After the vote was finally won in 1920, the organized Women's Rights Movement continued on in several directions. While the majority of women who had marched, petitioned and lobbied for woman suffrage looked no further, a minority - like Alice Paul - understood that the quest for women's rights would be an ongoing struggle that was only advanced, not satisfied, by the vote.
In 1919, as the suffrage victory drew near, the National American Woman Suffrage Association reconfigured itself into the League of Women Voters to ensure that women would take their hard-won vote seriously and use it wisely.
In 1920, the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor was established to gather information about the situation of women at work, and to advocate for changes it found were needed. Many suffragists became actively involved with lobbying for legislation to protect women workers from abuse and unsafe conditions.
In 1923, Alice Paul, the leader of the National Woman's Party, took the next obvious step. She drafted an Equal Rights Amendment for the United States Constitution. Such a federal law, it was argued, would ensure that "Men and women have equal rights throughout the United States." A constitutional amendment would apply uniformly, regardless of where a person lived.
The Second Wave
So it's clear that, contrary to common misconception, the Women's Rights Movement did not begin in the 1960s. What occurred in the 1960s was actually a second wave of activism that washed into the public consciousness, fueled by several seemingly independent events of that turbulent decade. Each of these events brought a different segment of the population into the movement.
First: Esther Peterson was the director of the Women's Bureau of the Dept. of Labor in 1961. She considered it to be the government's responsibility to take an active role in addressing discrimination against women. With her encouragement, President Kennedy convened a Commission on the Status of Women, naming Eleanor Roosevelt as its chair. The report issued by that commission in 1963 documented discrimination against women in virtually every area of American life. State and local governments quickly followed suit and established their own commissions for women, to research conditions and recommend changes that could be initiated.
Then: In 1963, Betty Friedan published a landmark book, The Feminine Mystique. The Feminine Mystique evolved out of a survey she had conducted for her 20-year college reunion. In it she documented the emotional and intellectual oppression that middle-class educated women were experiencing because of limited life options. The book became an immediate bestseller, and inspired thousands of women to look for fulfillment beyond the role of homemaker.
Next: Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sex as well as race, religion, and national origin. The category "sex" was included as a last-ditch effort to kill the bill. But it passed, nevertheless. With its passage, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was established to investigate discrimination complaints. Within the commission's first five years, it received 50,000 sex discrimination complaints. But it was quickly obvious that the commission was not very interested in pursuing these complaints. Betty Friedan, the chairs of the various state Commissions on the Status of Women, and other feminists agreed to form a civil rights organization for women similar to the NAACP. In 1966, the National Organization for Women was organized, soon to be followed by an array of other mass-membership organizations addressing the needs of specific groups of women, including Blacks, Latinas, Asians-Americans, lesbians, welfare recipients, business owners, aspiring politicians, and tradeswomen and professional women of every sort.
During this same time, thousands of young women on college campuses were playing active roles within the anti-war and civil rights movement. At least,that was their intention. Many were finding their efforts blocked by men who felt leadership of these movements was their own province, and that women's roles should be limited to fixing food and running mimeograph machines. It wasn't long before these young women began forming their own "women's liberation" organizations to address their role and status within these progressive movements and within society at large.
New Issues Come to the Fore
These various elements of the re-emerging Women's Rights Movement worked together and separately on a wide range of issues. Small groups of women in hundreds of communities worked on grassroots projects like establishing women's newspapers, bookstores and cafes. They created battered women's shelters and rape crisis hotlines to care for victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence. They came together to form child care centers so women could work outside their homes for pay. Women health care professionals opened women's clinics to provide birth control and family planning counseling -- and to offer abortion services -- for low-income women. These clinics provided a safe place to discuss a wide range of health concerns and experiment with alternative forms of treatment.
With the inclusion of Title IX in the Education Codes of 1972, equal access to higher education and to professional schools became the law. The long-range effect of that one straightforward legal passage beginning "Equal access to education programs...," has been simply phenomenal. The number of women doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects and other professionals has doubled and doubled again as quotas actually limiting women's enrollment in graduate schools were outlawed. Athletics has probably been the most hotly contested area of Title IX, and it's been one of the hottest areas of improvement, too. The rise in girls' and women's participation in athletics tells the story: One in twenty-seven high school girls played sports 25 years ago; one in three do today. The whole world saw how much American women athletes could achieve during the last few Olympic Games, measured in their astonishing numbers of gold, silver, and bronze medals. This was another very visible result of Title IX.
In society at large, the Women's Rights Movement has brought about measurable changes, too. In 1972, 26% of men and women said they would not vote for a woman for president. In 1996, that sentiment had plummeted to just over 5% for women and to 8% for men. The average age of women when they first marry has moved from twenty to twenty-four during that same period.
But perhaps the most dramatic impact of the women's rights movement of the past few decades has been women's financial liberation. Do you realize that just 25 years ago married women were not issued credit cards in their own name? That most women could not get a bank loan without a male co-signer? That women working full time earned fifty-nine cents to every dollar earned by men?
Help-wanted ads in newspapers were segregated into "Help wanted - women" and "Help wanted- men." Pages and pages of jobs were announced for which women could not even apply. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled this illegal in 1968, but since the EEOC had little enforcement power, most newspapers ignored the requirement for years. The National Organization for Women (NOW), had to argue the issue all the way to the Supreme Court to make it possible for a woman today to hold any job for which she is qualified. And so now we see women in literally thousands of occupations which would have been almost unthinkable just one generation ago: dentist, bus driver, veterinarian, airline pilot, and phone installer, just to name a few.
Many of these changes came about because of legislation and court cases pushed by women's organizations. But many of the advances women achieved in the 1960s and '70s were personal: getting husbands to help with the housework or regularly take responsibility for family meals; getting a long-deserved promotion at work; gaining the financial and emotional strength to leave an abusive partner.
The Equal Rights Amendment Is Re-Introduced
Then, in 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment, which had languished in Congress for almost fifty years, was finally passed and sent to the states for ratification. The wording of the ERA was simple: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." To many women's rights activists, its ratification by the required thirty-eight states seemed almost a shoo-in.
The campaign for state ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment provided the opportunity for millions of women across the nation to become actively involved in the Women's Rights Movement in their own communities. Unlike so many other issues which were battled-out in Congress or through the courts, this issue came to each state to decide individually. Women's organizations of every stripe organized their members to help raise money and generate public support for the ERA. Marches were staged in key states that brought out hundreds of thousands of supporters. House meetings, walk-a-thons, door-to-door canvassing, and events of every imaginable kind were held by ordinary women, many of whom had never done anything political in their lives before. Generous checks and single dollar bills poured into the campaign headquarters, and the ranks of NOW and other women's rights organizations swelled to historic sizes. Every women's magazine and most general interest publications had stories on the implications of the ERA, and the progress of the ratification campaign.
But Elizabeth Cady Stanton proved prophetic once again. Remember her prediction that the movement should "anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule"? Opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment, organized by Phyllis Schlafly, feared that a statement like the ERA in the Constitution would give the government too much control over our personal lives. They charged that passage of the ERA would lead to men abandoning their families, unisex toilets, gay marriages, and women being drafted. And the media, purportedly in the interest of balanced reporting, gave equal weight to these deceptive arguments just as they had when the possibility of women winning voting rights was being debated. And, just like had happened with woman suffrage, there were still very few women in state legislatures to vote their support, so male legislators once again had it in their power to decide if women should have equal rights. When the deadline for ratification came in 1982, the ERA was just three states short of the 38 needed to write it into the U.S. constitution. Seventy-five percent of the women legislators in those three pivotal states supported the ERA, but only 46% of the men voted to ratify.
Despite polls consistently showing a large majority of the population supporting the ERA, it was considered by many politicians to be just too controversial. Historically speaking, most if not all the issues of the women's rights movement have been highly controversial when they were first voiced. Allowing women to go to college? That would shrink their reproductive organs! Employ women in jobs for pay outside their homes? That would destroy families! Cast votes in national elections? Why should they bother themselves with such matters? Participate in sports? No lady would ever want to perspire! These and other issues that were once considered scandalous and unthinkable are now almost universally accepted in this country.