3 minute read

Women's Rights

The women's rights movement in the United States began in the nineteenth century when some women reformers demanded the right to vote and the same legal rights as men. The participation of women in the abolitionist movement played a crucial role in crystallizing their dissatisfaction with the lack of rights accorded to females. Some, like Lucy Stone, saw parallels between women and slaves: both were expected to be passive, cooperative, and obedient. In addition, the legal status of both slaves and women was unequal to that of white men. Sojourner Truth, an African American evangelist and reformer, also recognized this connection and soon was speaking before women's rights groups, advocating the right to vote.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, many of these women reformers devoted their energies to gaining women's suffrage. Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone were the best-known suffrage leaders. Anthony and Stanton fought for a federal constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote, while Stone and her followers sought amendments in state constitutions. The Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1920, finally gave women the right to vote.

During the nineteenth century, women encountered rigid cultural and legal barriers when they sought to enter business and the professions. Women who married had traditionally suffered a loss of legal status, as the identity of the wife merged into that of the husband. He was a legal person but she was not. A married woman could not sign a contract without the signature of her husband. Upon marriage, he received all her personal property and managed all property that she owned. In return, the husband was obliged to support his wife and children. By the 1850s women's rights supporters had convinced many state legislatures to pass married women's separate property acts. These acts gave women the legal right to retain ownership and control of property they brought into the marriage.

Women also had difficulty entering the professions, because the cultural stereotypes of the period dictated that the proper role of an adult woman was to be a wife and mother. According to the prevailing viewpoint, the rough-and-tumble world of business and the professions was no place for women, who had more delicate natures than men. In addition, the male-dominated world believed women to be intellectually inferior and fundamentally incapable of handling the demands of white-collar jobs and the professions. This view was reinforced by the decision in Bradwell v. Illinois, 83 U.S. 130, 21 L. Ed. 442 (1872), when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was not unconstitutional for Illinois to deny a woman a license to practice law solely on the basis of her gender.

The quest for women's rights reignited in the 1960s, fueled by the participation of women in the civil rights movement. Just as in the nineteenth century, women compared their legal, economic, and social status with that of persons of color and found similar problems. The National Organization for Women was established in 1966. It quickly became the nation's largest and most influential feminist organization, but in the process it stimulated opponents of modern feminism to organize as well.

Reproductive rights became a key issue for women in the 1960s. At that time the distribution of birth control devices and information was illegal in many states. In Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 85 S. Ct. 1678, 14 L. Ed. 2d 510 (1965), the Supreme Court struck down a Connecticut law that made the sale and possession of birth control devices a misdemeanor. More importantly, the Court declared that the Constitution contained a right to privacy. In Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438, 92 S. Ct. 1029, 31 L. Ed. 2d 349 (1972), the Court established that the right of privacy is an individual right and is not limited to married couples.

The Griswold and Eisenstadt decisions paved the way for Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147 (1973), which struck down a Texas law that banned abortions. Justice Harry A. Blackmun concluded that the right to privacy "is broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy." The Roe decision provided women with the right to continue or terminate a pregnancy, at least up to the point of viability. By the 1980s, however, a more conservative Supreme Court began upholding state laws that placed restrictions on this right.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationHistorical Legal Documents and Landmark Speeches