History of women in the United States

History of women in the United States

"For Women's suffrage see History of women's suffrage in the United States."

This is a history of the role of women throughout the history of the United States and of feminism in the United States.

Women in Colonial Times

The experiences of women during the colonial era varied greatly from colony to colony. In New England, the Puritan settlers brought their strong religious values with them to the New World, which dictated that the wife be subordinate to her husband and dedicate herself to rearing God-fearing children to the best of her ability. In the early Chesapeake colonies, very few women were present. Much of the population consisted of young, single, white indentured servants, and as such the colonies, to a large degree, lacked any social cohesiveness. African women entered the colony as early as 1619, although their status: free, slave or indentured servant remains a historical debate. Hispanic women also emerged in Spanish controlled areas such as New Mexico, California and Arizona. These women were of either Spanish, Indian, African or mixed descent.

Much later on in the colonial experience, as the values of the Enlightenment were imported from Britain, the philosophies of such thinkers as John Locke weakened the view that husbands were natural "rulers" over their wives and replacing it with a (slightly) more liberal conception of marriage.Women also lost most control of their property when marrying. Even single women could not sue anyone or be sued, or make contracts, and divorce was almost impossible until the late eighteenth century.

The American 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.The mainstream political philosophy of the day assumed that a 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. The desire of women to have a place in the new republic was most famously expressed by Abigail Adams to her husband:

:"I desire you would remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands."

However, The Declaration of Independence still remained androcentric, stating, "all men are created equal".

The Cult of True Womanhood

During the 1830s and 1840s, many of the changes in the status of women that occurred in the post-Revolutionary periodndash such as the belief in love between spouses and the role of women in the homendash continued at an accelerated pace. This was an age of reform movements, in which Americans sought to improve the moral fiber of themselves and of their nation in unprecedented numbers. The wife's role in this process was important because she was seen as the cultivator of morality in her husband and children. Besides domesticity, women were also expected to be pious, pure, and submissive to men. These four components were considered by many at the time to be "the natural state" of womanhood, echoes of this ideology still existing today. The view that the wife should find fulfillment in these values is called the Cult of True Womanhood or the Cult of Domesticity.

Early Feminists

Early feminists active in the abolition movement increasingly began to compare women's situation with the plight of African American slaves. This new polemic squarely blamed men for all the restrictions of women's role, and argued that the relationship between the sexes was one-sided, controlling and oppressive.

Most of the early women's advocates were Christians, especially Quakers. It started with Lucretia Mott's effort to join the Quaker abolitionist men in the abolitionist movement. The result was that Quaker women like Lucretia Mott learned how to organize and pull the levers of representative government. Starting in the mid-1830s, they decided to use those skills for women's advocacy. It was those early Quaker women who taught other women their advocacy skills, and for the first time used these skills for women's advocacy. As these new women's advocates began to expand on ideas about men and women, religious beliefs were also used to support them. Sarah Grimké suggested in her Letters on the Equality of the Sexes (1837) that the curse placed upon Eve in the Garden of Eden was God's prophecy of a period of universal oppression of women by men. Early feminists set about compiling lists of examples of women's plight in foreign countries and in ancient times.

eneca Falls and the growth of the movement

At the Seneca Falls convention in 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton modeled her Declaration of Sentiments on the United States Declaration of Independence. Men were said to be in the position of a tyrannical government over women. This separation of the sexes into two warring camps was to become increasingly popular in feminist thought, despite some reform minded men such as William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips who supported the early women's movement.

As the movement broadened to include many women like Susan B. Anthony from the temperance movement, the slavery metaphor was joined by the image of the drunkard husband who batters his wife. Ideas that women were morally superior to men reflected the social attitudes of the day. They also led to the focus on women's suffrage over more practical issues in the latter half of the 19th century. Feminists assumed that once women had the vote, they would have the political will to deal with any other issues.

Victoria Woodhull argued in the 1870s that the 14th amendment to the United States Constitution already guaranteed equality of voting rights to women. She anticipated the arguments of the United States Supreme Court a century later. But there was a strong movement opposed to suffrage, and it was delayed another 50 years, during which time most of the practical issues feminists campaigned for, including the 18th amendment's prohibition on alcohol, had already been won.

Feminism during the Progressive Era

Anarcho-communist organizer Emma Goldman theorized and advocated for an integrated philosophy of women's liberation, anti-capitalism and anti-authoritarianism. Aside from advocating free choice in sexual relations, she called for access to birth control. She served as a mentor to Margaret Sanger who went to found the American Birth Control League (which eventually became Planned Parenthood) and become an extremely visible advocate for access to family planning. [http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/Goldman/Exhibition/birthcontrol.html]

Women's suffrage was finally guaranteed by Constitutional Amendment through the 19th Amendment. It was passed by Congressional vote in May and June 1919, and ratified by thirty-six states in a little over a year.

Depression and War

The economic crisis known as the Great Depression (1929-40) saw massive new government intervention into the economy, with striking effects on issues of gender. Among the most important for women were systems of economic guarantees granted to retirees, their wives and children and their widows, through the Social Security Act.

Women played multiple roles on the United States home front during World War II (1941-1945). Sixteen million men served in uniform along with 350,000 women who were WACS, WAVES, SPARS, Marines and nurses. The munitions industries temporarily employed millions of women who had been housewives or students, or (most often) held low-paying service jobs. Rosie the Riveter became an icon of civilian and women's involvement in war.

After the war, women's employment status was not guaranteed, and much of the industrial economy rushed to rehire men. However, in many white collar sectors, such as banking and clerical work, the glass ceiling was moved significantly upward. Both during and after the war, women rarely earned as much in the occupations that became female-dominated (such as cashiers, tellers, and low-level loan officers) as their male colleagues had before. [http://www.lexisnexis.com/academic/guides/womens_studies/womlab.asp] Government investments, such as the GI Bill, fueled suburbanization, and the reuniting of separated spouses fostered the baby boom. With radical political activity suppressed by McCarthyism, consumerism being fostered by the retooling of wartime factories for domestic use, and the nuclear family at one of its historic peaks, women were home bound, as wives and mothers. Eventually a major backlash and reconsideration of women's roles occurred, in Betty Friedan's 1963 exposé "The Feminine Mystique", which critiqued contemporary educated American women's socialization and restrictions and judged them to be intolerable.

The growth of modern feminism

Feminism of the second wave in the 1960s focused more on lifestyle and economic issues; "The personal is the political" became a catchphrase. Second wave feminism emerged with battles on three fronts. Many came from within the New Left, seeking to expand the agenda of civil rights and campus to the status of women, while becoming increasing vocal on the mistreatment of women within the movement. Others pursued a primarily economic agenda, advocating for equal access to and equality within the workplace. A third section confronted sexist socialization in the family, romantic relationships and at the interpersonal level.

Sexual assault and domestic violence became central targets of women's activism. The crime of rape began to assume its contemporary form, sex without consent, both legally and socially. Existing laws were extended to include marital rape (usually, in practice, of wives by husbands) and sex when a person is too physically or mentally incapacitated to consent. Susan Brownmiller's "Against Her Will" examined the history of rape. Feminists worked to create domestic violence shelters and rape crisis hotlines, which had been extremely scarce prior to 1965. Some radical feminists, notably Andrea Dworkin (although she said later that her writings had been misunderstood while they created this argument)Fact|date=June 2008, argued that the dominant metaphor describing heterosexual relationships between men and women is itself rape; men raped women physically, economically and spiritually. (See misandry.) Lesbian separatists appealed to lesbian women, advocating the complete independence of women from what was seen as a male-dominated society.

Access to contraception and abortion continued to be major issues for women's rights advocates. The contraceptive pill was approved by the FDA in 1960 for use by married women only. The "age of majority" law was changed from age 21 to 18 in 1972 because of Vietnam; men said if they were old enough to die, then they were old enough to vote. Vietnam therefore had an indirect effect on the availability of the contraceptive pill, as it made it more widely available for younger, non-married women. The first hormonal contraception method, the combined oral contraceptive pill, technologically revolutionized control over reproduction, while laws restricting access to birth control and abortion were rolled back by legislative action and judicial decisions such as Griswold v. Connecticut (contraception, 1965) and Roe v. Wade (abortion, 1973). Numerous women's health collectives, women-run reproductive health clinics and several clandestine abortion services (most notably "Jane", organized by members of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union) were organized prior to these rulings, providing immediate access and increasing pressure for legalization.

Radical feminists, particularly Catharine MacKinnon, began to dominate feminist jurisprudence. Whereas first-wave feminism had concerned itself with challenging laws restricting women, the second wave tended to campaign for new laws that aimed to compensate women for what they perceived as societal discrimination. The idea of male privilege began to take on a legal status as judicial decisions echoed it, even in the United States Supreme Court.

Recently, proponents of New feminism have argued against many second and third wave feminist proposals, including abortion, contraception, and what they view as masculine emphases on "sexual freedom" and material work that result in a devaluation of family life.

Progress towards integration in politics

Women's participation in national political life remained low long after the right to vote was gained in 1920. No more than two women served in the Senate at any time until 1994, and fewer than a dozen were Congressional Representatives until 1955. Current representation is 16 senators and 67 representatives, around 15% of the United States Congress. One quarter of women in Congress are people of color, which reflects the American population, but bucks the trend of the Congress.

No woman has been a major party presidential nominee, although several have run for the position of Vice President or sought their party's nomination. (Center for American Women and Politics, [http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/Facts/Officeholders/cawpfs.html Women in Elected Office 2006] ) Still, the past generation has seen a remarkable shift in American's stated willingness to vote for a woman as president, according to polls more than 80% of Americans would vote for a female candidate. [http://www.bizjournals.com/buffalo/stories/2005/02/21/daily12.html]

In 1879, Belva Lockwood became the first woman to practice law before the U.S. Supreme Court, and in 1981, Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman to become a member of the Supreme Court. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the second woman serving on the Court. On January 4, 2007 Nancy Pelosi became the first female Speaker of the United States House of Representatives.


*Brownmiller, Susan, "In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution", Dial Books 1999, ISBN 0-385-31486-8
*Crow, Barbara A., "Radical Feminism: A Documentary Reader", New York University Press 2000. ISBN 0-8147-1555-9
*Echols, Alice, "Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967-1975", University of Minnesota Press 1990, ISBN 0-8166-1787-2
*Flexner, Eleanor, "Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States", Paperback Edition, Belknap Press 1996, ISBN 0-674-10653-9
*Lerner, Gerda, "Black Women in White America: A Documentary History", Random House 1988 ISBN 0-679-74314-6
*Keetley, Dawn, editor, "Public Women, Public Words: A Documentary History of American Feminism", 3 vls.:
**Vol. 1: Beginnings to 1900, Madison, Wis. : Madison House, 1997
**Vol. 2: 1900 to 1960, Lanham, Md. [u.a.] : Rowman & Littlefield, 2002
**Vol. 3: 1960 to the present , Lanham, Md. [u.a.] : Rowman & Littlefield, 2002

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