Americans were slow to apply their egalitarian principles to women; for decades after the Revolutionary War, few people in this nation founded on the principle that "all men are created equal" challenged the fact that women possessed few political or legal rights. But during the 1830s, women in the abolitionist movement discovered that even forward-thinking male reformers believed that women should take a backseat to men, and the women's movement was born.
Advocates of women's rights held their first convention at Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. Participants in the convention nursed varying agendas—property rights, divorce reform, increased educational opportunities, and even dress reform were all among the objectives activists pursued. Only a minority shared Elizabeth Cady Stanton's belief that women should concentrate on winning the right to vote. But by the end of the century, women's suffrage had become the centerpiece of the women's movement.
After ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment finally gave women the right to vote in 1919, the movement made only minor progress. The Equal Rights Amendment, drafted in 1923, was buried in congressional committee as the Great Depression and World War II consumed Americans' attention.
But in 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, sparking the modern women's movement. This new movement failed to achieve one of its greatest objectives: ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Still, it made enormous progress by fighting employment discrimination, advancing educational opportunities, and protecting reproductive rights.
"Women's libbers do not speak for the majority of American women."
— Phyllis Schlafly, 19721
"I'm not this women's-lib and 'Go Women!' person. But I think women have to work twice as hard to get that acknowledgment and validation."
— Professional Mixed Martial Arts fighter Kim Couture, 20082
"I am NOT a women's libber, but this does seem sexist to me."
— A blogger responding to news that a pharmacist refused to fill a woman's birth control pill prescription, 20043
"Women's libbers" don't get much respect. Often caricatured as man-hating extremists or irrational zealots, they are not accorded the sort of respect we grant to other social activists. Can you imagine calling Martin Luther King, Jr. a "black libber"? Have you ever heard anyone say, "I'm no radical political libber like Thomas Jefferson, but I do believe that all men are created equal"?
Why do you suppose that is?
Why do you suppose a professional female fighter, participating in a sport completely closed to her gender 30 years ago, would want to distance herself from the women who fought for her right to fight?
Why do you suppose a person would insist on establishing his non-"women's libber" credentials before acknowledging that some right, fought for by women's activists, was being denied?
"Women's libbers" have brought about enormous change in America. Today, roughly 60% of all bachelor's and master's degrees are earned by women.4 Currently (2009), 17 women serve in the United States Senate, almost half of the total number serving since women were granted the vote in 1920.5
Yet women lag behind men in critical areas as well. They earn, on average, only 77% of what men earn.6 Twice as many women as men over age 75 live in poverty. And only 2% of all Fortune 500 companies employ women CEOs.7
Why do you suppose that is? Perhaps part of the answer lies in the attitude towards "women's lib."