American Women’s Struggle For Gender Equality In The 20th Century

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Benjamin Franklin wrote in the Declaration of Independence; “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their creator, with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” (Jefferson; Franklin; Adams). When Ben Franklin wrote this, he meant to liberate the colonists from England, and he expressed that every person should be treated equally, which is what women have been fighting to gain for the last century. The Seneca Falls Convention for women’s rights started a movement for gender equality. The women attending the convention stated how they wanted to be treated and the rights they were endowed. As a result of the convention an increase in support of feminism led to the Equal Rights Amendment’s creation. The amendment, written by Alice Paul, was a turning point for suffragists and their goal; equal rights for women. Discrimination against women was common in America into the 1980s, even with the passing of the 19th Amendment in 1920, but this all changed with the Equal Rights Amendment. The proposed amendment promised equal rights for women and helped to spark an era of increasing gender equality.

The push for women’s rights began long before the Equal Rights Amendment with the assistance of many political groups, events, and people. The Seneca Falls Convention was very important to American feminism in the 19th century (Stock). The event, organized by Elizabeth Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Mary M’Clintock, and Martha Wright was started because the women were not able to join an abolitionist meeting in England (“Seneca Falls Convention”). They were frustrated by their lower class position in the American abolitionist movement. So then they decided to hold their own women’s conference in New York. It was attended by three hundred women and a few men (“Women’s Suffrage Movement”). The convention gradually became known for its demands of women’s voting rights and equal property ownership (Stock). When the conference occurred, all women there agreed that they needed to stand up for their rights. These included the right to vote, better education, equal pay with men, and it shared their ideas of the “Declaration of Sentiments”. Modeled after the Declaration of Independence, it stated that; “All men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (“Women’s Suffrage Movement”). This convention brought together a group of women with the intention to stand up for their rights. Another aid in their campaign for women’s equal rights was NAWSA. It was founded in 1890 by Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and later renamed the National Woman’s Party. They were women who were willing to risk their culture and freedom in order to advance their party’s goal of a gender equality amendment (“Alice Paul”). These are just a few examples of the actions that 19th century women took in their pursuit of equal rights.

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The most important person that advocated for women’s rights was Alice Paul and her organization, the National Woman’s Party. She helped to increase support for feminism by her immovable dedication to women’s rights. She campaigned vigorously and persistently attracting people to rallies for the Nineteenth Amendment (Stock). Likewise, she encouraged women who were frustrated with their cause’s slow progress to vote anyways. The NWP was an exceptional aid in the campaign for women’s right to vote. It held several demonstrations and picketed the White House in 1916 to demand women’s equal rights and to advocate for the 19th amendment. These demonstrations continued for 18 months and because of them by September 1917 the House of Representatives created the House Committee on Women Suffrage (“Alice Paul”). It had jurisdiction over all legislation concerning women’s suffrage (“Committee on Woman Suffrage”). The NWP, in a like manner, had several additional achievements due to these demonstrations. Thousands of women, unaffiliated with the NWP, also volunteered to protest. In fact this was important and a “victory” because it showed that many women, even if they were not part of the group, wanted their equal rights as well. Even after all the protests, the Senate did not pass the Nineteenth Amendment, so because of this Alice Paul began to demonstrate again. She was determined to get equal rights no matter how long it took. Because of the ongoing picketing in 1918, President Wilson announced support for the Nineteenth Amendment, helping to get it passed by Congress in 1919 (“Alice Paul”). Paul’s efforts towards increasing women’s rights and the evolution of the NWP were an astronomically large factor in the advancement of women’s suffrage and the ERA.

The Equal Rights Amendment was a proposed constitutional amendment that promised women’s rights would not be discriminated against based on gender. It was created by Alice Paul. In her era women wanted equal pay, equal treatment, equal educational opportunities and the ability to achieve what men could. The Equal Rights Amendment was meant to bring equal rights to women, but it was heavily resisted by Phyllis Schlafly and STOP-ERA. Schlafly was conservative and an opponent of the ERA. She organized resistance against the amendment, claiming that if passed, the amendment would make women lose femininity and the opportunity of marriage (Blakemore). In addition, she alleged that feminists were an “anti-family movement trying to make perversion acceptable as an alternative lifestyle” (“Phyllis Schlafly”). Several other conservative women joined her to form the group, STOP-ERA. Schlafly rallied innumerable women, that thought the ERA would hurt their lifestyle, into her group. The women in this group wanted to be seen as feminine so they wore pink as their color (Blakemore). Their tactics also included bringing home-made bread to lawmakers and holding signs that stated, “To the breadwinners from the bread makers” (“Phyllis Schlafly”). By promoting this perspective they were suggesting that men should work while women should only take care of the men. This group had powerful backing and was a significant obstacle to the ERA’s approval.

There were several groups who supported the ERA as well. One of them was NOW (National Organization for Women). This group vigorously promoted the ERA. It helped to organize immense demonstrations in favor of the amendment (Blakemore). In 1967, because of NOW’s efforts to promote the amendment’s passage, President Johnson then issued an executive order banning racial discrimination in the awarding of government contracts. The order included a ban on gender discrimination as well (“National Organization of Women”). Other support for the amendment came from Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Nixon. They all supported the ERA and by doing so they assisted the amendment in its passage through Congress. In addition, Eleanor Roosevelt was a supporter of the amendment. In the beginning she was an opponent of the ERA but later decided to support it (Stock). She had opposed it at first, believing it would destroy the protections she had helped to create promoting factory safety, opposing night work, and others (Klemesrud). Although many influential people and groups vigorously supported the ERA it eventually did not become ratified by enough states.

The amendment had a long history of debate in Congress before being passed with a high vote count in both Houses. The amendment was proposed in every session of Congress from 1923 to 1972. In 1972 both Houses of Congress passed the amendment. It had a 93.4 percent majority in the House and 91.3 percent majority in the Senate. After being passed by the joint Congress the amendment needed to be ratified by at least thirty-eight states within seven years. The Equal Rights Amendment was ratified by twenty-two states by 1973. After this strong beginning, a few states then withdrew their support of the amendment, including Nebraska, Tennessee, Idaho, Kentucky, and South Dakota. Although several states ratified the ERA quickly, some states held out against the amendment. In 1978 legislators extended the ratification period to 1982 to buy more time. By 1982 only thirty-five states had ratified the amendment. Many years later Nevada ratified it in 2017 and Illinois in 2018. The last state required to ratify the ERA has never done it to date. This might not even matter because the ratification deadline expired decades ago. Any final state’s ratification might then be considered invalid (Blakemore).

Even though the amendment was never ratified, it and the support for feminism it gathered helped to bring more rights to women. Because of this, several laws were passed that promoted gender equality (Blakemore). The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned prejudice against hiring women in jobs, banning racial, religious, and segregation due to national origin (“The Civil Rights Act of 1964 revisited”). Divorce laws were loosened and anti-discrimination protections were strengthened. An important law that was passed due to this was Title IX. It was enacted in 1962 prohibiting gender bias in education. The law applied to over 23,500 schools and increased young women’s participation in school sports by more than 1,000 percent (“Title IX”). The ERA influenced some state’s constitutional amendment’s passage. Several of these states now have parts of the Equal Rights Amendment written into their constitutions. By 2012 elements of the ERA were in 21 state constitutions, including five of them that had not initially ratified the amendment (Stock). This is a good example of how equal rights for women have increased over the years because of the ERA. Without it, several of these states would not have such laws. As it can be seen, with these laws, modern women are now getting most of the benefits of the ERA but it is still not the law in every state or nationally.

Furthermore, there are several present-day effects of the ERA and the rise of feminism. There has been an increase of women in all professional categories like government, sports. Many countries now have female political leaders, including Chile, Finland, and Ireland. There has been an increase of female students as well. In some schools, women outnumber men, showing how they have gained more educational opportunities because they now can get equal acceptance. Feminism has equally improved how people regard marriage. Women usually got married in the past because it was not socially acceptable for women to choose not to. Now it has become a social norm for women to choose (Darity). Many women now keep their maiden-names after marriage, showing their independence from their husbands even when married. Another positive impact of the ERA and the rise of feminism is now the gender equality of surveys and studies. Instead of male-only studies with results that are applied to women as well, studies now survey both men and women equally, making studies more accurate. Because of the effects of the ERA and feminism women now get more equal rights.

Since it was proposed in 1923 the Equal Rights Amendment was a cultural earthquake in the middle of America’s bias of the past opening up a new world for modern women. The ERA has since helped to create a new path to equality by showing that women could stand up for their rights and by gathering support for them thereby leading to an increase in support for feminism in general. The Equal Rights Amendment slowly put a stop to the persistent discrimination against women that had been going on for centuries in the United States. The ERA influenced several law’s passage that helped improve rights for women. “A little more persistence, a little more effort, and what seemed hopeless failure may turn to glorious success”(The Search for the North Pole, 509).

Works Cited

  1. ‘Alice Paul.’ Encyclopedia of World Biography Online, vol. 19, Gale, 1999. Gale In Context: High School, Accessed 18 Sept. 2019.
  3. ‘Congress Approves the Equal Rights Amendment: March 22, 1972.’ Global Events: Milestone Events Throughout History, edited by Jennifer Stock, vol. 6: North America, Gale, 2014. Gale In Context: High School.
  4. ‘Feminism.’ International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, edited by William A. Darity, Jr., 2nd ed., vol. 3, Macmillan Reference USA, 2008, pp. 119-122. Gale In Context: High School, Accessed 13 Oct. 2019.
  5. History, Erin Blakemore. ‘Why the Fight Over the Equal Rights Amendment Has Lasted Nearly a Century.’ History, A&E Television Networks, 26 Nov. 2018, Accessed 10 Sept. 2019.
  6. editors. ‘Seneca falls convention.’, A&E television networks, 21 Aug. 2018, Accessed 17 Oct. 2019.
  7. Baldwin, Evelyn Briggs. The Search for the North Pole. 1896.
  8. ‘National organization of women.’,
  9. ‘Phyllis Schlafly.’ Newsmakers, vol. 4, Gale, 2018. Gale In Context: High School, Accessed 18 Sept. 2019.
  10. UConn communications. ‘The Civil Rights Act of 1964 Revisited.’, University of Connecticut, 2 July 2014, Accessed 17 Oct. 2019.
  11. United States, Congress, House. The Declaration of Independence. Government Publishing Office, 2 July 1776. House Bill 1.
  12. U.S. department of education. ‘Title IX.’, U.S. department of education., Accessed 17 Oct. 2019
  13. ‘U.S. House of Representatives. Committee on Woman Suffrage. 1917-1927.’, Accessed 17 Oct. 2019.
  14. ‘Women’s Suffrage Movement.’ Gale In Context Online Collection, Gale, 2019. Gale In Context: High School, Accessed 13 Oct. 2019.


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