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men and women are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.” The Declaration further stated, “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man towards woman.”
The declaration went on to specify female grievances in regard to the laws denying married women ownership of wages, money, and property (all of which they were required to turn over to their husbands; laws requiring this, in effect throughout America, were called coverture laws), women’s lack of access to education and professional careers, and the lowly status accorded women in most churches. Furthermore, the Declaration declared that women should have the right to vote.
Two weeks later a Woman’s Rights Convention was held in Rochester, New York on August 2. It was followed by state and local conventions in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. The first National Woman’s Rights Convention was held in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1850. Women’s rights conventions were held regularly from 1850 until the start of the Civil War. She didn’t have to struggle because of the wealth of her family.
In 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell, born in England, graduated from Geneva Medical College in New York at the head of her class and thus became the first female doctor in America. In 1857 she and her sister Emily, and their colleague Marie Zakrzewska, founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, the first American hospital run by women and the first dedicated to serving women and children.
The rapid growth of textile manufacturing in New England 1815–1860 caused a shortage of workers. Recruiters were hired by mill agents to enlist young women. Between 1830 and 1850, thousands of unmarried farm women moved from rural areas, where there was no paid employment, to the nearby mill villages. Farmers’ daughters worked to aid their families financially, save for marriage, and widen their horizons. As the textile industry grew, immigration also grew. By the 1850s the mill owners replaced all the Yankee girls with immigrants, especially Irish and French Canadians.
Women continued to be active in reform movements in the second half of the 19th century. In 1851 former slave Sojourner Truth gave a famous speech, called “Ain’t I a Woman?,” at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio. In this speech she condemned the attitude that women were too weak to have equal rights with men, noting the hardships she herself had endured as a slave. In 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the abolitionist book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Begun as a serial for the Washington anti-slavery weekly, the “National Era”, the book focused public interest on the issue of slavery, and was deeply controversial for its strong anti-slavery stance at the time it was written. In writing the book, Stowe drew on her personal experience: she was familiar with slavery, the antislavery movement, and the underground railroad because Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Ohio, where Stowe had lived, was a slave state. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a best-seller, selling 10,000 copies in the United States in its first week; 300,000 in the first year; and in Great Britain, 1.5 million copies in one year. Following publication of the book, Harriet Beecher Stowe became a celebrity, speaking against slavery both in America and Europe. She wrote A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1853, extensively documenting the realities on which the book was based, to refute critics who tried to argue that it was inauthentic; and published a second anti-slavery novel, Dred, in 1856. Later, when she visited President Lincoln, the family’s oral tradition states that he greeted her as “the little lady who made this big war.” Campaigners for other social changes, such as Caroline Norton who campaigned for women’s rights, respected and drew upon Stowe’s work.
In the years before the Civil War, Harriet Tubman, a runaway slave herself, freed more than 70 slaves over the course of 13 secret rescue missions to the South. Furthermore, in June 1863, Harriet Tubman became the first woman to plan and execute an armed expedition in United States history; acting as an advisory to Colonel James Montgomery and his 300 soldiers, Tubman led them in a raid in South Carolina from Port Royal to the interior, some twenty-five miles up the Combahee River, where they freed approximately 800 slaves.
During the American Civil War (1861–1865) at least 240 biological women are known to have worn male clothing in order to serve. Dorothea Dix served as the Union’s Superintendent of Female Nurses throughout the war, placing her in charge of all female nurses working in army hospitals, which was over 3,000 nurses; women provided casualty care and nursing to Union and Confederate troops at field hospitals and on the Union Hospital Ship Red Rover. Furthermore, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker served as assistant surgeon with General Burnside’s Union forces in 1862 and with an Ohio regiment in East Tennessee the following year; imprisoned in Richmond as a spy, she was eventually released and returned to serve as a hospital surgeon at a women’s prisoner-of-war hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. After the war, President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Medal of Honor, making her the only woman ever to receive it.
About 250,000 Southern soldiers never came home, or 30% of all white men aged 18 to 40 in 1860. Widows who were overwhelmed often abandoned the farm and merged into the households of relatives, or even became refugees living in camps with high rates of disease and death. In the Old South, being an “old maid” was something of an embarrassment to the woman and her family. Now it became almost a norm. Some women welcomed the freedom of not having to marry. Divorce, while never fully accepted, became more common. The concept of the “New Woman” emerged—she was self-sufficient, independent, and stood in sharp contrast to the “Southern Belle” of antebellum lore.
The work patterns of elite white women changed radically after the Civil War, depending on their stage in the life cycle. Women over age 50 changed least, insisting that they needed servants and continuing their traditional managerial roles. The next generation, comprising the young wives and mothers during the Civil War, depended much less on black servants, and displayed greater flexibility toward household work. The youngest generation, which matured during the war and Reconstruction, did many of their own domestic chores. Some sought paid jobs outside the household, especially in teaching, which allowed an escape from domestic chores and obligatory marriage.
The arrival of the railroads in the 1870s open up the Great Plains for settlement, for now it was possible to ship wheat and other crops at low cost to the urban markets in the East, and Europe. Immigrants poured in, especially from Germany and Scandinavia. On the plains, very few single men attempted to operate a farm or ranch by themselves; they clearly understood the need for a hard-working wife, and numerous children, to handle the many chores, including child-rearing, feeding and clothing the family, managing the housework, feeding the hired hands, and, especially after the 1930s, handling the paperwork and financial details. During the early years of settlement in the late 19th century, farm women played an integral role in assuring family survival by working outdoors. After a generation or so, women increasingly left the fields, thus redefining their roles within the family. New conveniences such as sewing and washing machines encouraged women to turn to domestic roles. The scientific housekeeping movement, promoted across the land by the farm magazines and (after 1914) by government extension agents, as well as county fairs which featured achievements in home cookery and canning, advice columns for women in the farm papers, and home economics courses in the schools.
Although the eastern image of farm life in the prairies emphasized the isolation of the lonely farmer and farm wife, supposedly with few neighbors within range. In reality, they created a rich social life for themselves. They often sponsored activities that combined work, food, and entertainment such as barn raisings, corn huskings, quilting bees, Grange meetings, church activities, and school functions. The womenfolk organized shared meals and potluck events, as well as extended visits between families. The Grange was a nationwide farmers’ organization; it reserved high offices for women, gave them a voice in public affairs, and promoted equality and suffrage.
The women’s suffrage movement began with the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention; many of the activists became politically aware during the abolitionist movement. The movement reorganized after the Civil War, gaining experienced campaigners, many of who had worked for prohibition in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. By the end of the 19th century a few western states had granted women full voting rights, though women had made significant legal victories, gaining rights in areas such as property and child custody.
In 1866, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the American Equal Rights Association, an organization for white and black women and men dedicated to the goal of suffrage for all. In 1868 the Fourteenth Amendment was passed, this was the first Amendment to ever specify the voting population as “male”. In 1869 the women’s rights movement split into two factions as a result of disagreements over the Fourteenth and soon-to-be-passed Fifteenth Amendments, with the two factions not reuniting until 1890. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the more radical, New York-based National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, and Julia Ward Howe organized the more conservative American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), which was centered in Boston. In 1870 the Fifteenth Amendment enfranchised black men. NWSA refused to work for its ratification, arguing, instead, that it be “scrapped” in favor of a Sixteenth Amendment providing universal suffrage. Frederick Douglass broke with Stanton and Anthony over NWSA’s position.
In 1869 Wyoming became the first territory or state in America to grant women suffrage. In 1870 Louisa Ann Swain became the first woman in the United States to vote in a general election. She cast her ballot on September 6, 1870, in Laramie, Wyoming.
From 1870 to 1875 several women, including Virginia Louisa Minor, Victoria Woodhull, and Myra Bradwell, attempted to use the Fourteenth Amendment in the courts to secure the vote (Minor and Woodhull) or the right to practice law (Bradwell), but they were all unsuccessful. In 1872 Susan B. Anthony was arrested and brought to trial in Rochester, New York, for attempting to vote for Ulysses S. Grant in the presidential election; she was convicted and fined $100 and the costs of her prosecution but refused to pay. At the same time, Sojourner Truth appeared at a polling booth in Battle Creek, Michigan, demanding a ballot; she was turned away. Also in 1872, Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to run for President, although she could not vote and only received a few votes, losing to Ulysses S. Grant. She was nominated to run by the Equal Rights Party, and advocated the 8-hour work day, graduated income tax, social welfare programs, and profit sharing, among other positions. In 1874 The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded by Annie Wittenmyer to work for the prohibition of alcohol; with Frances Willard at its head (starting in 1876), the WCTU also became an important force in the fight for women’s suffrage. In 1878 a woman suffrage amendment was first introduced in the United States Congress, but it did not pass.
American women achieved several firsts in the professions in the second half of the 1800s. In 1866 Lucy Hobbs Taylor became the first American woman to receive a dentistry degree. In 1878 Mary L. Page became the first woman in America to earn a degree in architecture when she graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 1879 Belva Lockwood became the first woman allowed to argue before the Supreme Court; the first case in which she did so was the 1880 case “Kaiser v. Stickney”. Arabella Mansfield had previously become America’s first female lawyer when she was admitted to the bar in 1869. In 1891 Marie Owens, born in Canada, was hired in Chicago as America’s first female police officer. Due to women’s greater involvement in law and law enforcement, in 1871 the first state laws specifically making wife beating illegal were passed, though proliferation of laws to all states and adequate enforcement of those laws lagged very far behind. One of the first female photojournalists, Sadie Kneller Miller used her initials, SKM, as a byline, which hid her gender. She covered sports, disasters, diseases, and was recognized as the first female war correspondent.
In 1889 Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr established the first settlement house in America (a settlement house is a center in an underprivileged area that provides community services), in what was then a dilapidated mansion in one of the poorest immigrant slums of Chicago on the corner of Halstead and Polk streets. This settlement house, called Hull House, provided numerous activities and services including health and child care, clubs for both children and adults, an art gallery, kitchen, gymnasium, music school, theater, library, employment bureau, and a labor museum. By 1910, 400 settlement houses had been established in America; the majority of settlement house workers were women. Jane Addams was also a noted peace activist who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nicholas Murray Butler in 1931
During the Spanish–American War (1898) thousands of US soldiers sick with typhoid, malaria, and yellow fever overwhelmed the capabilities of the Army Medical Department, so Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee suggested to the Army Surgeon General that the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) be appointed to select professionally qualified nurses to serve under contract to the US Army. Before the war ended, 1,500 civilian contract nurses were assigned to Army hospitals in the US, Hawaii (not a state at that time), Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, as well as to the hospital ship Relief. Twenty nurses died. The Army appointed Dr. McGee as Acting Assistant Surgeon General, making her the first woman ever to hold the position. The Army was impressed by the performance of its contract nurses and had Dr. McGee write legislation creating a permanent corps of Army nurses.
Across the nation, middle-class women organized on behalf of social reforms during the Progressive Era. They were especially concerned with Prohibition, suffrage, school issues, and public health. Focusing on the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, a national network of middle class women who formed local clubs, historian Paige Meltzer puts the women’s clubs in the context of the Progressive Movement, arguing that its policies:
built on Progressive-era strategies of municipal housekeeping. During the Progressive era, female activists used traditional constructions of womanhood, which imagined all women as mothers and homemakers, to justify their entrance into community affairs: as “municipal housekeepers,” they would clean up politics, cities, and see after the health and wellbeing of their neighbors. Donning the mantle of motherhood, female activists methodically investigated their community’s needs and used their “maternal” expertise to lobby, create, and secure a place for themselves in an emerging state welfare bureaucracy, best illustrated perhaps by clubwoman Julia Lathrop’s leadership in the Children’s Bureau. As part of this tradition of maternal activism, the Progressive-era General Federation supported a range of causes from the pure food and drug administration to public health care for mothers and children to a ban on child labor, each of which looked to the state to help implement their vision of social justice.
The representative woman of the Progressive Era was Jane Addams (1860–1935). She was a pioneer social worker, leader of community activists at Hull House in Chicago, public philosopher, sociologist, author, and spokesperson for suffrage and world peace. Alongside presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, she was the most prominent reformer of the Progressive Era. She helped turn the nation’s attention to issues of concern to mothers, such as the needs of children, public health, and world peace. She said that if women were to be responsible for cleaning up their communities and making them better places to live, they needed the vote to be effective in doing so. Addams became a role model for middle-class women who volunteered to uplift their communities. In 1931 she became the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Her reputation declined after 1960 as critics on the left portrayed her an unoriginal racist determined to civilize helpless immigrants. After 1990 the pendulum swung in her favor and numerous favorable biographies have appeared.
French Canadian women saw New England as a place of opportunity and possibility where they could create economic alternatives for themselves distinct from the expectations of their subsistence farms in Quebec. By the early 20th century some saw temporary migration to the United States to work as a rite of passage and a time of self-discovery and self-reliance. Most moved permanently to the United States, using the inexpensive railroad system to visit Quebec from time to time. When these women did marry, they had fewer children with longer intervals between children than their Canadian counterparts. Some women never married, and oral accounts suggest that self-reliance and economic independence were important reasons for choosing work over marriage and motherhood. These women conformed to traditional gender ideals in order to retain their ‘Canadienne’ cultural identity, but they also redefined these roles in ways that provided them increased independence in their roles as wives and mothers.
Most young urban women took jobs before marriage, then quit. Before the growth of high schools after 1900, most women left school after the 8th grade at about age 15. Ciani (2005) shows that type of work they did reflected their ethnicity and marital status. African American mothers often chose day labor, usually as domestic servants, because of the flexibility it afforded. Most mothers receiving pensions were white and sought work only when necessary.
Across the region middle class society women shaped numerous new and expanded charitable and professional associations, and promoted mothers’ pensions, and expanded forms of social welfare. Many of the Protestant homemakers were active in the temperance and suffrage movements as well. In Detroit, the Federation of Women’s Clubs (DFWC) promoted a very wide range of activities for civic minded middle-class women who conformed to traditional gender roles. The Federation argued that safety and health issues were of greatest concern to mothers and could only be solved by improving municipal conditions outside the home. The Federation pressured Detroit officials to upgrade schools, water supplies and sanitation facilities, and to require safe food handling, and traffic safety. However, the membership was divided on going beyond these issues or collaborating with ethnic or groups or labor unions, Its refusal to stretch traditional gender boundaries, gave it a conservative reputation in the working class. Before the 1930s, the women’s affiliates of labor unions were too small and weak to fill the gap.
Rebecca Latimer Felton (1835–1930) was the most prominent woman leader in Georgia. Born into a wealthy plantation family, she married an active politician, managed his career, and became a political expert. An outspoken feminist, she became a leader of the prohibition and woman’s suffrage movements, endorsed lynching, fought for reform of prisons, and filled leadership roles in many reform organizations. In 1922, she was appointed to the U.S. Senate. She was sworn in on November 21, 1922, and served one day; she was the first woman to serve in the Senate.
Although middle class urban women were well-organized supporters of suffrage, the rural areas of the South were hostile. The state legislatures ignored efforts to let women vote in local elections. Georgia not only refused to ratify the Federal 19th Amendment, but took pride in being the first to reject it. The Amendment passed nationally and Georgia women gained the right to vote in 1920. However, black women did not vote until federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 enforced their constitutional rights.
The woman’s reform movement flourished in cities; however the South was still heavily rural before 1945. In Dallas, Texas, women reformers did much to establish the fundamental elements of the social structure of the city, focusing their energies on families, schools, and churches during the city’s pioneer days. Many of the organizations which created a modern urban scene were founded and led by middle class women. Through voluntary organizations and club work, they connected their city to national cultural and social trends. By the 1880s women in temperance and suffrage movements shifted the boundaries between private and public life in Dallas by pushing their way into politics in the name of social issues.
During 1913–19, advocates of woman suffrage in Dallas drew on the educational and advertising techniques of the national parties and the lobbying tactics of the women’s club movement. They also tapped into popular culture, successfully using popular symbolism and traditional ideals to adapt community festivals and social gatherings to the task of political persuasion. The Dallas Equal Suffrage Association developed a suffrage campaign based on social values and community standards. Community and social occasions served as recruiting opportunities for the suffrage cause, blunting its radical implications with the familiarity of customary events and dressing it in the values of traditional female behavior, especially propriety.
Black women reformers usually operated separately. Juanita Craft (1902–85) was a leader in the Texas civil rights movement through the Dallas NAACP. She focused on working with black youths, organizing them as the vanguard in protests against segregation practices in Texas.
The Progressive movement was especially strong in California, where it aimed to purify society of its corruption, and one way was to enfranchise supposedly “pure” women as voters in 1911, nine years before the 19th Amendment enfranchised women nationally in 1920. Women’s clubs flourished and turned a spotlight on issues such as public schools, dirt and pollution, and public health. California women were leaders in the temperance movement, moral reform, conservation, public schools, recreation, and other issues. The women did not often run for office—that was seen as entangling their purity in the inevitable backroom deals routine in politics.
Bristow shows there was a gendered response of health caregivers to the 1918 flu pandemic that killed over 500,000 Americans. Male doctors were unable to cure the patients, and they felt like failures. Women nurses also saw their patients die, but they took pride in their success in fulfilling their professional role of caring for, ministering, comforting, and easing the last hours of their patients, and helping the families of the patients cope as well.
Birth control information and devices were illegal under federal law, as enforced by the Post Office. Margaret Sanger was an influential campaigner for birth control rights in the 1910s. She originally worked as a visiting nurse in the New York City’s tenements and wrote about sex education and women’s health. In 1914, Sanger’s articles in “The Woman Radical” brought her a federal indictment for violating the Comstock Act (which since 1873 had banned birth control devices and information on birth control devices, sexually transmitted diseases, human sexuality, and abortion). Sanger and her sister Ethel Byrne, also a nurse, opened the first birth control clinic in the United States in 1916, modeled after those Sanger had seen in the Netherlands. The police quickly closed it down but the publicity surrounding Sanger’s activities had made birth control a matter of public debate.
The campaign for women’s suffrage picked up speed in the 1910s as the established women’s groups won in the western states and moved east, leaving the conservative South for last. Parades were favorite publicity devices. In 1916 Jeannette Rankin, a Republican from Montana, became the first woman to serve in Congress. A lifelong pacifist, she was one of fifty members of Congress who voted against entry into World War I in 1917, and the only member of Congress who voted against declaring war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
The gradual methods of the established organizations were not enough for some of the younger militants, who copied some of the violent tactics used in Britain by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), such as getting arrested and then going on hunger strikes to gain publicity. In both countries the militants were called “suffragettes” while the nonviolent activists were called “suffragists.” In the spring of 1917, shortly after war with Germany had been declared, women from the National Woman’s Party (founded in 1913 by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns) began picketing the White House and the Capitol in support of an amendment that would guarantee women’s suffrage. By mid-June, Alice Paul had been warned by the chief of police that further demonstrations would lead to arrests, and between June 22 and 26, 27 women were arrested for obstructing traffic, but were released without penalty. On June 26 several of the picketers were arrested and charged with obstructing traffic, and confined to the District Jail for three days after refusing to pay a 25-dollar fine. The next series of arrests produced the same penalties; however, on July 14 sixteen women were arrested, tried, and sentenced to 60 days in Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia, where the cells were infested with rats, and the food was infested with mealworms. Furthermore, on November 14, 1917, newly convicted suffragists arrived at Occoquan and were waiting in a holding room; what happened to them has come to be known as the “Night of Terror”. Superintendent Whittaker burst into the room, followed by 15 to 20 guards (the exact number is uncertain) and shouted orders to take the suffragists to their cells. May Nolan, a 73-year-old woman with a lame leg, was literally dragged off by two guards, despite saying that she would go willingly. Dorothy Day had her arm twisted behind her back and was purposefully slammed down twice over the back of an iron bench. Dora Lewis was thrown into a cell with such force that she was knocked unconscious, and for several minutes her companions believed that she was dead. Alice M. Cosu of New Orleans was also thrown forcefully into her cell; she suffered a heart attack and repeated and persistent requests for medical attention for her went unanswered by the authorities throughout the night. Lucy Burns, who had been arrested once again on November 10, shortly after completing her previous 60-day sentence, was identified by Superintendent Whittaker as the ringleader for the group. She was manacled to her cell bars, hands above her head, and remained that way until morning; later, her clothing was removed and she was left with only a blanket. While in Occoquan, several suffragists went on hunger strikes and were subsequently placed in solitary confinement and subject to forced-feeding.
World War I was a total war, and the nation moved to mobilize its women for material and psychological support of the war effort in and out of the home. All the states organized women’s committees. Representative was the women’s state committee in North Carolina. Motivated by the public service ideals of the Progressive Movement, it registered women for many volunteer services, promoted increased food production, and the elimination of wasteful cooking practices, helped maintain social services, worked to bolster moral well-being of white and black soldiers, improved public health and public schools, encouraged black participation in its programs, and helped with the devastating Spanish flu epidemic that struck worldwide in late 1918, with very high fatalities. The committee was generally successful in reaching middle-class white and black women, but it was handicapped by the condescension of male lawmakers, limited funding, and tepid responses from women on the farms and working-class districts.
Women served in the military as nurses, and in support roles. Tens of thousands were employed in the United States, and thousands more in France.) The Army Nurse Corps (all female until 1955) was founded in 1901, and the Navy Nurse Corps (all female until 1964) was founded in 1908, and nurses in both served overseas at military hospitals during the war. During the course of the war, 21,480 Army nurses served in military hospitals in the United States and overseas and eighteen African-American Army nurses served stateside caring for German prisoners of war (POWs) and African-American soldiers. More than 1,476 Navy nurses served in military hospitals stateside and overseas. More than 400 military nurses died in the line of duty during World War I; the vast majority of these women died from a highly contagious form of influenza known as the “Spanish Flu,” which swept through crowded military camps and hospitals and ports of embarkation. In 1917 women were first able to join the Navy for jobs other than nurse; they were able to become yeomen, electricians (radio operators), and any other ratings necessary to the naval district operations. 13,000 women enlisted, and the majority became yeomen and were designated as yeoman (F) for female yeoman.
The Army employed 450 female telephone operators who served overseas, beginning in March 1918 and continuing until the war ended. These women, who retained their civilian status and were not officially considered veterans until 1978, were the members of the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit 25, better known as the “Hello Girls”. They were required to be fluent in both French and English, and assisted the French and British, both allies of America, in communicating with each other. On August 13, 1918, Opha Mae Johnson became the first female Marine when she enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve; over 300 women served in the Marines during World War One, performing duties within the United States so that the male Marines could fight overseas. Also in 1918, twin sisters Genevieve and Lucille Baker became the first women to serve in the Coast Guard; they were the only women to serve in the Coast Guard during World War One. After World War I ended in 1918, American women were no longer allowed to serve in the military, except as nurses, until World War II. However, in 1920 a provision of the Army Reorganization Act granted military nurses the status of officers with “relative rank” from second lieutenant to major (but not full rights and privileges).
Like most major nations, the United States gave women the right to vote at the end of the war. The 19th amendment to the Constitution, giving all American women the right to vote, passed in 1920. It came up before the House of Representatives in 1918 with the two-thirds votes needed for passage barely within reach; Representative Frederick Hicks of New York had been at the bedside of his dying wife but left at her urging to support the cause. He provided the final, crucial vote, and then returned home for her funeral. However, the Senate failed to pass the amendment that year. The amendment was approved by Congress next year on June 4, 1919, and the states started ratifying. In 1920, Tennessee was the 36th to do so, meeting the 3/4s (of then 48 states) required for enactment; the remaining states ratified later.
The amendment passed the Tennessee Senate easily. However, as it moved on to the House, vigorous opposition came from people in the liquor industry, who thought that if women got the vote, they would use it to pass Prohibition. Distillery lobbyists came to fight the amendment, bringing liquor. “Both suffrage and anti-suffrage men were reeling through the hall in an advanced state of intoxication,” suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt reported. Nevertheless, the suffragists thought they could count on a one-vote victory in the House. Then the speaker, whom they had counted on as a “yes” for the amendment, changed his mind. Yet suddenly, Harry Burn, the youngest member of the House, a 24-year-old “no” vote from East Tennessee, got up and announced that he had received a letter from his mother (Febb Ensminger Burn) telling him to “be a good boy and help Mrs. [Carrie Chapman] Catt.” “I know that a mother’s advice is always the safest for a boy to follow”, Burn said, switching sides, and the amendment was ratified that day, August 18, 1920, officially becoming part of the Constitution when it was certified as law on August 26, 1920; August 26 later became known as Women’s Equality Day. Suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt calculated that the campaign for women’s right to vote had involved 56 referendum campaigns directed at male voters, plus 480 campaigns to get Legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters, 47 campaigns to get constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions; 277 campaigns to get State party conventions to include woman suffrage planks, 30 campaigns to get presidential party campaigns to include woman suffrage planks in party platforms and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.
The achievement of suffrage led to feminists refocusing their efforts towards other goals. Groups such as the National Women’s Party (NWP) continued the political fight, proposing the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923 and working to remove laws that used sex to discriminate against women. But many women shifted their focus from politics to challenge traditional definitions of womanhood.
A generational gap began to form between the “new” women of the 1920s and older women. Prior to the 19th Amendment, feminists commonly thought that women could not pursue both a career and a family successfully, believing that one would inherently inhibit the development of the other. This mentality began to change in the 1920s as more women began to desire not only successful careers of their own but also families. The “new” woman was less invested in social service than the Progressive generations, and in tune with the capitalistic spirit of the era, she was eager to compete and to find personal fulfilment.
The 1920s saw significant change in the lives of working women. World War I had temporarily allowed women to enter into industries such as chemical, automobile, and iron and steel manufacturing, which were once deemed inappropriate work for women. Black women, who had been historically closed out of factory jobs, began to find a place in industry during World War I by accepting lower wages and replacing the lost immigrant labor and in heavy work. Yet, like other women during World War I, their success was only temporary; most black women were also pushed out of their factory jobs after the war. In 1920, seventy-five percent of the black female labor force consisted of agricultural laborers, domestic servants, and laundry workers. The booming economy of the 1920s meant more opportunities even for the lower classes. Many young girls from working-class backgrounds did not need to help support their families as prior generations did and were often encouraged to seek work or receive vocational training which would result in social mobility.
Young women, especially, began staking claim to their own bodies and took part in a sexual liberation of their generation. Many of the ideas that fueled this change in sexual thought were already floating around New York intellectual circles prior to World War I, with the writings of Sigmund Freud, Havelock Ellis, and Ellen Key. There, thinkers outed that sex was not only central to the human experience but that women were sexual beings with human impulses and desires just like men and restraining these impulses was self-destructive. By the 1920s, these ideas had permeated the mainstream.
The 1920s saw the emergence of the co-ed, as women began attending large state colleges and universities. Women entered into the mainstream middle-class experience, but took on a gendered role within society. Women typically took classes such as home economics, “Husband and Wife”, “Motherhood” and “The Family as an Economic Unit”. In an increasingly conservative post-war era, it was common for a young woman to attend college with the intention of finding a suitable husband. Fueled by ideas of sexual liberation, dating underwent major changes on college campuses. With the advent of the automobile, courtship occurred in a much more private setting. “Petting”, sexual relations without intercourse, became the social norm for college students.
Despite women’s increased knowledge of pleasure and sex, the decade of unfettered capitalism that was the 1920s gave birth to the ‘feminine mystique’. With this formulation, all women wanted to marry, all good women stayed at home with their children, cooking and cleaning, and the best women did the aforementioned and in addition, exercised their purchasing power freely and as frequently as possible in order to better their families and their homes.
The “new woman” was in fashion throughout the twenties; this meant a woman who rejected the pieties (and often the politics) of the older generation, smoked and drank in public, had casual sex, and embraced consumer culture. Also called “flappers”, these women wore short skirts (at first just to the ankles, eventually up to the knees) and bobbed hair in a short cut – like a boy’s, but longer. Just as the flapper rejected the long hair popular in earlier years, she also discarded Victorian fashions, especially the corset, which accentuated women’s curves. Flappers preferred to be slender, although it sometimes meant dieting or binding their breasts and wearing restrictive undergarments to appear thin, flat-chested, and long-limbed. Cultivating a flapper image and adhering to modern beauty standards also involved purchasing and applying cosmetics, which had not often been done previously by women other than prostitutes. These women further pushed the boundaries of what was considered proper for a woman by their public activities; swearing, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol (illegal from 1920 until 1933), dancing, and dating.
Women achieved many groundbreaking firsts in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1921 Edith Wharton became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, for her novel “The Age of Innocence”. In 1925, Nellie Tayloe Ross became the first woman elected as a governor in the United States, for the state of Wyoming. Also in 1925, the World Exposition of Women’s Progress (the first women’s world’s fair) opened in Chicago. In 1926 Gertrude Ederle, born in New York, became the first woman to swim across the English channel, arriving in almost two hours less time than any of the men who had swum across before her. In 1928, women competed for the first time in Olympic field events. By 1928, women earned 39% of all college degrees in America, up from 19% at the turn of the 20th century.
In 1932 Hattie Caraway of Arkansas became the first woman elected to the Senate. Furthermore, in 1932 Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, taking her journey on the 5th anniversary of Lindbergh’s solo Atlantic flight . She was awarded the National Geographic Society’s gold medal from President Herbert Hoover, and Congress awarded her the Distinguished Flying Cross. Later in 1932 she became the first woman to fly solo nonstop coast to coast, and set the women’s nonstop transcontinental speed record, flying 2,447.8 miles in 19 hours 5 minutes. In 1935 she became the first person to solo the 2,408-mile distance across the Pacific between Honolulu and Oakland, California; this was also the first flight where a civilian aircraft carried a two-way radio. Later in 1935, she became the first person to fly solo from Los Angeles to Mexico City. Still later in 1935, she became the first person to fly solo nonstop from Mexico City to Newark. In 1937 Amelia Earhart began a flight around the world but vanished during it; her remains, effects, and plane have never been found. The first woman to fly solo around the world and return home safely was the American amateur pilot Jerrie Mock, who did so in 1964. In 1933 Frances Perkins was appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt as his Secretary of Labor, making her the first woman to hold a job in a Presidential cabinet.
However, women also faced many challenges during this time. A National Education Association survey showed that between 1930 and 1931, 63% of cities dismissed female teachers as soon as they became married, and 77% did not hire married women as teachers. Also, a survey of 1,500 cities from 1930 to 1931 found that three-quarters of those cities did not employ married women for any jobs. In January 1932, Congress passed the Federal Economy Act which stipulated that no two persons in the family could be working in government service at the same time; three-fourths of employees discharged as a result of this Act were women. However, during the Great Depression white women’s unemployment rate was actually lower than that for men, because women were paid less and because men would not take what they considered to be “women’s jobs” such as clerical work or domestic service. Yet as a result of rising unemployment, white women’s movement into professional and technical work slowed.
Birth control activism was an important cause in the 1930s. In 1936 Margaret Sanger helped bring the case of “United States v. One Package” to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The decision in that case allowed physicians to legally mail birth control devices and information; however, it applied only to New York, Connecticut, and Vermont; birth control did not become legal for married couples throughout the United States until the 1965 Supreme Court decision Griswold v. Connecticut, and did not become legal for unmarried couples throughout the United States until the 1972 Supreme Court decision Eisenstadt v. Baird. In 1937 The American Medical Association officially recognized birth control as an integral part of medical practice and education, and North Carolina became the first state to recognize birth control as a public health measure and to provide contraceptive services to indigent mothers through its public health program.
In 1939 black singer Marian Anderson sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, which was considered a milestone in the civil rights movement. She had originally wanted to sing at Washington D.C.’s largest venue, Constitution Hall, but The Daughters of the American Revolution barred her from performing there because of her race. Due to this, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was then the First Lady, resigned from the organization. This stands as one of the first actions taken by someone in the White House to address the era’s racial inequality. Anderson performed at the White House three years prior in 1936, making her the first African-American performer to do so.
A female welder at the Richmond Shipyards, Richmond, California, in 1943. Women factory workers embodied the “Rosie the Riveter” ideal.
When the United States entered World War II in 1941, 12 million women were already working (making up one quarter of the workforce), and by the end of the war, the number was up to 18 million (one third of the workforce). However, while eventually 3 million women worked in war plants, the majority of women who worked during World War II worked in traditionally female occupations, like the service sector. During this time, the “Rosie the Riveter” concept became popular with working women.
Furthermore, during World War II 350,000 women served in the military, as WACS, WAVES, SPARS, Marines and nurses. More than 60,000 Army nurses served stateside and overseas during World War II; 67 Army nurses were captured by the Japanese in the Philippines in 1942 and were held as POWs for over two and a half years. More than 14,000 Navy nurses served stateside, overseas on hospital ships, and as flight nurses during the war. Five Navy nurses were captured by the Japanese on the island of Guam and held as POWs for five months before being exchanged; a second group of eleven Navy nurses were captured by the Japanese in the Philippines and held for 37 months.
Over 150,000 American women served in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) during World War II; the Corps was formed in 1942. Many Army WACs computed the velocity of bullets, measured bomb fragments, mixed gunpowder, and loaded shells. Others worked as draftswomen, mechanics, and electricians, and some received training in ordnance engineering. Later in the war, women were trained to replace men as radio operators on U.S. Army hospital ships. The “Larkspur”, the “Charles A. Stafford”, and the “Blanche F. Sigman” each received three enlisted women and one officer near the end of 1944. This experiment proved successful, and the assignment of female secretaries and clerical workers to hospital ships occurred soon after.
Eventually the Air Force obtained 40% of all WACs in the Army; women were assigned as weather observers and forecasters, cryptographers, radio operators and repairmen, sheet metal workers, parachute riggers, link trainer instructors, bombsight maintenance specialists, aerial photograph analysts, and control tower operators. Over 1,000 WACs ran the statistical control tabulating machines (the precursors of modern-day computers) used to keep track of personnel records. By January 1945 only 50% of AAF WACs held traditional assignments such as file clerk, typist, and stenographer. A few Air Force WACs were assigned flying duties; two WAC radio operators assigned to Mitchel Field, New York, flew as crew members on B-17 training flights. WAC mechanics and photographers also made regular flights. Three WACs were awarded Air Medals, including one in India for her work in mapping “the Hump,” the mountainous air route overflown by pilots ferrying lend-lease supplies to the Chinese Army. One woman died in the crash of an aerial broadcasting plane.
In 1942 the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) division was founded as an all-female division of the Navy, and more than 80,000 women served in it, including computer scientist Grace Hopper, who later achieved the rank of rear admiral. While traditionally female secretarial and clerical jobs took a large portion of the WAVES women, thousands of WAVES performed previously atypical duties in the aviation community, Judge Advocate General Corps, medical professions, communications, intelligence, science and technology. The WAVES ended and women were accepted into the regular Navy in 1948. The first six enlisted women to be sworn into the regular Navy on July 7, 1948 were Kay Langdon, Wilma Marchal, Edna Young, Frances Devaney, Doris Robertson. and Ruth Flora. On October 15, 1948, the first eight women to be commissioned in the regular Navy, Joy Bright Hancock, Winifred Quick Collins, Ann King, Frances Willoughby, Ellen Ford, Doris Cranmore, Doris Defenderfer, and Betty Rae Tennant took their oaths as naval officers.
Semper Paratus Always Ready, better known as SPARS, was the United States Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, created Nov 23, 1942; more than 11,000 women served in SPARS during World War II. SPARs were assigned stateside and served as storekeepers, clerks, photographers, pharmacist’s mates, cooks, and in numerous other jobs. The program was largely demobilized after the war.
The Marine Corps created a Women’s Reserve in 1943; women served as Marines during the war in over 225 different specialties, filling 85% of the enlisted jobs at Headquarters Marine Corps and comprising one-half to two-thirds of the permanent personnel at major Marine Corps posts. Marine women served stateside as clerks, cooks, mechanics, drivers, and in a variety of other positions.
The Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (also known as WASP) was created in 1943 to free male pilots for combat service. WASPs flew stateside missions as ferriers, test pilots, and anti-aircraft artillery trainers. Some 25,000 women applied to join the WASP, but only 1,830 were accepted and took the oath, and out of those only 1,074 women passed the training and joined. The WASPs flew over 60 million miles in all, in every type of aircraft in the AAF arsenal.
WASPs were granted veteran status in 1977, and given the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.
Many women were spies for America during World War II, for example the singer Josephine Baker, whose long residency in France helped her form an underground network, and Claire Phillips, a spy in the Philippines (then occupied by Japan) who in addition to spying sent aid and supplies to the American POWs; Claire was tortured, but never admitted to knowing the people in her spy ring, and after the war she was recognized by the American and Philippine governments for her heroism.
Once World War II ended in 1945, women munitions workers were expected to give up their jobs to returning male veterans and go back home to have and raise children put off by the war. In 1946, 4 million women were fired from their jobs. But for many women, work was an economic necessity, and they simply went back to the sort of low-paying jobs they had held before the war. However, most people in the 1950s felt that ideally women should be homemakers and men should be breadwinners. A booming economy helped to make this possible; by the mid-1950s, 40% of Americans were living in the suburbs with, on average, 3.8 children, two cars and two television sets. Although 35% of women did go to college in the 1950s, most attended not to learn skills but to find a husband. Furthermore, although 46% of women worked during the 1950s, 75% of them worked in simple clerical or sales jobs. The average working woman in the 1950s earned 60% of the average working man’s salary.
However, there were still advances for women in the military. The Army-Navy Nurse Act of 1947 made the Army Nurse Corps and Women’s Medical Specialist Corps part of the regular Army and gave permanent commissioned officer status to Army and Navy nurses. In 1948 Congress passed the Women’s Armed Forces Integration Act, which authorized women to enlist in the military alongside men, rather than in their own separate units, although women were still not allowed to serve in combat. Furthermore, in 1948 Executive Order 9981 ended racial segregation in the armed services. In 1949 the Air Force Nurse Corps was established (the Air Force itself was created in 1947). That same year, the first African-American women enlisted in the Marine Corps.
The Korean War was fought from 1950 until 1953. Many servicewomen who had joined the Reserves following World War II were involuntarily recalled to active duty during the Korean War. 540 Army nurses (all military nurses during the Korean War were female) served in the combat zone and many more were assigned to large hospitals in Japan during the war. One Army nurse (Genevieve Smith) died in a plane crash en route to Korea on July 27, 1950, shortly after hostilities began. Navy nurses served on hospital ships in the Korean theater of war as well as at Navy hospitals stateside. Eleven Navy nurses died en route to Korea when their plane crashed in the Marshall Islands. Air Force nurses served stateside, in Japan and as flight nurses in the Korean theater during the war. Three Air Force nurses were killed in plane crashes while on duty. Many other servicewomen were assigned to duty in the theater of operations in Japan and Okinawa.
Women were heavily involved in lesbian rights and civil rights throughout the 1950s. In 1955 the first national lesbian political and social organization in the United States, called Daughters of Bilitis, was founded by four lesbian couples in San Francisco (including Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon). On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a seamstress and volunteer secretary for the NAACP, was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, as required by law at the time; shortly after this a bus boycott began, inspired by her actions, advocating for an end to all segregated busing. The night of Rosa Parks’ arrest, with her permission, Mrs. Jo Ann Robinson stayed up mimeographing 35,000 handbills calling for a boycott of the Montgomery bus system. Prior to Rosa Parks’ action, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith had refused to give up their seats on buses to white women, but their cases were rejected by civil rights lawyers as they were not considered sympathetic enough. Aurelia Shines Browder refused to give up her seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama in April 1955, and she filed suit against the city and its Democrat Mayor W.A. “Tacky” Gayle. It was on her case, known as Browder v Gayle, that the Supreme Court ruled in 1956 that segregated busing was unconstitutional, thus ending the bus boycott. Aurelia Browder was the lead plaintiff in the case, and Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin, and Mary Louise Smith were the other plaintiffs.
Yet women still occupied a lower position than men in many sectors of American life. In 1957, the National Manpower Council (NMC) at Columbia University published its study, “Womanpower, A Statement by the National Manpower Council with Chapters by the Council Staff”. It was a comprehensive look at the experience of women in the labor force, their employment needs, and the implications of both for education, training, and public policy. This NMC analysis called women “essential” and “distinctive” workers and recommended that the Secretary of Labor establish a committee to review “the consequences and adequacy of existing Federal and state laws which have a direct bearing on the employment of women.” But this suggestion was not acted upon by the Eisenhower Administration. In 1959, three landmark books on women were published: “A Century of Struggle” by Eleanor Flexner, the first professional history of the 19th century women’s movement, which contained an implicit call to arms; “A Century of Higher Education for American Women” by Mabel Newcomer, which disclosed that the relative position of women in the academic world was in decline; and “Women and Work in America” by Robert Smuts, which drew attention to the fact that “the picture of women’s occupations outside the home between 1890 and 1950 had changed in only a few essentials.
In reaction to such findings, by 1961, President John F. Kennedy was under pressure to establish a President’s Commission on the Status of Women. Esther Peterson, Assistant Secretary of Labor and director of the Women’s Bureau, and the highest ranking woman in the Kennedy Administration, wanted such a commission. Along with equal pay legislation, it had long been on the agenda of labor movement women and it was in that movement that Peterson’s working career had been concentrated. Another wish of the women’s movement, effective birth control, came true as in 1961 the first birth control pill, called Enovid, received FDA approval and went on the market. Women’s organizations, notably the American Association of University Women and Business and Professional Women, had been proposing a women’s rights commission for many years; they found a champion in Eleanor Roosevelt, who backed the proposal when she met with Kennedy at the White House after his election. The establishment of the Commission may also have been regarded by Kennedy as an expedient way to pay off his political debts to the women who had supported his campaign but were disappointed with his poor record of appointments of women to his administration. There was also a desire to have Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the most respected women in the country, associated with the Kennedy Administration. Roosevelt had only reluctantly supported JFK’s presidential candidacy after her first choice, Adlai Stevenson, lost the nomination. However, she agreed to be the Chairperson of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, which was held from 1961 until 1963.
The Commission’s Report, called “The American Woman” and issued in 1963, noted discrimination against women in the areas of education, home and community services, employment, social insurance and taxation, and legal, civil and political rights. The report also recommended continued network-building. President Kennedy implemented two Commission recommendations that established an Interdepartmental Committee on the Status of Women and a Citizens’ Advisory Council on the Status of Women, composed of twenty private citizens appointed by the President. These two groups co-sponsored four national conferences of state commissions on the status of women. Another important event of 1963 was the publication of Betty Friedan’s influential book “The Feminine Mystique”, which is often cited as the founding moment of second-wave feminism. This book highlighted Friedan’s view of a coercive and pervasive post-World War-II ideology of female domesticity that stifled middle-class women’s opportunities to be anything but homemakers. Friedan’s book is credited with sparking second-wave feminism by directing women’s attention to the broad social basis of their problems, stirring many to political and social activism.
Also in 1963, President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law, which amended the Fair Labor Standards Act to prohibit pay discrimination because of sex. It requires the employer to pay equal wages to men and women doing equal work on jobs requiring equal skill, effort, and responsibility, which are performed under similar working conditions. Another accomplishment for feminism in 1963 was that feminist activist Gloria Steinem published her article I Was a Playboy Bunny, a behind the scenes look at the sexist treatment of Playboy bunnies, which was one of her first major assignments in investigative journalism.
There were several political firsts for women in the 1960s. On November 22, 1963, following the assassination of President Kennedy, federal judge Sarah T. Hughes administered the Presidential Oath of Office to Lyndon Johnson aboard Air Force One, the only time a woman has done so, as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court normally has this honor. 1964 was the first year in which more women voted in a Presidential election than men; more women have voted than men in every Presidential election since.
One of the most important advances for women’s rights in this decade was not begun by a feminist. On Saturday, February 8, 1964, while the Civil Rights Act was being debated on the House floor, Howard W. Smith of Virginia, Chairman of the Rules Committee and staunch opponent of all civil rights legislation, rose up and offered a one word amendment to Title VII, which prohibited employment discrimination. He proposed to add “sex” to that one title of the bill in order “to prevent discrimination against another minority group, the women,”…. (110 Cong. Rec., February 8, 1964, 2577). This stimulated several hours of humorous debate, later called “ladies day in the House”, before the amendment was passed by a teller vote of 168 to 133. Howard W. Smith later confessed to his colleague, Congresswoman Martha Griffiths, “Martha, I’ll tell you the truth. I offered it as a joke.”
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in charge of the enforcement of Title VII, ignored sex discrimination complaints, and the prohibition against sex discrimination in employment went unenforced for the next few years. One EEOC director called the prohibition “a fluke…conceived out of wedlock,” and even the liberal magazine “The New Republic” asked, “Why should a mischievous joke perpetrated on the floor of the House of Representatives be treated by a responsible administration body with this kind of seriousness?”
In 1966, at the third National Conference of State Commissions on the Status of Women, the conference organizers did not allow resolutions or actions of any kind meant to abolish discrimination against women, so some women who were attending decided to form an advocacy organization of their own. Cornering a large table at the conference luncheon, so that they could start organizing before they had to rush for planes, each of those women chipped in five dollars, Betty Friedan wrote the acronym NOW on a napkin, and the National Organization for Women was created. Its first meeting was held on June 28, 1966 in Betty Friedan’s hotel room, with 28 women attending. At its first conference in October 1966, Friedan was elected NOW’s first president, and her fame as the author of the bestselling book The Feminine Mystique helped attract thousands of women to the organization. Friedan drafted NOW’s original Statement of Purpose, which began, “The purpose of NOW is to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.” Furthermore, in 1966, Congresswoman Martha Griffiths admonished the EEOC on the floor of Congress for their failure to enforce the prohibition against sex discrimination in employment.
Employment discrimination against women began to be taken more seriously in the late 1960s. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson issued Executive Order 11375, which declared that federal employers must take affirmative action to ensure that employees receive equal treatment and opportunities regardless of gender, race, color, or religion. In 1968 the EEOC, following two years of protests by NOW, banned all help wanted ads which specified which sex a job applicant should be, except those jobs for which being a certain sex was a bona fide occupational requirement (such as actress), opening many hitherto unattainable jobs to women. The Supreme Court ruled the ban legal in Pittsburgh Press Co. v Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations, 413 U.S. 376 (1973).
There were several other feminist advances in the late 1960s, in both conservative and liberal circles. In 1968 conservative women separated from NOW and organized Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL) to campaign for equal opportunities for women in education, economics, and employment, while avoiding issues such as abortion, sexuality, and the Equal Rights Amendment. Also in 1968, liberal activist Robin Morgan led a protest of the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City; at the protest a group of about one hundred women tossed items that they considered symbolic of women’s oppression into a Freedom Trash Can, including copies of Playboy, high-heeled shoes, corsets, and girdles. They also crowned a sheep as Miss America. Lindsy Van Gelder, a reporter for the Post, wrote a piece about the protest in which she compared the trash-can procession to the burning of draft cards at antiwar marches. However, the rumor that women burned their bras at the protest is not true.
Litigation for women’s rights now began to have a serious impact on American life. In 1970 California adopted the nation’s first no-fault divorce law, which was intended to promote equality between men and women. By 2010, all 50 states had legalized no-fault divorce, with New York being the last state to do so.] In 1969 the case Weeks v Southern Bell was decided in favor of Lorena Weeks, who had applied for a better job as a switchperson, but had her application rejected because, her union boss said, “the man is the breadwinner in the family, and women just do not need this type of job.” Weeks filed a complaint with the EEOC, but the phone company cited a Georgia law that prohibited women from lifting anything heavier than 30 pounds, although the 34-pound manual typewriter Weeks used as a clerk had to be lifted by hand onto her desk every morning and stored away every night. After the case was decided, she received $31,000 in back pay and got the job. In the 1971 Supreme Court case Reed v Reed, the Supreme Court ruled that it is illegal for any state to prefer all men over all women as administrators of assets. This was the first time in history that the Supreme Court ruled that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution applied to differential treatment based on legal sex.
In addition to litigation, feminist activists also began to form their own institutions to propagate their ideals. In 1971 Rep. Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem founded the National Women’s Political Caucus to advocate for more women and feminists in elective office. Also in 1971, Gloria Steinem and others began publishing Ms. Magazine, the first national feminist magazine.
The first three hundred thousand copies of Ms. sold out in eight days; the magazine name comes from the fact that the title Ms. was originally popularized by feminists in the 1970s to replace Miss and Mrs. and provide a parallel term to Mr., in that both Ms. and Mr. designate gender without indicating marital status.
In 1972, former NOW members Pat Goltz and Cathy Callaghan founded Feminists for Life, with the goal of eliminating the root causes that they felt drove women to abortion, contending that abortion violated core feminist principles of justice, non-discrimination and nonviolence.
One of the most important feminist successes of the early 1970s was when Nixon signed into law the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 gives the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) authority to sue in federal courts when it finds reasonable cause to believe that there has been employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. In the case of public employment, the EEOC refers the matter to the United States Attorney General to bring the lawsuit. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 requires gender equity in every educational program that receives federal funding including but not limited to sports.
However, the feminist movement did have some notable setbacks around this time. In 1972 President Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Bill of 1972, which many feminists advocated and which would have established both early-education programs and after-school care across the country, with tuition on a sliding scale based on a family’s income bracket, and the program available to everyone but participation required of no one.
Pro-ERA advocacy was led by the National Organization for Women (NOW) and ERAmerica, a coalition of nearly 80 other organizations. The Equal Rights Amendment passed the Senate and then the House of Representatives in 1972, and on March 22, 1972, it was sent to the states for ratification. However, it was not ratified before the deadline for ratification passed, and therefore never became law. Some states’-rights advocates thought the ERA was a federal power grab. Some feminists claimed that the insurance industry opposed a measure they believed would cost them money. Opposition to the ERA was also organized by fundamentalist religious groups.
Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative activist, organized opposition to the ERA arguing that it “would lead to women being drafted by the military and to public unisex bathrooms.”
The most influential ERA opponent was Phyllis Schlafly, right-wing leader of the Eagle Forum/STOP ERA. She argues that the ERA would deny a woman’s right to be supported by her husband, privacy rights would be overturned, women would be sent into combat, and abortion rights and same-sex marriages would be upheld.
Experts agree that Schlafly’s organization skills were decisive in causing the defeat. Political scientist Jane J. Mansbridge in her history of the ERA concludes:
Many people who followed the struggle over the ERA believed—rightly in my view—that the Amendment would have been ratified by 1975 or 1976 had it not been for Phyllis Schlafly’s early and effective effort to organize potential opponents.
Joan Williams argues, “ERA was defeated when Schlafly turned it into a war among women over gender roles.” Historian Judith Glazer-Raymo argues:
As moderates, we thought we represented the forces of reason and goodwill but failed to take seriously the power of the family values argument and the single-mindedness of Schlafly and her followers. The ERA’s defeat seriously damaged the women’s movement, destroying its momentum and its potential to foment social change….Eventually, this resulted in feminist dissatisfaction with the Republican Party, giving the Democrats a new source of strength that when combined with overwhelming minority support, helped elect Bill Clinton to the presidency in 1992 and again in 1996.
Second-wave feminism was diverse in its causes and goals. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, parallel with the counterculture movements, women with more radical ideas about feminist goals began to organize. In her work, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975, historian Alice Echols gives a thorough description of the short-lived movement. The radical feminists were after not only the end of female oppression by men but, as Echols notes, “They also fought for safe, effective, accessible contraception; the repeal of all abortion laws; the creation of high-quality, community-controlled child-care centers; and an end to the media’s objectification of women. ”
Small protests and signs of a larger support for radical feminism became more cohesive during the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) June 1967 National Convention in Ann Arbor. The “Women’s Liberation Workshop” denounced sexual inequality and stated, “As we analyze the position of women in capitalist society and especially the United States we find that women are in a colonial relationship to men and we recognize ourselves as part of the Third World. ” Co-written by Jane Addams, one of the most prominent women in SDS, they argued that women’s place within SDS was subordinate and revolution could not succeed without women’s liberation.
While radical feminists agreed that a separate movement for them was needed, how that movement looked and its ultimate goals caused much divide. They questioned whether they should include men within their movement, whether they should focus on issues of war, race and class, and who or what it was they were exactly rallying against. There were also issues concerning African American women within the movement; while the radical feminists felt gender to be the greatest issue, African American women were also very much concerned with racism and many found that to be where oppression was most domineering. Despite being inspired by the black power movement, radical feminists had difficulty figuring out a place for race within their gender-centric movement. They were also divided over the place of lesbianism in the movement.
Notable radical feminist groups included Redstockings, founded in 1969. The group focused on power dynamics in gender and promoted consciousness-raising and distributed movement literature for free. Cell 16, founded in 1968, was a much more militant group arguing that women were conditioned by their sex-roles. The Feminists, founded by Ti-Grace Atkinson in 1968, claimed women were complicit in their oppression and needed to shed conventional gender roles. New York Radical Feminists, founded in 1969, also found maleness to be the greater issue than power roles. They were interested in building a larger movement through mass numbers in New York City.
Echols describes the movement’s end: “Radical feminism remained the hegemonic tendency within the women’s liberation movement until 1973 when cultural feminism began to cohere and challenge its dominance. After 1975, a year of internecine conflicts between radical and cultural feminists, cultural feminism eclipsed radical feminism as the dominant tendency within the women’s liberation movement, and, as a consequence, liberal feminism became the recognized voice of the women’s movement. ” The end of the counterculture movements and the government’s observation of the movement also contributed to its end. The radical feminist movement demonstrated that Second-wave feminism was diverse in its goals, but also divided within itself. Echols notes, “To many women, liberal feminism’s considerably more modest goal of bringing women into the mainstream seemed more palatable, not to mention more realistic, than the radical feminist project of fundamentally reconstructing private and public life. ” She also states that despite the fact that younger generations don’t often see this movement as relevant, it is because feminist movements during this time actually did make significant changes.
One of the most controversial developments in American women’s lives has been the legalization of abortion. In 1973 in the Supreme Court case Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court ruled that it is an illegal violation of privacy to outlaw or regulate any aspect of abortion performed during the first trimester of pregnancy, and that government can only enact abortion regulations reasonably related to maternal health in the second and third trimesters, and can enact abortion laws protecting the life of the fetus only in the third trimester. Furthermore, even in the third trimester, an exception has to be made to protect the life of the mother. This ruling has been extremely controversial from the moment it was made. Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington had brought the lawsuit that led to Roe v Wade on behalf of a pregnant woman, Dallas area resident Norma L. McCorvey (“Jane Roe”), claiming a Texas law criminalizing most abortions violated Roe’s constitutional rights. The Texas law banned all abortions except those necessary to save the life of the mother, and Roe claimed that while her life was not endangered, she could not afford to travel out of state and had a right to terminate her pregnancy in a safe medical environment.
One of the most famous feminist media events, aside from the 1968 Miss America protest, was the tennis match known as the “Battle of the Sexes.” In this match, on September 20, 1973, in Houston, Texas, women’s tennis champion Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs 6–4, 6–3, 6–3, before a worldwide television audience estimated at almost 50 million. 55-year-old former tennis champion Bobby Riggs had defeated Australian tennis player Margaret Court earlier that year, and he was an outspoken opponent of feminism, saying for example, “If a woman wants to get in the headlines, she should have quintuplets,” ” and calling himself a “male chauvinist pig”.
There were a few important legal gains for women in the mid-1970s. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act, enacted in 1974, illegalizes credit discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age, or because someone receives public assistance. Due to this Act, creditors may ask you for most of this information in certain situations, but they may not use it when deciding whether to give you credit or when setting the terms of your credit. In the 1975 Supreme Court case Taylor v Louisiana, the Supreme Court ruled that excluding women from the jury pool is illegal because it violates a person’s right to a fair trial by a representative segment of the community. In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed, making employment discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions illegal.
Another important event around this time was the Vietnam War. Approximately 7,000 American military women served in Vietnam during the Vietnam War (1965–1975), the majority of them as nurses. An Army nurse, Sharon Ann Lane, was the only U.S. military woman to die from enemy fire in Vietnam. An Air Force flight nurse, Capt Mary Therese Klinker, died when the C-5A Galaxy transport evacuating Vietnamese orphans which she was aboard crashed on takeoff. Six other American military women also died in the line of duty. An important gain for military women occurred when in 1976, the five federal United States Service academies (West Point, Coast Guard Academy, Naval Academy, Air Force Academy, Merchant Marines Academy) were required to admit women as a result of Public Law 94-106 signed by President Gerald Ford on Oct 7, 1975. The law passed the House by a vote of 303 to 96 and the Senate by voice vote after divisive argument within Congress, resistance from the Department of Defense and legal action initiated by women to challenge their exclusion. More than 300 women enrolled in the academies in 1976.
During the 1970s, feminists also worked to bring greater attention and help to women suffering from domestic violence and rape. Before the 1970s, very little help was available to battered women. In the 1970s, some of the first battered women’s shelters were created and states began adopting domestic violence laws providing for civil orders of protection and better police protection (the first “modern” women’s shelter in the world was Haven House, which opened in 1964 in California). It is not true that either Catherine MacKinnon or Andrea Dworkin (both feminist activists) said “all sex is rape”, or “all men are rapists,” or “all sex is sexual harassment”, as has been rumored; however, during the 1970s feminist activists worked to change laws stating that there had to be a witness other than the woman herself to charge a man with rape, and that a woman’s sexual history could be brought up at trial, while the alleged rapist’s could not. Also, due to feminist activism the first law against marital rape (raping one’s spouse) was enacted by South Dakota in 1975. By 1993, marital rape had become a crime in all 50 states in America.
The 1980s brought more firsts for American women. 1980 was the first year that a higher percentage of women than men voted in a Presidential election, and a higher percentage of women than men have voted in every Presidential election since. In 1981 Sandra Day O’Connor was confirmed unanimously by the Senate and became the first female Supreme Court Justice. In 1983 Sally Ride became the first female American astronaut. In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman nominated for Vice President by a major party (the Democratic Party), although she was not elected.
Also, in 1984 Katherine Sullivan became the first American woman to walk in space. In 1987 Wilma Mankiller became the first woman to be elected chief of a major Native American tribe (Cherokee). In 1991 she was re-elected with 83% of the vote; during her tenure the Cherokee nation’s membership more than doubled, to 170,000 from about 68,000. In 1987, Congress declared March as the first National Women’s History Month. A special Presidential Proclamation is issued every year since which honors the achievements of American women.
Younger women now began to be more involved in feminism. In the early 1990s, third wave feminism began as a response to the second wave’s perceived inadequacies and shortcomings. Third wave feminism, which continues today, is most often associated with a younger generation of feminist activism, an interest in popular culture and sexual agency, and an acceptance of pluralism and contradiction. In 1991 in Olympia, Washington, Riot grrrl began in reaction to the domination of the punk rock scene of America’s Pacific Northwest by all-male bands, and as an attempt to establish a female-friendly presence within this scene. Riot grrrl consisted of feminist punk bands such as Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, and their zines, meetings and songs.
The concerns of military women again came to the fore as the Persian Gulf War (1990–1991) utilized an unprecedented proportion of women from the active forces (7%) as well as the Reserve and National Guard (17%). Over 40,000 US military women served in combat support positions throughout the war. Sixteen women died during the war and two were held prisoner. In 1991 the Tailhook Scandal occurred at the annual Tailhook Association convention held in Las Vegas, with more than 26 women (14 of them officers) being assaulted by scores of drunken naval and marine officers. Accusations that the Navy mishandled the subsequent investigation were deeply damaging to the Navy’s reputation.
Another famous sexual harassment case occurred when in 1991 Anita Hill, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, came forward with accusations that Clarence Thomas (who had just been nominated for the Supreme Court) had sexually harassed her. Hill had worked for Thomas years earlier when he was head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and she charged that Thomas harassed her with inappropriate discussion of sexual acts and pornographic films after she rebuffed his invitations to date him. When Thomas testified against Hill’s claims before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he called the hearings, “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks,” although Hill herself was black. In the end, the Senate voted 52–48 to confirm Clarence Thomas as an associate justice of the Supreme Court.
The 1990s brought more firsts for women in politics and the military. 1992 was known as the “Year of the Woman” because more women than ever before were elected to political office that year (women gained 19 House and 3 Senate seats for a total of 47 seats in the House and seven seats in the Senate) including Carol Moseley Braun, the first black female senator. In 1993 Ruth Bader Ginsburg was confirmed by Congress as a Supreme Court Justice, becoming the second woman on the court. In 1994 Shannon Faulkner applied to The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina and was accepted for admission. She had left her gender information off the application. When it was discovered that she was a woman, The Citadel revoked her offer, so Faulkner filed suit against The Citadel to gain admission. The court rejected The Citadel’s arguments, clearing her way to attend the school under court order. Faulkner became the first female cadet in 1995, but resigned a few days into her first week. A similar case occurred about this time that forced the Virginia Military Institute to open its doors to women. On June 28, 1996, two days after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in United States v Virginia, the Citadel’s governing board voted unanimously to remove a person’s gender as a requirement for admission. In 1999 Nancy Mace became the first woman to graduate from the Citadel. The first women graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in 2001 (Melissa Graham of Burleson, Texas, and Chih-Yuan Ho of Taipei, Taiwan).
Two important cases concerning women’s rights were litigated in the late 1990s. The Matter of Kasinga was a legal case decided in June 1996 involving Fauziya Kassindja (surname also spelled as Kasinga), a Togolese teenager seeking asylum in the United States in order to escape a tribal practice of female genital mutilation. The Board of Immigration Appeals granted her asylum in June 1996 after an earlier judge denied her claims. The case set a precedent in United States immigration law as applicants could now seek asylum in the United States from gender-based persecution, whereas previously religious or political grounds were often used to grant asylum. In 1999 Lilly Ledbetter, a supervisor at a Goodyear tire plant in Alabama, sued Goodyear because she was being paid at least 15% less than the men who held the same job. A jury sided with her and awarded her back pay of $224,000 and nearly $3.3 million in punitive damages, but the company appealed, arguing she filed her claim too late, and it won a reversal from a U.S. appeals court in Atlanta. In 2007 the Supreme Court agreed with the company and ruled that her suit should have been thrown out at the start because it relied on evidence of discrimination in the 1980s, not on unfair pay decisions in 1998 or 1999; the Supreme Court declared that employees wishing to file discrimination charges must do so no more than 180 days after they have received their first discriminatory paycheck, although Lilly Ledbetter did not know she had been discriminated against in pay until much more than 180 days had passed. However, in 2009 President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law (the first bill signed into law during his presidency), which changed the law so that now workers can sue up to 180 days after receiving any discriminatory paycheck, not just the first discriminatory paycheck.
From 2003 until 2011, American women soldiers served in the Iraq War. This time included several firsts for women in the military. In 2008, Ann Dunwoody became the first female four-star general in the United States military. In 2011, Sandra Stosz assumed command of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, becoming the first woman superintendent of that institution, and the first woman to command any U.S. service academy. Also in 2011, Patricia Horoho became the first female U.S. Army surgeon general.
In 2004, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon became the first same-sex couple to be legally married in the United States, since San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom allowed city hall to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. However, all same-sex marriages done in 2004 in California were annulled. But after the California Supreme Court decision in 2008 that granted same-sex couples in California the right to marry, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon remarried, and were again the first same-sex couple in the state to marry. Later in 2008 Prop 8 illegalized same-sex marriage in California until Prop 8 was overturned in 2013, but the marriages that occurred between the California Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage and the approval of Prop 8 illegalizing it are still considered valid, including the marriage of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon.
American women achieved many political firsts in the 2000s. In 2007, Nancy Pelosi became the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives; she held the position for just under four years. In 2008 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton became the first woman to win a presidential primary, winning the New Hampshire Democratic primary although polls had predicted she would lose. She eventually lost the Democratic nomination for President to Barack Obama, who went on to become President; however, Hillary Clinton did receive 18 million votes. In 2008, Alaska governor Sarah Palin became the first woman nominated for Vice President by the Republican Party, although she was not elected. In 2009 and 2010, respectively, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan were confirmed as Supreme Court Associate Justices, making them the third and fourth female justices, but because Justice O’Connor had previously retired, this made the first time three women have served together on the Supreme Court. Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland was re-elected to a fifth term in 2010; when the 112th Congress was sworn in, she became the longest serving female senator ever, passing Sen. Margaret Chase Smith. During this term, she surpassed Edith Nourse Rogers as the woman to serve the longest in the U.S. Congress.
In 2009, due to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act being signed into law, the definition of federal hate crime was expanded to include those violent crimes in which the victim is selected due to their actual or perceived gender and/or gender identity; previously federal hate crimes were defined as only those violent crimes where the victim is selected due to their race, color, religion, or national origin. Furthermore, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act requires the Federal Bureau of Investigation to track statistics on hate crimes based on gender and gender identity (statistics for the other groups were already tracked).
The White House Council on Women and Girls, a council which forms part of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, was established by Executive Order 13506 on March 11, 2009 with a broad mandate to advise the United States President on issues relating to the welfare of women and girls.
In March 2011, the Barack Obama administration released a report, Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being, showing women’s status in the U.S. in 2011 and how it had changed over time. This report was the first comprehensive federal report on women since the report produced by the Commission on the Status of Women in 1963.
In 2013, American military leaders removed the military’s ban on women serving in combat, overturning a 1994 rule prohibiting women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units.