This is the 100th year of women gaining their right to vote with the passage of the 19th amendment. Imagine being a girl or a woman before 1920 and not having the right to vote, partake in political commentary and have people make decisions for you without regard to your input? That is what it was like for American women until the passage of the 19th amendment, which took place on August 18, 1920. As we celebrate Women’s History month and the centennial of the 19th amendment we must examine the history of the experiences of women in America. Once we discuss the historical experience of women in America we will move to their present experiences and close out with what I hope is the future for women in America.
Prior to the arrival of colonist, the indigenous population inhabited what we now call the United States of America. Indigenous tribes functioned differently than the English who colonized the U.S. Each tribe had their own culture and structures, they were not a homogeneous group, just like Americans are not. But most tribes resembled an egalitarian type of government, where everyone had a say regarding what was going to take place. Women in tribal communities typically mowed and planted land to prepare it for crops while the males hunted and gathered food for the community. Many scholars have noted that indigenous women experienced more autonomy then the women who came with the English settlers. Many historians have found evidence that America’s First Peoples shared certain characteristics that promoted gender equality. The idea of women working to clear and prepare land for planting may seem odd to some but considering how much women are powered to do now, maybe we are late to the party.
Indigenous women were integral to their community welfare. Native women were known to handle internal operations within their communities, they could own housing, household goods, grow food and rear children. They held political, social and economic power. It is believed that one Cherokee woman wrote to Benjamin Franklin in 1787, advocating for peace between the nations. In certain clans the material goods descended through women. Currently we have for the first time in America, two Native American women in Congress, Representatives Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas. Although the colonist tended to interact with the males, women were very much equal to their male counterparts in the tribes/clans. Women had authority, could own property and were well respected.
In contrast to the First Nations, the colonies in 1769 adopted the English system decreeing that women could not own property or even keep any money they earned. By 1777 all states had passed laws taking away women’s right to vote. It wasn’t until the “Married Women’s Property Acts” were adopted in 1839, that women had their rights expanded and could act independently of their husband specifically if he were away at war. Women had the right to hold property in their own names, but they had to have permission from their husbands. Being a woman in the early days was not easy. It was believed that marriage was about procreation, paternity and someone to will your property and/or belongings to. Thank goodness we have come a long way from that time period!
Women never passively sat by and accepted their lot in life. They began to fight for their rights as early as our nation’s establishment but failed to see success for a significant amount of time. But they persistent! Scholars debate about when the suffrage movement truly began but the point is that women realized earlier on that they would need to be the architects of their futures. They did not allow others to hold their futures in their hands. They were demanding to have the same voting rights as men, to hold public office and ultimately to have their voices heard. Did you know that if you can’t vote, you can’t serve on a jury? Can you imagine being tired in a court case and having a juror that was not representative of your peers—this was the case for women. We must understand that inclusivity is not just about diversity in perspectives, sex, race or ethnicity, it is about being heard, having your input valued and considered in the decision-making process. To have a seat at the table is not enough! Real equity comes from being an equal in all aspect of daily life, government and social structures. Women in America have always made demands to be included.
Anglo-Saxon women began organizing to resist oppression with the abolitionist movement, which was the movement to end the enslavement of African Americans. Many women were actively engaged in the resistance! Most women knew that enslaving a group of humans was wrong and they felt compelled to act. There is a famous poem that goes something like, when they came for these people I didn’t say anything because I didn’t belong to the group, when they came for another group, I didn’t say anything because I didn’t belong to that group but when they came for me there was no one left to say anything. If we allow the oppression of one group what is going to stop the oppression of others? Martin Luther King said it so eloquently when it stated that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” This was apparently the mindset of women suffrage! In 1848 over 300 women and men meet in Seneca Fall, NY and signed the Declaration of Sentiments, which was a plea to end discrimination against women. African American women and men also took part in the abolitionist movement. At the 1851 Women’s Right Convention held in Ohio, Sojourner Truth delivered her famous abolitionist and women’s right speech in which she asked the crowd “Aint I a Woman?” She was a strong advocate for women’s right to vote and those of African Americans during and after the Civil War.
The suffrage movement was delayed with the beginning of the Civil War, which last from 1861 to 1865, but women persisted. Many of the abolitionist became champions for women’s rights. Have you heard of Elizabeth Cady Staton and Susan B. Anthony? They were both part of the women’s movement, but the movement was split between their two groups. Susan B. Anthony wanted suffrage to be ensured by amending the U.S. Constitution, while Staton favored lobbying each state legislature for amendments to the state constitutions. Being women and understanding the concept of power in numbers they decided to join forces and formed the National American Women Suffrage Association with Elizabeth Cady Staton as the first president. The women applied both efforts, one where states legislatures amended state constitutions along with advocating for the U.S. Constitution to be amended to include voting rights for women. As we are all aware women finally gained the right to vote in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The time period is considered the first women’s movement, but we know that not all women gained the right to vote in 1920 due to Jim Crow laws in southern states. Black codes laws were approved and implemented between 1865-1866. The words spoken by Sojourner Truth resonate “Aint a Woman” seemed relevant at this time in America history. Although not being able to enjoy the same freedoms as others they did not sit idly by and accept their lot in life. The resilience of African American women has been documented as early as their initial arrive in the U.S.
Elizabeth Key was born into slavery in Virginia and had the audacity to sue in 1656 for her freedom based on her father’s Caucasian linage and won! During the Colonial era, Phillis Wheatley was one of the few African American women to rise to prominence, at least that we are aware of. She had a poem published in 1767 and went on to publish an entire book of poems that was highly acclaimed. We all know the story of Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad. One of my favorite quotes from her is when she stated: “I freed a thousand slaves and could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” Rosa Parks is infamous for her refusal to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, AL, which ultimately lead to a boycott. Parks was a major influencer in the Civil Rights movement at a time when most women were in the background she was in the front, leading by example.
Every ethnic group has had women who have challenged the status quo. More recently we had the first Hispanic Justice and third women on the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Although she grew up in poverty, she excelled at school and went on to attend Princeton and Yale. Have you heard of Ellen Ochoa? She was the first Hispanic women in the world to go to space. Obstacles, poverty, sexism and otherness did not prevent all these women from excelling in whatever field they chose to pursue. Resilient and persistent prevailed!
Although women did enter the manufacturing workforce during WWII as soon as the war ended men returned to their jobs and women were expected to return to their role as a housewife. The housewife idea didn’t last long as many women enjoyed the freedom that working outside of the home afforded them. The second women’s movement began in the 1960’s. Many women at this time were college educate and wanted to express their independent through employment within their chosen field of study. No more stereotypical jobs for women, they didn’t want to be seamstress, nannies and maids—Although there is nothing wrong with those professions but considering the number of women obtaining a post-secondary education, they wanted employment opportunities just like their male counterparts. They also wanted to be paid their worth. New technology meant that women could work jobs that were once thought to require brute strength.
When “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan was published in 1963 it spoke to the frustration of many suburban housewives who suffered from boredom at home and lacked a sense of fulfillment. The National Organization for Women (NOW) was born. There were six major pillars to the movement 1. Enforcement of laws banning employment discrimination; maternity leave rights; child-care centers; tax deductions for child-care expenses; equal unsegregated education; and job training opportunities for poor women. Women fought for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, which became law in 1972. Again, women refused to sit passively by and engaged in disrupting the status quo.
Currently we are experiencing the third wave of feminist (women’s movement), which is much more inclusive. This movement recognizes the diversity of women and their experiences, life chances and perspectives. Women of all races, religion, ethnicities, socioeconomic status, sexual identities are actively engaged in making the world a better place. Women are fighting for equity in pay, opportunities and recognition. In the past women, while actively engaged in a variety of Civic Discourse their ideas/perspectives often went unnoticed and ignored. Women are entering college at a higher rate than ever before. We don’t know how the third wave of feminist will play out in American society but I say that the future looks bright!
American Indian Women. Retrieved from: https://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/23931
Lewis, Jone Johnson (7/3/2019). Get to Know These Important American Women in Black History. https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-womens-history-3528267
Milligan, Susan (1/20/2017). Stepping Through History: A timeline of women’s rights from 1769 to the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. Retrieved from: https://www.usnews.com/news/the-report/articles/2017-01-20/timeline-the-womens-rights-movement-in-the-us
What is the Women’s Suffrage Movement? https://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-the-womens-suffrage-movement.htm