A look at the history of women’s rights

Women's Rights

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The fight for women’s rights began years before the 19th amendment was ratified by Congress and approved by enough states to make it part of the Constitution. It was, against common belief, spearheaded by thousands of women. Women from across social classes, and geographical locations came together to fight for women’s rights. Women combined their forces and worked hard to prove the power of their voices; historical proof of the saying, “strength in numbers.”

“It was a lot of women. It was not just upper-class women…it was very diverse” says Patsy McDonald, granddaughter of Catherine Flanagan, a young Irish-American woman who was a member of the National Women’s Party and “Silent Sentinels.” Flanagan came from a poor family, and began working at the age of fourteen to provide for her family.

“People used to think the parties were made up of wealthy white women, but that wasn’t always the case,” McDonald said.

Women from various backgrounds came together to fight for women’s rights. Alice Paul, a woman’s rights activist, worked closely with other women from England’s Women’s Suffrage Political Union during her stay there as a college student. While there, Paul became close with another activist, Lucy Burns.

When both women reconnected in the United States in 1910, they organized a parade of activists from varying backgrounds the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. No constitutional amendment had been passed for women’s rights and Burns and Paul were dedicated to encouraging change. The violence and anger from the parade was extreme, halting the parade completely. While the parade did not reach completion, this moment was noted as a reigning moment for the decade long movement for women’s rights.

“This movement set the stage for the civil rights movement. Women were fighting for their rights and fighting for the enfranchisement of women” said McDonald.

‘The Silent Sentinels’

Fighting for women’s rights, now seen in our present day as a heroic act, was seen in the 1900s as an act of rebellion. Paul and Burns’ National Women’s Party organization actively disagreed with Wilson and his policies. During this time, most were centered on World War I, and were appalled that women were taking a stance against the president during such a divisive time. The NWP fought against the war effort, and despised Wilson’s hypocrisy.

“They were not considered heroes during their time, and probably still are not considered to be. People tend to forget how much work and effort went into ratifying the 19th amendment. The first meeting took place in 1848 in Seneca Falls, and the Amendment did not get ratified until 1919” explained McDonald.

“The Silent Sentinels”, which included several women activists, lined up outside of the White House from 1917 to 1919. The “Silent Sentinels” held banners and posters to express their disappointment in Wilson’s political policies. Individuals attacked and tore the posters and signs that the “Silent Sentinels” held.

Due to the disturbance, the women were arrested by the police. After refusing to accept that they had done anything wrong, they were taken to the Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, Virginia. Despite not having committed any serious crimes, the women were brutally beaten and starved. The women shared their stories with journalists, eventually getting published in a newspaper, The Suffragist. These stories spanned across the nation, and citizens began to recognize the unacceptable stance that Wilson had on women’s rights. Not too long after, Wilson changed his mind of the suffrage movement.

The move to ratification

It has been 100 years since the 19th Amendment of the United States Constitution was passed by both chambers of Congress. The House of Representative initially passed the amendment on May 21, 1919, followed by a majority vote in the Senate on June 4, 1919. The amendment was officially ratified into the constitution on August 26, 1920 when Tennessee became the 36th state to approve it. While this amendment granted women the right to vote, a massive landmark for women’s rights, the hard work had just begun.

“The parts of their protests that were peaceful were copied by famous individuals, like (Mahatma) Gandhi. These women were making progress and set the foundation for future movements. This was the turning point of civil rights in America” said McDonald.

After the 19th amendment passed, the League of Women Voters, formerly known as the National American Woman Suffrage Association, started encouraging and educating women on the power of their vote. Women had never voted before and did not understand the power their voices held.

While the constitution had previously declared equal rights, women were hardly treated equally in society. They were often working in extremely unsafe conditions and did not receive proper payment for their work. Their behaviors were strictly dictated and certain actions, such as buying a home, were prohibited. Because of this, individual women began to take the revolutionary initiative themselves.

Women continue to push for more rights

In 1923, Alice Paul created an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) for the Constitution, which, unfortunately, did not make it to Congress for around fifty years, and still has not been ratified. Meantime, Margaret Sanger, a public nurse, was actively endorsing and advocating for women’s reproductive rights. Women had never maintained their rights over their bodies before, which was met with resistance from politicians at the time.

Women’s equality continued to be disjointed in 1960, but encouraged an entirely new wave of advocacy. Women from various careers and backgrounds advocated together to fight for workplace equality. After President John F. Kennedy named Eleanor Roosevelt as his chair, the commission passed a document which outlined the discrimination experienced by women. Local and state governments followed after, and created their own commissions for women and initiated protocols that protected women from prejudice. Eventually, in 1964, Title VII was passed in the Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination against women in employment settings.

Efforts continued and the eventual acceptance of Title IX allowed for equal access to college and professional schooling options for women. Many women became heavily involved in the movement and garnered support for the ERA within their respective states in hopes that state officials would pass the amendment.

In 1972, the ERA was officially passed by Congress, which would protect women from prejudice. The nation had never seen women generate such immense public support before, another massive milestone for women. At the ratification deadline on June 30, 1982, it was three states shy of the necessary 38. The ERA was reintroduced in Congress in July 1982 and has been before every session of Congress since.

The third wave of women fighting for their rights appeared around the 1990s. Women tackled problems of representation, work-life rights, reproductive rights and harassment. Continuing to the 2000s, women have not given up, and continue to make revolutionary progress.

“When people think of the women’s movement, they think of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and other figureheads, but fail to recognize that this movement was a group effort, and it will continue to be. Thousands of women fought hard for their rights” says McDonald.

Women’s rights have come a long way since the 1840s, when only a few select women fought hard for equality and acceptance. Now, the strides women, and men alike, are taking towards complete and overall equality are astonishing. The respect that women experience now, and the positions women hold as CEOs and business leaders pay homage directly to the expanse of women who began the fight so many years ago. The fight for women’s rights has never been awarded to one significant individual. Thousands of women fought for their rights, and today, thousands more continue.

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Women Who Lead This article is featured in The Daily Record’s Women Who Lead: A Woman’s Guide To Business. The mission of the Women Who Lead (formerly Path to Excellence) magazine is to give our readers the opportunity to meet successful women of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs and learn how they define success. Read more from Women Who Lead.

One comment

  1. Thanks, Meg, for this concise but thorough overview of the women’s rights movement. I look forward to reading more stories about the 72-year struggle for the right to vote–and the continued fight for equality–in the year leading up to the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. I also hope to see you at one of Maryland’s many celebrations in parks across the state. For more info, I urge readers to contact WED2020_Balto@yahoo.com.

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