Women’s Rights

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The development of women’s rights has largely occurred in the twentieth century. Prior to the ratification of the nineteenth amendment in 1920, which granted women the right to vote, women had no meaningful political or legal rights. Even after women received the right to vote, women of color were often still discriminated against. The federal system in the United States facilitated the development of women’s political rights by providing multiple access points for women’s organizations to influence politics.

Women first began organizing politically as part of the antebellum abolition movement. White women in the North were instrumental in organizing towards ending slavery in the South, but were often denied leadership roles and decision making power within the movement. After the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted black men the right to vote, the women who had been involved in the abolition movement felt betrayed because they were denied the right to vote, despite being instrumental in helping free the slaves. White women shifted their attention to gaining the right to vote for themselves, thereby isolating black women and creating a rift that has been apparent in many women’s movements subsequently.

Despite a rocky start, women were effective at organizing for the right to vote both at the local, state and federal level. Suffrage came first in western states and some cities and towns. This was largely a bid to incentivize women to move west and start families, as at the time men vastly outnumbered women in those states. By 1890, 16 states had granted women the right to vote in local city or school board elections. Wyoming was the first state to grant female suffrage for statewide elections in 1889, and was followed by Colorado in 1893 and Utah in 1896. . These early victories were closely related to local conditions in the West, so they did not translate quickly into change in the East and South. The Colorado case seemed to most closely foreshadow the changes to come, as the campaign there relied on a coalition of reformist third parties that included the People’s and Prohibition Parties. Thousands of women joined these parties and became avid speakers and advocates for women’s rights.

During the Progressive era, white women were again very involved in reform efforts such as the temperance movement and the push for women and children’s labor protections. Women were already organized at the local grassroots level through the growth of women’s clubs, which helped strengthen the national suffrage movement by bringing in new members who saw suffrage as a way to advance the social reform objectives that seemed to many a natural extension of women’s role in the home.

In 1912, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) pursued a two-pronged “winning plan” beginning in 1912, which focused on winning suffrage at both the state and national levels. The NAWSA approach took advantage of the different points of access in a federal system by which interest groups can influence government policy—what Morton Grodzins called federalism’s “multiple cracks”—to promote women’s suffrage. Several more states in the East and Midwest passed suffrage between 1913 and 1917. By 1920, the tide had turned in women’s favor and the Nineteenth Amendment, which prohibited barring citizens from voting on account of sex, was adopted.

While women had apparently gained the right to vote, there were still barriers to women’s equality. Jim Crow laws in the South prevented most black women from voting, and women still faced discrimination in employment, education, and equal treatment in American society. During the Civil Rights era, women again organized to expand their rights. The National Organization of Women (NOW) sought to address the unequal treatment women were receiving by attempting to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The ERA would ban any discrimination on the basis of sex. Congress passed the ERA, but it failed to be ratified by the requisite number of states. NOW employed a judicial strategy to compel the federal government to enforce the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s prohibition against sex discrimination. NOW also used a successful judicial strategy that prompted the Supreme Court to apply the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause to gender cases and prevent states from engaging in gender discrimination in the case Reed v. Reed (1971). Protection against discriminatory state action was further expanded in Craig. v. Boren (1976).


Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race and Class, (New York: Vintage Books, 1983); Nancy E. McGlen, Karen O’Conner, Laura van Assendelft, and Wendy Gunther-Canada, Women, Politics and American Society, 3rd ed. (New York: Longman, 2004); and Sharon Hartman Storm, Women’s Rights (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004).

Emily Schnurr (revised 2018) Maureen Rand Oakley (2006)

Last Updated: 2018

SEE ALSO: Elections; Fourteenth Amendment; Gender and Federalism; Reed v. Reed; Sex Discrimination