Women`s fight for equality in the United States was and is still a tough battle. Even though suffrage was given in 1920, the battle for equality continues till today. Women who engaged in this campaign in the mid-19[th] century were courageous and went against the grain to fight for what they believed. The battles were tough and at several instances led to disagreement even among women. Various organizations were formed led by strong women campaigners which sought women`s rights. Several amendments were passed by the Congress including the Fourteenth and the Fifteenth Amendments that were ambiguous on the rights of women. With consistent campaign and fierce battles, and particularly after the role of women in the First World War, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified that gave women equal rights with those of men. However, today women remain marginalized despite the tremendous progress in the constitution protecting women from discrimination. Today, complaints of women oppression in the workplace and other discrimination against gender. This essay seeks to trace the journey of women`s right in the United States, focusing mainly on the role of women in the realization of enfranchisement.
Background of Women`s Rights in the United States
During the 19[th] Century majority of Americans presumed that there existed an inherent order in the society which assigned men and women different spheres. The ideal women of the time were submissive, with her main job being a meek, obedient and a caring wife who was entirely passive to the men around her. Between 1750 and 1850, the role of women in America somehow changed (Deckard, 1975). In a rural society, both the husband and the wife were expected to put their efforts in the farm so as to succeed. Further changes were realized in the wake of industrialization. As factories started doing many of the work women used to do at home including spinning and weaving, women had extra time to dedicate to other projects. Clergymen started to recruit them for varied reforms but the women would still work in their proper areas hence only influencing men in their family. By the beginning of the 1800, women started to branch out of their families to make an imprint to the world (Donnaway, n.d). Several organizations for women by women were formed some of them were social but majority were focused on doing social work. Female organizations ran charity schools and refuges for needy women. Several battles were fought by women to address their need for equal treatment throughout the 19the and early 20[th] Century but very little was achieved (Donnaway, n.d).
During the Civil War, the women movement declined as women focused hugely on abolition. By the end of the war, women were hoping for equality for both black and white women. Unfortunately this was not realized as the fourteen and Fifteenth amendments preserved the right to vote for men. Women movement separated from the abolition movement after this disappointment. The male abolitionists were mainly northern businessmen who fought for the black vote to guarantee Republican victories in the South and the development of business in the North (Melder, 1977). After success, they quit as they realized there was nothing to gain from women`s suffrage. Despite this major challenge, the women`s movement continued. It had been founded on steady believe of women such as Susan b. Anthony and Elizabeth Candy Stanton, whose work contented with the realization of women`s right to vote when the Nineteenth amendment was confirmed on 21[st] August 1920, an amendment that forbid states from disfranchisement based on sex (Woloch, 1984).
The right to vote in the United States was not the principle demand for women rights movement. Women were mainly interested in the gaining economic rights particularly the rights of women to earn, inherit and possess property. In addition, the federal law mandated that it was the responsibility of individual states to determine the establishment of women`s right to ballot. Consequently, women rights movement assumed that, even other rights of women such as economic rights were to be fought state by state. It was not therefore expected that winning women suffrage rights would entail a grand battle over the federal constitution (Woloch, 1984).
The Fourteenth Amendment was one of the areas of interest in the federal constitution which addressed the issue of enfranchisement in an ambiguous, elaborate and ineffective way. It restrained a state`s number of seats in the House of Representatives to the percentage of the adult population that was allowed to vote. In addition there was a stipulation that was added to this population basis for establishing representation in addition to exclusion of “Indians not taxed”: the amendment categorically defined the legit electorate as `male` where for the first instance in the history of the United States constitution a clear reference to gender was included (Woloch, 1984).
The women movement was by then in its second decade and entailed a call for political equality in its policy and the amenders of the Constitution could not just presume as the Authors, that “we the people” meant men, and did not take into account in any politically significant manner, women. Women had to be clearly included or they would be indirectly included. Women`s rights advocates strongly objected to what was referred to as “the word `male`” by Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Woloch, 1984). They petitioned the congress when the amendment was underway, requesting for adjustment in language but the amendment was passed by the congress regardless and was sent to the states for confirmation despite the contentious stipulation of gender being in place. Women rights campaigners rejected and criticised, but were entangled in their recognition of the significance of political rights for the freedmen, and their commitment to their own course of women`s rights. Thus, they hesitated the calling for non-ratification of the fourteenth amendment.
Later on, since the measures used in the contentious Fourteenth Amendment to influence black enfranchisement were frail, a third post war amendment was created, this time addressing the issue of women suffrage directly. This was the Fifteenth Amendment approved by the Congress in 1869 and confirmed in 1870 which categorically prohibited states to deny the right to ballot to anyone on foundations of colour, race, or previous state of servitude and permitted congress to pass any necessary implementation legislation (Imbornoni, n.d). From the wording of the Fifteenth Amendment, did not transfer the right to establish the electorate to the central government, but only defined certain forms of state disfranchisements with sex excluded, as unconstitutional.
Unfortunately, the contentious balance between the political interests of the cause of black freedom and the rights of women was not solved yet. The two bodies came into open resentment, with the women`s rights movement disagreeing within itself over the next actions to take to secure women suffrage rights. Defenders of women`s rights were in a very difficult political dilemma at this point. They were torn in between opposing and advance in the rights of freed slaves and advocating for those of women. During a meeting of the Americans Equal Rights Association a body that had been formed earlier by women`s rights campaigners to associate black and women suffrage rights, Elizabeth Cady Stanton gave vent to her disappointment, her sense of betrayal by age-old male associates, and her principal sense that, learned women like herself were more worthy of empowerment than men who have just been freed from slavery (Foner, 2005). She at one time had a fierce argument with Fredrick Douglass regarding the significance of black and women suffrage, in which Fredrick raised images of ex-slaves suspended from lampposts in the south by white chauvinist vigilantes, and Elizabeth reacted by asking whether he supposed that the black race constituted of only men. When the meeting ended, Elizabeth and Susan B. Anthony had led a group of women to walk out of the meeting to form a distinct organization named National Woman Suffrage Association that would focus on women`s suffrage (Foner, 2005).
Another group led by Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone both from Massachusetts formed another organization under the name American Woman Suffrage Association to rival the other group. In the following years, both groups spread their influence to the Pacific and Midwest coast. The National Woman Suffrage Association included other inflammatory rights to political rights such as free love. In 1874, American Woman Suffrage Association in a campaign in Michigan pushed for changes in state constitutions. The campaigns entailed winning over a majority of men voters, they were not easy to execute and not until 1893 that Colorado succeeded as the first state to enfranchise women (Foner, 2005).
Winning the Vote Finally
Even though these efforts did not succeed in enfranchising women, they left different marks on the ensuing women suffrage campaigns in the United States. Beginning 1910, some states in the West started to spread the right to vote to women for the first time in two decades (after Utah, Idaho and Colorado had given suffrage rights at the end of the 19[th] Century). However, the stable eastern states rejected to enfranchise women. In 1916, women suffrage organizations all over the United States joined hands to push the recalcitrant states to empower women. In the meantime National Women`s Party, a splinter group employed more radical tactics including hunger strikes and White House pickets that were meant to gain dramatic publicity for their cause (Imbornoni, n.d).
The First World War affected and slowed suffrage campaigns but enabled them spread their argument nonetheless. Activists pointed out that, women`s work in the War ascertained that they were just as patriotic and worthy of citizenship as men. This led to the ratification of the Nineteenth amendment on 26[th] August 1920.
Women`s Rights after 1920
After the enfranchisement of the 1920, women`s rights in the United States did not stop. Women have continued to fight for various rights such as the right to family planning through American birth Control League established a year later by Margaret sanger that later evolved to Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942 (Imbornoni, n.d). The federal law that forbid the dissemination of contraceptive information through mail was modified in 1936 which made birth control information no longer explicit. Job discrimination, racism and sexism continued to ensue American women. Lesbianism started fighting for their rights in 1955 with the formation of Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) that sought acceptance of lesbians in the U.S (Imbornoni, n.d).
Through establishment of a Commission on the Status of Women, President J.F. Kennedy appointed Eleanor Roosevelt as the Chairwoman in 1961. Considerable discrimination of women at work was documented and recommendations made to improve the situation, including paid maternity leave, fair hiring practices and affordable child care. In addition, the divorce law was reviewed to allow coupes divorce on equal consent and also equal division of common property (Imbornoni, n.d). Discrimination against pregnant women in the workplace, marital rape, inclusion in governance and other leadership positions, the right to abortion, are also some of the rights that were realized in the past few years. Today, women`s right struggle has ensued even in the current Obama government. In the year 2009, president Obama consented the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which enables victims of pay discrimination to make a complaint with the authorities against employer within 180 days of their last pay check (Imbornoni, n.d). This was contrary to the previous legislation which allowed victims (mostly women) 180 days to file a complaint from the date of their first unfair pay check. The act was named after Lily, an employee of Goodyear who alleged that she was paid about 15-40 per cent less than her male colleagues which was later proved to be true (Imbornoni, n.d). These scenarios and many other shows how women`s right have not been fully realized. The male dominated world still gives very little room for women empowerment and they are forced to fight every day to realize their rights.
Women`s rights in the United States have and remain to be a difficult journey. Women fought fierce battles in the male dominated society before and after the Civil war in order to realize their rights. The efforts were often marred by controversy and disappointments that slowed their efforts. The First World War played a significant role in realization of women`s enfranchisement in the United States after almost a century of the fight for suffrage. Other rights of women has since then followed including the right to equal treatment as men especially in the workplace, family planning, lesbianism, divorce, sexual discrimination among other rights. Women`s rights have not been fully experienced because until today women are struggling to be treated equally to men.
Deckard, B. (1975). The Women`s Movement: Political, Socioeconomic and Psychological Issues. New York: Harper & Row.
Donnaway, L. (n.d). Women`s Rights Before the Civil War. Retrieved http://www.loyno.edu/~history/journal/1984-5/donnaway.htm (Accessed May 10, 2013).
Foner, E. (2005). Give me liberty! : An American history. New York: W.W. Norton.
Imbornoni, A. (n.d). Women`s Rights Movement in the U.S. Retrieved http://www.infoplease.com/spot/womenstimeline3.html (Accessed May 10, 2013).
Melder, K. E. (1977). Beginnings of Sisterhood: The American Woman`s Rights Movement, 1800-1850. New York: Schocken Books.
Woloch, N. (1984). Women and the American Experience. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Women`s Rights (Name)