The history of the U.S. as we know it today is relatively short. Yet it is rich with events; the U.S. has transformed from 13 colonies into a superpower; has participated in several wars; and has been at the forefront in new endeavors, such as the Moon landing. The social and political movements that have taken place in the U.S. is another important aspect of U.S. history. Throughout U.S. history, American citizens have fought for the social and political rights not granted to them from the birth of the nation. The history of women in the U.S. is a struggle for political, economic, and social equality.
This page will offer an insight into the history of women in the U.S. It will focus on the different stages of the women’s movement, women in the U.S. today, and highlight notable women.
Women’s History Month
Women’s History Month as a national celebration began in 1981 when the President was authorized and requested by Congress to proclaim a “Women’s History Week” to begin on March 7, 1982. For the next five years, a week in March was designated “Women’s History Week”. In 1987, it was expanded to a month when March 1987 was designated “Women’s History Month”. Since 1995, Presidents have made annual proclamations designating March as “Women’s History Month”.
Visit the American government’s site about Women’s History Month for more information.
Feminism - Three Waves
Feminism refers to cultural, economic, and political movements that seek to ensure women equal rights and legal protections. Feminist activists have fought for various issues, such as legal rights, specifically focusing on the right to vote and the right to own property. Women have also fought for bodily integrity and autonomy and reproductive rights, such as birth control and abortion. Protection from domestic violence, sexual harassment, and rape has also been a focus point. Activists have also fought for equal opportunities in employment and education. Overall, feminist activists fight any form of discrimination that women face.
Feminism is divided into three waves, but that does not mean that each wave has been united with one central goal. In fact, the history of feminism is characterized by conflicting ideas. There is no sharp division between the waves, rather they represent a form of continuity; many ideas popular in one wave stem from work done in a previous wave. It is important to remember that there is not only one kind of feminism. Despite the shortcomings of the wave metaphor, it helps create an overview and understanding of the women’s movement.
For information on the three waves of feminism, visit “Betty Friedan: The Three Waves of Feminism” or the Vox article which explains the three waves and contains a discussion on whether a fourth wave is happening.
First Wave of Feminism - 1848-1920
The first wave of feminism began with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. The notion that women were humans equal to men was not a new thought. But it was the first lasting political movement dedicated to securing political equality for women. For the next 70 years, activists of the first wave marched, protested, and risked arrest fighting for the right to vote.
At Seneca Falls, nearly 200 hundred women gathered to discuss women’s rights. A list of resolutions was passed that dictated the specific rights that would ensure equality. Among those rights were the right to vote. Towards the end of the 19th century, the women’s movement was primarily focused on securing women the right to vote. It was believed that the right to vote would secure all other rights for women. In 1920, the ratification of the 19th Amendment secured voting rights for women and marked the end of the first wave of feminism.
Visit the History, Art, & Archives: United States House of Representatives’ website to read more about women’s road to suffrage. CrashCourse also provides a video on women’s suffrage. You can watch the video on YouTube.
The women’s movement of the 19th and early 20th century was mainly about suffrage, but it also focused on other rights, such as securing equal contract rights, the right to own property, and equal educational and employment opportunities for women. Another important aspect of the first wave was the move in the early 20th century to the issue of reproductive rights. The first birth control clinic in the U.S. was opened in 1916 by Margaret Sanger, even though the distribution of contraception was forbidden by a New York state law.
With the grand achievement of suffrage, the movement lost its unified goal. Afterwards, individual groups continued to fight for certain issues, like reproductive rights and voting rights for black women, but the movement as a whole slowly fractured.
The first wave has its shortcomings. The early women’s movement was closely connected to the abolitionist movement; Frederick Douglass spoke in favor of women’s suffrage at the Seneca Falls Convention. Black women, such as Sojourner Truth, contributed to the movement as they worked for universal suffrage, not just suffrage for women. Yet, the women’s movement under the leadership of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony emerged as a movement exclusively for white women, despite the hard work of many black women. Arguments for women’s suffrage also often built on racist sentiments. It is also important to bear in mind that while the 19th Amendment granted all women the right to vote, it was still difficult to vote for black women, particularly in the South.
Second Wave of Feminism - 1960s-1980s
The second wave of feminism emerged in the 1960s and focused on discrimination and equality. It began in 1963, when Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. Friedan’s ideas were not new, but the book was a phenomenon and stood out, because it reached millions of women. In her book, Friedan wrote about “the problem that has no name” and railed against a system that taught women that the home was the only place they could find fulfillment. If these housewives were not happy, they were considered to be the real problem. Friedan disagreed and argued that women had a right to be angry, because societal expectations had led them to give up their education and careers. Women had been told that their identity was tied to their identity as wives and mothers. Yet, Friedan argued that women needed an identity outside the confines of the home. Women needed personal fulfillment.
The Feminine Mystique permitted women to be angry and provided feminism with a cultural momentum. Feminist activists had a unifying goal: In addition to fighting for political rights, they now also sought social equality.
The second wavers’ slogan – “the personal is political” – drew attention to the intimate link between the cultural and political inequalities that women faced. Women’s inequality was systemic and political. The second wave encouraged women to understand that sexist power structures dictated their personal lives. Changing these power structures was crucial to the fight for equality.
The movement won several major legal and legislative victories. Wage disparity based on sex was prohibited by The Equal Pay Act of 1963. Several landmark Supreme Court cases in the 1960s and 1970s won women – married and unmarried – the right to birth control. In 1972, Title IX provided the right to educational equality for women. In 1973, Roe v. Wade guaranteed reproductive freedom for women, granting women a right to abortion. The legislation meant an expansion of equality in work and education, while the Supreme Court rulings greatly expanded the rights to privacy.
In addition, the movement wanted to enable women to hold credit cards in their own name. Second wavers also fought to outlaw marital rape and draw attention to domestic violence. They also worked to address workplace sexual harassment.
Equally important to the second wave was its dedication to naming and dismantling society’s sexism. Feminist activists sought to change the way society thought about women. The second wave was at its height in the 1960s and 1970s and is referred to as the women’s liberation movement.
The ideas of the second wave were considered radical enough to create enemies. The movement specifically inspired backlash in the conservative era of the 1980s. Feminists were portrayed as women who hated men, were unfeminine, or lesbians. The backlash against feminists continues to influence the way people talk about feminism today.
The second wave has its shortcomings. Friedan’s book created a momentum, but the book was specifically about white middle-class women. Friedan wrote about women who had been encouraged by society not to work. But the book did not reflect the experiences of women who had to work in order to support themselves. To them, oppression was different. There was also a difference between white women and black women. For example, both wanted reproductive freedom, but black women also fought against forced sterilizations of people of color. Black women were also part of the group of women not represented in Friedan’s book. Since they already worked outside the home, they did not have to fight for that right. Overall, black women were to a large degree alienated from the mainstream movement.
Third Wave of Feminism - 1992-?
The details about the third wave are not clear-cut. People disagree on when it started, what it stands for, and if it is still going on. But the beginning of the third wave is generally connected to two things. One is the Anita Hill hearing in 1991, and the other is the rise in the music scene in the early 1990s of riot grrrl groups.
Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991. She testified that Clarence Thomas – who had been nominated for the Supreme Court – had sexually harassed her when they worked together. Hill’s testimony was followed by a surge in complaints of sexual harassment.
When Thomas was confirmed for the Supreme Court, it drew attention to how men were overrepresented in national positions of power. The year after the hearing, 1992, was dubbed “the Year of the Woman” after 27 women were elected to Congress (24 to the House of Representatives and 3 to the Senate).
Early work of the third wave reflected the problems highlighted by the Anita Hill hearing. Activists focused on fighting sexual harassment in the workplace and putting more women in positions of power.
The third wave was a response to what was considered the failures of the second wave. It was also a response to the backlash that some second-wave initiatives received. Third wavers argued that the second wave had paid too much attention to upper middle-class white women and challenged the second wave’s definition of femininity, which was based on the ideas of the second wave. An important part of third-wave feminism is the concept of intersectionality. Intersectionality refers to how discrimination happens on multiple levels; race, gender, class, sexuality, religion, nationality, and ethnicity. These factors are crucial to understanding discrimination. Third wavers saw women’s lives as intersectional and considered these factors crucial to discussions of feminism.
The third wave also diverged from the second wave in other ways. Second wavers had fought to be considered women instead of girls. But third wavers embraced being called girls and wanted to make the word empowering, especially riot grrrl groups. Aesthetically, the third wavers embraced make-up and high heels, which second wavers had distanced themselves from. This was a response to the backlash that feminists had suffered in the 1980s that had characterized them as unfeminine. But it also stemmed from the belief that rejecting girliness was itself misogynistic. Third wavers argued that women had a right to dress however they wanted, if it made them feel good. Even if that meant dressing according to patriarchal beauty standards.
The third wave has its shortcomings. The movement did not have a cultural momentum like the first two waves; the Year of the Woman was followed by a drop in the number of women in national politics. Contrary to the first and second waves, the third wave lacked a central goal. As such, the third wave does not have a single piece of legislation or a big social change connected to its movement. The 19th Amendment is characteristic of the first wave, while Roe v. Wade belongs to the second wavers.
The term ‘third wave’ is credited to Rebecca Walker. In 1992, Walker wrote an article in Ms. magazine after the Anita Hill hearing. In the article, titled “Becoming the Third Wave”, Walker contemplated what it meant to be a feminist, in what she termed the third wave of feminism. She argued for female empowerment and stressed the importance of intersectionality. In 2018, Walker talked about what inspired the third wave of feminism. You can watch the video on YouTube.
Women in the U.S. today
Despite the progress that has been made, gender equality has still not been achieved. There is for instance still a gender pay gap, and women are still not represented to the same degree as men in positions of power.
While the Equal Pay Act of 1963 was passed nearly 60 years ago, women still experience a gender pay gap. On average in the U.S., for every dollar a man earns, women earn less. Some women are more affected than others by the disparity in wages between men and women. The pay gap between men and women varies depending on race. For instance, in 2017, the median annual wages for Latina women, who were employed full-time, year-round made 53% of the median annual wage of non-Hispanic white men who were similarly situated. This means that the median Latina worker has to work about 689 days to earn what the median white man earns in 365 days. For more information, read Business Insider’s article to view the differences in the gender pay gap depending on race.
Pew Research Center also provides statistics on the gender pay gap in the U.S. and discusses the multiple factors that may cause wage disparity.
The American Association of University Women (AAUW) provides data on the average pay gap for different ethnic groups, the average pay gap for each state, and discusses the pay disparity in certain professions for 2018. To read more, visit their page.
Positions of Power - Politics
Before the 19th Amendment, several states had already granted women the right to vote. Jeannette Rankin from Montana was the first woman to serve in the national legislature when she was sworn into Congress (1917-1919). Following the 19th Amendment, women did not easily transition into political office. The new women elected to Congress worked hard to expand the role of women in government. But this was not easily done. In 1916, Rankin was elected to the House of Representatives; 63% of the women elected to Congress since then have been elected since 1992, and almost half have been elected since 1998. There is a similar story with the Senate. Most of the women elected to the Senate were elected to office in 2000 or later.
When the 116th Congress convened in January 2019, 126 women held seats in Congress (105 Democrats and 21 Republicans). This was the largest percentage of women elected to Congress ever (23.6%). In addition to the 126 women, there are 4 more women who are non-voting delegates (2 Democrats, 2 Republicans) who represent the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the Virgin Island in the House of Representatives.
Go to Pew Research Center for more statistics and information on the increase in women in political office or visit the Center for American Women and Politics’ (CAWP) page on ‘Women in the U.S. Congress 2019’. CAWP also provides overall information about the history of women in politics, including a history of milestones for women in politics
Go to History, Art, & Archives: United States House of Representatives to read more about the challenges that women faced after the 19th Amendment.
Throughout U.S. history, women have fought hard for political, social, and economic rights. They have fought to be recognized as individuals independent of their husbands and for the right to their own body. The history of women in the U.S. is remarkable. Throughout the years, individual women have distinguished themselves in their fight for women’s right and racial equality, among other things.
Women’s history month is a celebration of the history of women. And part of the celebration is about celebrating the efforts of individual women whose legacy continues to be felt today.
Susan B. Anthony
In 1872, Susan Brownell Anthony challenged suffrage and was arrested for voting in the Presidential election. The jury was instructed by the judge to find Anthony guilty without deliberating, and she was fined $100. The case brought the suffrage movement national attention. In an address given after her arrest, Anthony criticized the exclusion of women from the ballot. She cited the Constitution and argued that “the people” referred to also included women, not just men. She argued women did not enjoy the benefits of liberty, because they were denied the means by which to acquire liberty: suffrage. She also stated that since women are people, and as such citizens, no state could enact laws that violated the privileges enjoyed by citizens. As such, discrimination of women in constitutions or laws held no legal force.
Susan B. Anthony was born in Adams, Massachusetts, on February 15, 1820. Early in life, Anthony, whose father had been raised as a Quaker, was inspired by the Quaker belief that under God everyone was equal. The belief in equality was a lifelong guidance for Anthony as she dedicated her life to fighting for women’s rights.
One of the most prominent leaders in the women’s suffrage movement, Anthony was an activist from an early age. After meeting William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, she committed herself to work to end slavery. Anthony became an activist in the abolitionist movement and gave public speeches against slavery at a time when it was still deemed inappropriate for a woman to speak in public.
In 1851, she met Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whom she became close friends with. The two formed a lifelong partnership and for more than five decades, the two women fought for women’s rights, traveling around the country, giving speeches in favor of women’s suffrage.
Anthony along with Stanton opposed the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, because it extended the right to vote to African American men, but not to women. Anthony and Stanton formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in order to seek a constitutional amendment that would grant suffrage to women.
Anthony remained active in the fight for women’s rights throughout her life; organizing, traveling, giving speeches, and securing signatures for petitions. On March 13, 1906, Anthony died from heart failure and pneumonia, 14 years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which guaranteed women the right to vote. The Amendment was named the Susan B. Anthony Amendment as a final tribute to Anthony and her life’s work.
Information about Susan B. Anthony and her work can be found on the National Women’s History Museum’s website and on the National Park Service’s website. You can also read the address Susan B. Anthony gave after her arrest.
Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1st, 1955 launched a yearlong boycott of public transportation in Montgomery. Parks’ defiance of racial segregation led to one of the biggest social movements in history, the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott led to the desegregation of public transportation in Montgomery. Parks’ role in the bus boycott has often been diminished. She has often been portrayed as a tired seamstress who did not give up her seat, because she was too tired to get up. This story of Parks’ defiance does not do justice to the work she did in the boycott nor her lifelong activism against racism, which began long before December 1st, 1955.
Parks was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, on February 4, 1913. She grew up in the segregated South, and as such she was often confronted with the racist realities of Jim Crow: racial violence and discrimination. Parks spent her life working for racial equality and fighting racial injustice.
Parks was active in the Civil Rights Movement from a young age. She worked as the secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Montgomery chapter. By the time of her arrest in 1955, she had established herself as a well-known organizer and leader in Alabama’s Civil Rights Movement. In the book At the Dark End of the Street, Danielle L. McGuire documents how long before 1955 Rosa Parks was determined to dismantle white supremacy and was a staunch antirape activist. Parks also played a role in the planning and organization of the bus boycott. After the Montgomery Bus Boycott, she and her husband settled down in Detroit, Michigan. In Detroit, Parks worked for the city’s Civil Rights Movement. She was also a member of a number of organizations dedicated to ending inequality in Detroit.
Depicting Parks as a woman simply too tired to move diminishes the significance of her life’s work. It also takes away the reality of her act of defiance. Parks herself denied the notion that she was too tired to get up and later in life revealed the real motivation behind her defiance:
“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Parks’ act of defiance was a direct response to the injustice that black Americans experienced on a daily basis. She had been confronted with these injustices her entire life, and on December 1st, 1955, she decided to no longer give in to the racism that dictated the lives of black Americans. On October 24th, 2005, Parks died just a couple of months shy of the 50th anniversary of her arrest. She left behind a rich legacy. Her courage inspired countless Americans to stand up for themselves, and her resistance to racial discrimination and injustice lives on.
To read about Rosa Parks visit the National Women’s History Museum’s website on Rosa Parks. To read more about Rosa Parks’ antirape activism and the role she played in the civil rights movement prior to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, you can read Danielle L. McGuire’s book At the Dark End of the Street.
The U.S. State Department
U.S. State Department Efforts
Women and girls account for half of the world’s population. However, their voices, experiences, and contributions are often overlooked or undervalued. Women and girls are underrepresented when it comes to political and economic power, and they are overrepresented in poverty. But the road to progress for women and girls is barred by multiple barriers. Among other things, gender-based violence and lack of political and economic opportunities make it difficult to achieve progress.
Gender inequality and the low status of women and girls have vast political, economic, and social implications. When a country does not utilize the potential of its women, it represents a lost opportunity for economic growth and development, which the world could benefit from. The inclusion of women in peace and security, and conflict prevention and resolution are essential to ensure gains reach all members of society.
The United States is committed to advancing gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls through U.S. foreign policy. The Department of State has identified four key priorities to advance gender equality and the status of women and girls around the world:
- Women, peace, and security
- Women’s economic empowerment
- Gender-based violence
- Adolescent girls
If you want to know more about the history of women in the U.S., click below for suggestions for further reading.
Further Reading Suggestions
First wave of feminism:
- Elizabeth Cady Stanton – “The Declaration of Sentiments” (1848)
- Charlotte Perkins Gilman – Women and Economics (1898)
- Sojourner Truth – “Ain’t I a Woman?” (1851)
Second wave of feminism:
- Betty Friedan – The Feminine Mystique (1963)
- bell hooks – Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism (1981)
Third wave of feminism: