History of Women’s Rights in the 20th Century

History of Women’s Rights in the 20th Century

Women’s in the 20th-Century Developments

Socialists Movements and Communism Governments

After wars and revolutions in Russia (1917) and China (1949), new Communist governments discouraged the patriarchal family system and supported sexual equality, including birth control. In the Soviet Union, however, the majority of working women held low-paid jobs and were minimally represented in party and government councils. Birth-control techniques were primitive, day-care centers were few, and working wives were responsible for keeping house and tending children.

China more fully preserved its revolutionary ideals, but some job discrimination against women existed. Socialist governments in Sweden in the 1930s established wide-ranging programs of equal rights for women, which included extensive child-care arrangements. (1)

In the United States and United Kingdom

In Britain and the United States progress was slower. The number of working women increased substantially after the two world wars, but they generally had low-paid, female-dominated occupations, such as school teaching and clerical work. Little opportunity existed in high-paid, male-dominated professions and major government posts. Advocates of birth control agitated for decades before women’s right to family planning was recognized.

An Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, to remove at one stroke legal, economic, and social restrictions on women, was introduced into Congress in 1923 but made no headway. In the 1960s, however, changing demographic, economic, and social patterns encouraged a resurgence of feminism. Lower infant-mortality rates, soaring adult life expectancy, and the availability of the birth-control pill (after 1960) gave women greater freedom from child-care responsibilities. These developments, combined with inflation-which meant that many families needed two incomes-and a rising divorce rate, propelled more women into the job market. In the late 1960s they made up about 40 percent of the work force in England, France, Germany, and the United States. This figure rose to more than 50 percent by the mid-1980s.As working women encountered discrimination in many forms, the women’s movement in the United States gained momentum.

A presidential commission was established in 1960 to consider equal opportunities for women. Acts of Congress entitled them to equality in education, employment, and legal rights. In 1964 the Civil Rights Act, initially intended only for blacks, was extended to women. In 1972 the Supreme Court declared that abortion was legal, and the Equal Rights Amendment was passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification. The women’s movement also questioned social institutions and moral values, basing many of its arguments on scientific studies suggesting that most supposed differences between men and women result not from biology but from culture. Many women objected that the English language itself, by reflecting traditional male dominance in its word forms, perpetuates the problem. Some women experimented with new kinds of female-male relations, including the sharing of domestic roles. (2)

Women and the Supreme Court in the 1970s and 1980s

The Republicans appointed to the Supreme Court beginning in 1969 were supposedly chosen for their devotion to judicial restraint and strict construction. Yet in the area of women’s rights, they broke new ground as the earlier Court before World War II had done for blacks. In Reed v. Reed (1971), a unanimous Court, speaking through new Chief Justice Burger, invalidated an Idaho estate law that gave men preference over similarly situated women as administrators of estates. The Court found that such legislation effectively denied women the equal protection of the law. In Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corporation ( 1971), the justices decided that a company’s refusal to hire women with preschool-aged children violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, because the company policy did not apply equally to men. The justices in 1977 also relied on the Civil Rights Act to overturn an Alabama law that used height and weight requirements for prison guards to block women from such employment.

The justices have yet to extend the same standards of scrutiny to gender discrimination as they have to racial discrimination. They have refused, in short, to make gender a suspect classification, as is the case with race. Such status would mean that any time a legislature based its actions on gender it would automatically become suspect and subject to the most searching review by the Court. But the Court has rigorously applied the concept of equal protection of the laws. In Frontiero v. Richardson ( 1973), for example, the justices declared invalid provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that exempted the military from granting to women the same health and housing benefits that went automatically to men. The justices came within one vote in this case of declaring that gender would be treated as a suspect classification.

The Court has taken the position that the state and federal governments may have some reasonable basis on which to invoke gender. The Court in Kahn v. Shevin ( 1974) upheld a state law exempting widows from a special property tax and in Schlesinger v. Ballard ( 1975) it gave women naval officers a longer period in which to win promotion than was given to male officers. Finally, in Rostker v. Goldberg ( 1981) it held, by a vote of six to three, that Congress could exclude women from the military draft.

The Court’s decisions involving women were important in another way. They coincided with the effort to pass the ERA, and to some extent they may have contributed to its failure. Congress in 1972 sent the proposed amendment to the states for ratification within seven years. Within months about half of the states necessary for ratification had agreed, but enthusiasm waned, as was typically the case with amendments. Supporters of the ERA won an extension of the ratification deadline to June 1982, but by then only thirty-five states, three short of the required number, had ratified the amendment and it failed. Had the ERA passed, federal courts would have undoubtedly treated sex as a suspect classification.

Opposition to the ERA reflected substantial disagreement in the ranks of women about the quest for equality. The most effective proponent of the campaign against it was Phyllis Schafly, an articulate and traditional woman who organized STOP ERA, a coalition of conservative groups anxious to retain the existing status of women. These same women were also vocal in their objections to Roe v. Wade, and they expected that the Reagan administration would help to pass an antiabortion amendment.

Feminists and Women’s Rights Groups

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, active feminists organized women’s rights groups, ranging from the moderate National Organization for Women (NOW), founded in 1966 and claiming about 250,000 members by 1985, to smaller, more radical groups. Much attention was given to consciousness raising to make women aware of their common disadvantages. Private and governmental efforts converged in November 1977, when the largest convention of women ever held in the United States met in Houston, Texas, under government sponsorship.

It ratified the feminist report drawn up by the presidential commission, which was intended to serve as an official guide to governmental action. The objectives of the women’s movement included equal pay for equal work, federal support for day-care centers, recognition of lesbian rights, continued legalization of abortion, and the focus of serious attention on the problems of rape, wife and child beating, and discrimination against older and minority women. (3)

Equal Rights Amendment

By the June 1982 deadline the Equal Rights Amendment had been ratified by only 35 of the required 38 states; it was opposed by many women who feared the loss of alimony and of exemption from military service. Moreover, a strong conservative reaction contested federal support of day care, abortion, and lesbianism as immoral and destructive of the family. The amendment was defeated. American women have made many gains in the last decade, perhaps best exemplified by the 1984 nomination of Geraldine Ferraro as the Democratic candidate for vice president of the United States. During the administration of President Ronald Reagan, however, women lost ground on issues such as affirmative action and pay equity with men (although in 1986 the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the use of affirmative action to remedy past job discrimination). (4)

History of Women’s Rights until the 20th Century

The Age of Enlightenment, with its egalitarian political emphasis, and the Industrial Revolution, which caused economic and social changes, provided a favorable climate for the rise of feminism. See History of Women’s Rights until the 20th Century here.

Women’s Rights in General

Political, social, and economic equality for women involve some rights, including control of property, equality of opportunity in education and employment, suffrage, and sexual freedom. See about Women’s Rights in General here.


See Also

Women International Law
Convention on the Political Rights of Women
Guide to Legal Assistance for Women
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
International human rights law
Woman Suffrage
Employment of Women
History of Social Darwinism
Economic Discrimination

Notes and References

  1. “Women’s Rights”Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia
  2. Id.
  3. Id.
  4. Id.



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