Women’s Rights Movement Essay

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The women’s rights movement (WRM) seeks women’s equality with men in all aspects of society, with full access to the same rights and opportunities that men enjoy. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman of 1792 first introduced the concept of rights for women. Previously focused on abstract notions of women’s equality, women slowly progressed to battle for constitutional and legal rights, like property rights and suffrage. Early 19th-century intellectual leaders of the American WRM were Lydia Maria Child (1802-80), who wrote the Ladies Family Library, 1832-1835, a history of women; Margaret Fuller (1810-50) and her seminal work, Woman in the Nineteenth Century of 1845; and Elizabeth Ellet (1818-77) who wrote The Women of the American Revolution of 1848.

Women’s Status in Colonial America

Ninety women came to the Virginia colony in 1619, followed by 18 women and 11 girls who landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620. The first women colonists were often indentured servants kidnapped from cities or sold from prisons in Europe. Later, African women, forced to endure the Middle Passage, came to America as slaves. In contrast, the Quakers, who brought the principle of women’s equality to America, were singular in their support of women’s rights, allowing women to preach and enter into the government of the church. Quaker women frequently suffered religious persecution; Mary Dyer refused to recant her religion to the Massachusetts authorities and was hanged in Boston in 1660. Undeniably, women in the colonial period had many duties but not many rights.

The Seneca Falls Convention, 1848

In the early 1800s, U.S. women organized politically on their own behalf. Interested in social problems and their reform, women advocated temperance and gave aid to prisoners, prostitutes, unwed mothers, and widows. Female factory workers went on strike alone for the first time in Dover, New Hampshire, in 1828, but these first attempts to unionize failed. Similarly, Maria W. Stewart, a black woman who spoke out from 1831 to 1833 on the necessity for girls’ education and the abolition of slavery, finally gave up in frustration.

Lacking organizational experience and not permitted to speak in public, women gained experience in political organizing through their activism in the anti-slavery movement. Through this abolitionist work they gained awareness of their inequality and began to change their organizational focus from anti-slavery to women’s rights. Lucretia Mott, an ordained Quaker minister, helped establish the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 and organized the first Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women in 1837. An important catalyst for the WRM occurred when Lucretia Mott met Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840. Lamenting that as women they were not allowed to be delegates, they vowed to organize a convention on women’s rights.

In 1848, the Married Women’s Property Bill became law in New York State, and on July 19-20 of that year, a convention held in the Methodist Church in Seneca Falls signified the beginning of the WRM in the United States. Resolutions passed unanimously were appeals for women’s rights to equality in divorce, child custody, inheritance, property rights, and the right to an education, but some opposed the call for women’s right to vote. State conventions and grassroots organizing on women’s rights continued until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.

The Women’s Suffrage Movement

Close association of the abolitionist cause and the suffrage movement, as well as divisions within the suffrage movement itself on strategies, complicated the achievement of suffrage for women. From its first mention at the Seneca Falls Convention, women’s suffrage took 72 years to accomplish and involved voting rights drives at the state level, battles to persuade state parties to include women’s suffrage in their platforms, congressional fights, and the final movement to ratify the bill in 1919-20.

Ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865 outlawing slavery quickly led to a proposed 14th Amendment giving former slaves citizenship rights and, by implication, the right to vote, leaving the two movements—abolition and women’s suffrage—in competition with each other. Its ratification in 1868 in turn led to the 15th Amendment to give black males the right to vote. A division of the women’s suffrage movement followed, and Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton established the National Woman Suffrage Association in May 1869, arguing for women’s inclusion in the 15th Amendment. That November the newly established American Woman Suffrage Association worked for its ratification and suggested a 16th Amendment for women’s suffrage. While the schism existed, women’s suffrage made few political gains, but in 1890 the two groups joined to form the National American Women’s Suffrage Association. In 1920, Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment, named after Susan Brownwell Anthony, and it became federal law.

American Feminism From 1955 to 1965

After 1920, the public profile of women’s rights diminished over the next 3 decades until Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex in 1949. Her book was considered “too radical for America in the fifties,” and she was suspected of Marxist tendencies. Published during the McCarthy era, The Second Sex had difficulty gaining acceptance; feminists like Betty Friedan were not willing to acknowledge its influence.

The second wave of women’s rights, or the women’s liberation movement, was the outgrowth of women’s activism that persisted from the early to mid-1950s. The rebelliousness of the “Beat Madonnas” in the 1950s, the example of black women in the civil rights movement, the resistance of middle-class white women against the oppressiveness of domestic labor, the activism of working-class women in Ohio during the Un-American Activities Commission hearings, and the welfare rights movement in the early 1960s combined to shape a more powerful, widespread, and factionalized women’s movement.

The Second Wave of Feminism

By the mid-1960s, women’s rights once again came to the forefront, enabled by three events. First, in 1961, John F. Kennedy established the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, at the urging of Esther Peterson, Director of the Women’s Bureau. Second, in 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique and validated the everyday experience of women by identifying their situation as “the problem that has no name.” Third, the National Organization for Women (NOW) formed in 1966, petitioned to stop sex segregation of want ads, and by 1968 had initiated the fight for legalized abortion. In 1968, the Women’s Liberation Front protested the Miss America Pageant, by crowning a live sheep as Miss America and setting up a “freedom trashcan” to dispose of oppressive symbols, such as bras, girdles, and false eyelashes. Although there was no fire, the media transformed it into the infamous “bra burning” incident, which never occurred, creating a fictitious stereotype of women’s liberation.

The women’s liberation movement quickly achieved remarkable success. Following nearly half a century of struggle, Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), and on January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court upheld the Roe v. Wade decision, making the right to an abortion a legal alternative to an undesired pregnancy. However, a coalition of anti-feminist, New Right groups—in particular, Phyllis Shafly’s STOP ERA and later the Eagle Forum— undermined ratification of the ERA. That campaign had a unifying effect on feminist organizing and, led by NOW, gained unprecedented financial and political support. Under the leadership of Ellie Smeal, NOW successfully lobbied Congress to approve an extension of the deadline for ratification of the ERA. In 1982, despite last-minute militant efforts of women chaining themselves inside the Capitol building in

Springfield, Ohio, the ERA failed to win the two-thirds majority necessary, and its defeat signaled the emblematic ruin of a unified women’s movement and a decline in popular support for women’s rights. Other crises further weakened the movement: political infighting, factional divisions, trashing, and accusations of exclusionary practices such as racism, homophobia, classicism, and elitism.

The New Feminism

Since the early 1990s, the term third wave of feminism has gained currency. This new group of young feminist thinkers and activists, defined loosely as women born since 1970, resist the “victim feminisms” of the second wave. Naomi Wolf, in Fire with Fire of 1994, coined the term power feminism to refer to middle-of-the-road politics rather than militancy. Wolf argued that women should use their leverage as shoppers, voters, and taxpayers to achieve equality. Those who advocate do-it-yourself/girl-power use a less conventional approach, making extensive use of the Internet to disseminate their message. They view anger as a feminist mechanism, espouse independence and confident sexuality, and are often depicted as overly assertive. Those who adopt the term third wave are perceived as less rigid than second-wave feminists around issues of dress and sexuality and are concerned with diversity and cultural expression. The new feminisms are less likely to focus on activism around women’s rights per se than on the larger spectrum of human rights in a globalized context.


  1. Bacon, Margaret Hope. 1997. Mothers of Feminism: The Story of Quaker Women in America. Toronto, ON: Collier-Macmillan Canada.
  2. Crow, Barbara A., ed. 2000. Radical Feminism: A Documentary Reader. New York: New York University Press.
  3. Flexner, Eleanor and Ellen Fitzpatrick. 1996. Century of Struggle: The WRM in the United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  4. Ryan, Barbara. 1992. Feminism and the Women’s Movement: Dynamics of Change in Social Movement, Ideology and Activism. New York: Routledge.

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