Women's Rights

AuthorJeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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The effort to secure equal rights for women and to remove gender discrimination from laws, institutions, and behavioral patterns.

The women's rights movement began in the nineteenth century with the demand by some women reformers for the right to vote, known as suffrage, and for the same legal rights as men. Though the vote was secured for women by the NINETEENTH AMENDMENT to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, most of the gains women have made in achieving legal equality and ending gender discrimination have come since the 1960s. CIVIL RIGHTS legislation of that era was primarily focused on ensuring that African Americans and other racial minorities secured EQUAL PROTECTION of the laws. However, the inclusion of sex as a protected category under the CIVIL RIGHTS ACT OF 1964 (42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e et seq.) gave women a powerful legal tool to end SEX DISCRIMINATION and to erase cultural stereotypes about females.

The modern women's rights movement began in the 1960s and gained momentum with the development of the scholarly field of FEMINIST JURISPRUDENCE in the 1970s. The quest for women's rights has led to legal challenges in the areas of employment, domestic relations, reproductive rights, education, and CRIMINAL LAW. Although the women's rights movement failed to secure ratification of the EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT (ERA), the courts have generally been receptive to claims that demand recognition of rights under the EQUAL PROTECTION CLAUSE of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT.

Nineteenth Century Women's Rights Movement

The effort to secure women's rights began at a convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. A group of women and men drafted and approved the Declaration of Sentiments, an impassioned demand for equal rights for women, including the right to vote. The declaration was modeled after the language and structure of the Declaration of Independence of 1776. Many of those gathered at Seneca Falls, including early women's rights leaders SUSAN B. ANTHONY and ELIZABETH CADY STANTON, had been active in the abolitionist movement, seeking an end to SLAVERY. However, these women realized that they were second-class citizens, unable to vote and possessing few legal rights, especially if they were married. Some leaders, 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.

After the Civil War ended in 1865, many of these reformers fully committed their energies to gaining women's suffrage. Stanton and Anthony established the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) that sought an amendment to the U.S. Constitution similar to

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the FIFTEENTH AMENDMENT, which gave non-white men the right to vote. In 1872, Anthony was prosecuted for attempting to vote in the presidential election. Stone, on the other hand, helped form the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). AWSA worked for women's suffrage on a state by state basis, seeking amendments to state constitutions.

The U.S. Supreme Court was hostile to women's suffrage. In Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. 162, 22 L. Ed. 627 (1875), the Court rejected an attempt by a woman to cast a ballot in a Missouri election. The Court stated that the "Constitution of the United States does not confer the right of suffrage upon any one." In addition, the Court said, "Women were excluded from suffrage in nearly all the States by the express provision of their constitutions and laws." In essence, the Court relied on past exclusions to justify current exclusions, concluding that because women had never been allowed to vote, they could continue to be excluded.

The Campaign to Defeat the ERA

After a fifty-year struggle, in March 1972 Congress approved the EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT (ERA), a move that appeared to pave the way for the quick and easy adoption of the amendment by the states. Under the Constitution, thirty-eight states are required for ratification, and within a year of congressional approval, thirty states had ratified the amendment. At this point, however, a concerted opposition campaign stopped the momentum for the ERA dead in its tracks.

The most intense opposition to the ERA came from conservative religious and political organizations, including the right-wing John Birch Society and STOP ERA, a group led by conservative firebrand Phyllis S. Schlafly. Supporters of the ERA had cast it as mainly a tool to improve the economic position of women. Opponents, however, saw the amendment as a means of undermining traditional cultural values, especially those concerned with the family and the role of women in U.S. society. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision legalizing ABORTION, ROE V. WADE, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147 (1973), also affected the ratification struggle, as the emerging right-to-life movement saw the ERA as an additional legal basis for a woman's right to an abortion.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, fierce LOBBYING took place in state legislatures that were considering the ERA. Opponents pointed out that during the U.S. Senate debate on the ERA, a host of amendments that would have restricted the reach of the amendment were defeated. These included prohibitions against drafting women into the military and allowing women to serve in combat. The defeat of other amendments to the ERA led opponents to claim that women would lose the right to CHILD SUPPORT and certain special privileges and exemptions based in state and federal law. Opponents also warned that the passage of the ERA would lead to unisex public toilet facilities and the ABOLITION of traditionally gender-based segregated facilities. Finally, many opponents saw the ERA as a means to remove criminal laws dealing with homosexual acts.

Although the deadline for ratification was extended for thirty months, ERA supporters were never able to gain the additional states needed for ratification.


Berry, Mary Frances. 1986. Why ERA Failed: Politics, Women's Rights, and the Amending Process of the Constitution. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

Hoff-Wilson, Joan. 1986. Rights of Passage: The Past and Future of the ERA. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

Mansbridge, Jane J. 1986. Why We Lost the ERA. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

The attitude of the Court in Minor was fore-shadowed three years earlier in the concurring opinion of Justice JOSEPH P. BRADLEY in Brad-well v. Illinois, 83 U.S. 130, 21 L. Ed. 442 (1872). Bradley supported the...

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