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The evolution of women's rights from 1890’s to 1960’s in United States of America
Over the years, American women have bore the brunt of the darkest moments in the history of United States. For instance, women were denied equality to men in several avenues of life. They lacked legal identity which only belonged to their husbands and fathers for married women and daughters respectively. Making contracts, holding property in their name, sitting on jury, voting, suing or writing a will and public speaking were a pipedream for many women (Adams, 2003 p4). Moreover, education and carrier opportunities were a preserve of the men.
However, in contemporary living, men and women are considered equal at least in terms of political and civil rights. This state of affairs came at a dear price. A price that some bold, selfless and passionate women had to pay in the struggle dubbed ‘the Women’s Rights’. Therefore, this paper seeks to delve into the evolution of women’s rights in America particularly 1890 to 1960. It will also focus on the first and second feminist waves while considering the socio-cultural and political environment in which they transpired.
According to Heker (2007), the ‘Women’s Right Convention’, the first of its kind, was held at Seneca Falls, New York on July 19 to 20, 1848. The organizers were Lucreata Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, McClintock and other bold women who were either childless or divorced. Multitudes of crowds attended to listen to a Declaration of Sentiments that exposed the status quo and plight of the women. This Declaration Sentiments was parallel to the Declaration of Independence that lobbied fundamental rights that the women were denied. Elizabeth Cady Stanton stood out as the pioneer of this event. This group of women did not see any difference between the ideals sold during the American Revolution and the rights of women they championed for.
At the Seneca Convention, 12 resolutions that advocated for the equality and rights of women were discussed and agreed on unanimously. The resolution that voiced women’s right to vote famously known as Women’s Suffrage elicited some controversy though. The thought of women participating in a voting process did not auger well even with some who rallied behind the women’s rights.
The printing of the Declaration of Sentiments was received with skepticism from the public. This saw the dawn of women’s rights movement with other conventions being held in different parts of America. As the proponents forged ahead with their struggle to foster women’s rights and women’s suffrage, heated debates were organized to address these strong views that were held by the womenfolk. These mere debates and abolitionist movements that began with some few concerned women would later blossom into a feminist movement that would be indelibly stuck in the annals of American history.
Rise of Feminism
Feminism has been described as movements that aim to define, establish and defend equal social, economic and political rights and opportunities that belong to women. It began at time when the abolitionists fought for the cessation of slavery of the Negroes in the Southern Confederacy. Since there was a conflict between the women’s rights and black civil liberties, the white men continued to ride at the zenith of the American society. It was divided into three waves including the first, second and third waves. Each of these waves addressed various aspects of the feminist’s grievances. The first-wave of the western feminism took place between the 19th and early 20th century and aimed to deal with issues of suffrage, educational rights of women and girls and their working conditions. It originated in the United States and the United Kingdom in order to tackle de jure inequalities (officially supported inequalities). The urge to deal with unfinished business lead to the second wave which took place between 1960s and 1980s and aimed to address issues pertaining to inequalities of law and culture, and the societal role of women. A wave that has been thought to further the second wave is the third wave that happened from late1980s to early 21st century (Krolokke & Sorensen, 2005).
Most of the feminists did become conservatives in their goals and opinions between 1870 and 1914 resulting into the emergence of three key groupings. The first one which was associated with the first wave is the Suffragists. Their main goal was to win a right to vote for the women. Their argument was that women were more spiritual, noble and honest than men. Therefore, giving women the right to vote would be instrumental in ridding the American political arena of corruption.
Further, the Social Feminists were the second group that championed the goals of the Suffragists as well as promoting social reforms as their priority. Renowned women in this category include Florence Kelly and Jane Adams.
Most of the pioneers of the first wave movement lobbied for the abolition of slavery before advocating for the women’s rights. This wave comprised of a vast array of women who were affiliated to conservative Christian groups like Women’s Christian Temperance Union and Frances Willard while others who embraced the radicalism of the second wave feminism included Stanton, Matilda, Anthony and their National Women’s Suffrage Association. This wave was later to cease with the enactment of the Nineteenth Amendment to the American Constitution in 1999 which gave the women a mandate to vote.
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Other notable feminists who lobbied for the women’s rights were Lucy Stone who was instrumental in organizing the National Women’s Right Convention of 1850 where Abby Kelley and Sojourner Truth delivered speeches. This huge gathering motivated Susan Anthony to immerse herself into this noble course. Mary Wollstonecraft, an English writer and feminist ideologist, wrote A Vindication of the Rights of a Woman in1792 during the French Revolution.
To Matilda Joslyn and Stanton, the church was a major setback in the pursuit of women’s rights. As a result, they embraced matriarchic writing and both of them developed works on this theme. This lead to the development of the ‘The Woman’s Bible’ (Anthony, Gage & Stanton, 1881-1882). Between 1910 and 1920, Feminism was a word that was common to most of the American populace. The issues of concern by this time included employment and economics, a constitutional amendment for equality, family and sexuality, and suffrage. Some of the organizations that emerged during this period were National Women’s Party; National League of Women Voters, and National American Women Suffrage Association which were suffrage lobby groups; National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs and the American Association of University Women which were carrier associations and the National Association of Colored Women which addressed the gender and racial issues among many others.
As was mentioned before, the women suffrage in America began in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention that was engineered by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her associate Lucretia Mott. This Convention was a hallmark to what would later revamp the American political scene: The Women’s Suffrage. However, tribute goes also to Mary Wollstonecraft, a British author who voiced her opinion on equality of the sexes in her 1792 book known as A Vindication of the rights of Women. A fast forward down the memory lane brings us to 1890 when the American Women Suffrage Association (AWSA) and National Women Suffrage Association (NWSA) merged to form the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA) after many years of negotiations. The women at the helm of this merger were Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Mary C. Terrell, Anna Shaw and Frances Willard.
The aforementioned merger was long overdue since the NWSA and AWSA were not in tandem as far as women rights issues were concerned. The NWSA organization refuted the 15th Amendments and lobbied for enfranchising the women to vote as well as easy divorce and zero tolerance to pay and employment discrimination. AWSA on the other hand welcomed the 15th Amendment and took a soft stance by focusing only on the right to vote regardless of other issues. While the AWSA accepted both female and male members, the NWSA accepted only female members at the beginning. The AWSA was headquartered at Boston while NWSA headquarter was at New York (McMillen, 2009).
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The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWS) rejuvenated the movement as a frontier for women’s rights. It was under the leadership of Susan B. Anthony until 1894. By 1900, the headquarter for this new organization was situated in New York City under the able leadership of Carrie Chapman Cat who was vetoed by her predecessor, Susan B. Anthony. From 1869 to 1919, the organization had established itself and could be granted hearings before the every congress.
The Second Wave and Impacts of Feminism
Unlike the first wave feminism that focused on women suffrage, the second wave focused on inequalities of gender in culture and laws. It strengthened the foundation that had been established by the first wave and adapted the new ideas in America. A notable person in this wave is Betty Friedan who was instrumental in triggering this wave. According to Norton (2005 p. 865),
The key event that marked the reemergence of this movement in the postwar era was the surprise popularity of Betty Friedan's 1963 book The Feminine Mystique. Writing as a housewife and mother (though she had had a long story of political activism, as well), Friedan described the problem with no name the dissatisfaction of educated, middle class wives and mothers like herself who, looking at their nice homes and families, wondered guiltily if that was all there was to life was not new; the vague sense of dissatisfaction plaguing housewives was a staple topic for women's magazines in the 1950s. But Friedan, instead of blaming individual women for failing to adapt to women's proper role, blamed the role itself and the society that created it.
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In order to reach out to the public with their suffrage efforts, the suffragists utilized journals like The Women’s Journal, Woman Voter, The Masses and Woman Citizen. They pleaded with state legislative fraternity to yield to their grievances to amendments to the Constitution that would confer a holistic suffrage to the womenfolk. Their unrelenting struggles finally bore fruit when some states gradually agreed to their demands. For instance, women were granted their vote in Colorado in 1893, Utah in 1896, Washington in 1910, Carlifornia in 1911, Kansas, Oregon and Arizona in 1912, Illinois in 1913, Montana and Nevada in 1914.
As some states that were political hardliners softened their stance, some suffragists were still arrested for their efforts. Alice Paul, after returning to the United States, formed the Congressional Union for Women Suffrage (CUWS) together with Olympia Brown and Lucy Burns. She introduced militant tactics they employed in the British’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) such as picketing and large demonstrations. She was, however, arrested together with other women and jailed for seven months but was later released after she went on a hunger strike.
The House of Representatives, in May 1919, decided to pass an amendment of the federal women’s suffrage but was shot down by the Senate in September 1918. Further efforts in February 1919 were also thwarted. However, the amendment was again passed by the House of Representatives in May 1919 resulting into its passage by the Senate. Finally, the Secretary of State certified the Nineteenth Amendment on the 26th of August 1920 after Tennessee, the final state yielded for ratification. Thus, the straggle for women’s suffrage received a boon as its entrenchment into the Constitution guaranteed some civil liberty for the women.
The feminist movement has impacted on the American society in terms of civil rights and theology. The institution of National Organization for Women in 1966 lead to the realization of women’s equality. The Roe v. Wade case decisions by the Supreme Court lead to the granting of a woman the reproductive right to decide on what to do with the pregnancy. Birth control use by the women was allowed to an emancipation to pursue careers and practice family planning. In addition, the division of labor in the house has seen more women entering the workforce. According to Hochschild (2003), on average, women and men spend an approximately equivalent amount of time at work but women are still spending relatively more time doing house chores.
Another ramification is the introduction of feminist theology which reviews the scriptures, theologies and traditions of religion from a perspective of the women. It aims to boost the activities of women in the religious authorities and the clergy, redefining male dominance and God’s language and delineating a woman’s place relative to motherhood and career.