America's women's movement did not begin at the beginning. The Revolution and its principles of liberty and equality had little impact on the status of women. True, educational opportunities slowly increased in the decades following the war, and some policymakers questioned the fairness of the country's property laws, which tilted hard against the interests of women. But if we want to identify a moment when large numbers of women began to question the fundamental justice of their treatment, we need to jump forward to the 1830s. During that decade, women taking part in the antislavery movement discovered that they faced oppression closer to home. They discovered that even their "progressively minded" colleagues viewed them as second-class citizens.
Angelina and Sarah Grimké, often forgotten in the basic narrative of the women's movement, were the first to call attention to the fact that their male friends in the social-reform movement had a bad blind spot when it came to gender. (You can read about Angelina Grimké here.) By 1840, their efforts had inspired other women reformers such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton to take up the cause of women's rights. Like the Grimkés, Stanton started out in the antislavery movement and concluded that women needed to improve their own position within American society before they could be fully useful in other reform efforts.
Stanton was the pivotal figure in the women's movement for the remainder of the nineteenth century. She was among the planners of the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls in 1848, and she drafted the Declaration of Sentiments asserting the "self-evident" truth that "all men and women were created equal." She also defined an ambitious agenda for the movement that included reform to marriage and divorce, expanded property rights for women, and even dress reform. But most importantly, she was among the first women's activists to recognize that securing the right to vote was essential to advancing and preserving other rights. In opposition to her mentor Lucretia Mott, she included in her draft of the Seneca Falls resolutions one declaring it "the duty of women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise." This resolution barely passed in 1848, and for the next 50 years Stanton fought to make suffrage the central plank of the women's rights platform. (You can read more about her work and achievements here.)
By the early twentieth century, Stanton's emphasis on the vote had been embraced by the women's movement, and she and her closest ally in the cause, Susan B. Anthony, had turned over control of the National American Woman Suffrage Association to Carrie Chapman Catt. Believing that the right to vote would be won on a state by state basis, the NAWSA coordinated state-level campaigns across the country.
The strategy yielded some success. By 1914, eleven states had granted women the right to vote. But for some activists the pace of reform was far too slow, especially given the gains being made in other parts of American life. Women enjoyed, in particular, greater access to education by the turn of the century. At the University of California at Berkeley, 46% of the undergraduates were women; across the nation, 80,000 women had earned a college degree by 1900.20 (You can read more about this here).
Women were still denied access to the jobs for which their educations prepared them, but rather than retreat back to traditional roles many poured their talents into reform. In Chicago, Rockford College graduate Jane Addams turned an old mansion into a "settlement house." Designed to serve the needs of the urban immigrant poor, Hull House was a combination school, daycare facility, employment agency, and social center. Other women flocked to the Women's Christian Temperance Union which became, by 1900, the largest women's organization in the country, broadening its agenda beyond opposition to alcohol to include prison and health reform, world peace, and women's suffrage. (You can read all about Jane Addams here and about the WCTU here.)
For many women, however, higher education and prominent roles in reform only made their inability to vote all the more insulting. One of these was Alice Paul. Raised in a reform household, educated at Swarthmore and the University of Pennsylvania, she went to London to study social work. But while in England, she learned far more about the sort of tactics needed to finally secure women the right to vote. In London, she worked with militant faction of the British suffragette movement. By the time she returned to America in 1910, she was convinced that the fastest route to the vote was a constitutional amendment to the US Constitution and this could be won only by imitating the confrontational tactics she had learned in England. Therefore In 1916, she formed the National Woman's Party. The new party's more aggressive tactics forced the nation, and President Woodrow Wilson in particular, to take action. In 1919, Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment; in 1920, it was ratified. (Alice Paul's story can be found here.)
Alice Paul joined many feminists in believing that the vote needed to be linked to a constitutional guarantee of equality between the sexes. Therefore, in 1923 she drafted the text for an "equal rights amendment" to the Constitution. It was introduced into Congress but was not voted upon by both the House and Senate until 1972. When it was distributed to the states for ratification, 30 of the required 38 states approved the amendment within a year.
The speed with which the amendment was ratified in many states reflected the shifting social realities facing women. World War II, in particular, opened new occupational doors for women. The number of women entering the job force during the war is often exaggerated—only about five million of the 19 million women in the wartime workforce were first-time workers. But the attitude toward female labor changed dramatically. Assisted by wartime propaganda urging women to play their part, women were portrayed as strong, ingenious, and valuable members of the civilian workforce. And despite post-war efforts to return women to their "proper" place, many women had grown far too accustomed to the power and the paycheck employment offered. (You can more about all this here.)
Of course, not all women embraced the changes facing women in this post-war era. Many believed that something had been lost and that the Equal Rights Amendment threatened to further undermine the privileges and even character of womanhood. Phyllis Schlafly became a conservative icon by speaking out for these women in a 1972 article that rhetorically asked, "What's Wrong with 'Equal Rights' for Women"? Within months she had a huge following and a nationwide organization; within a year the momentum for ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment had come to a grinding halt. By 1982, the deadline for ratification had passed and the Equal Rights Amendment was dead. (You can read why and how Schlafly did this here.)
Even though feminists lost the ERA battle, they had made huge gains on other fronts. In 1963, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, exploring the discontent Friedan discovered among many well-educated, middle class women like herself. The overwhelming response to the book convinced Friedan of the need for a new woman's organization to address contemporary women's issues. In 1966, she helped found the National Organization for Women. For five years, as president, she led NOW's efforts, largely in the area of employment discrimination.
Friedan's contributions to the movement were not unquestioned. Many feminists argued that her agenda was too conservative and that her understanding of America's women was too limited. The movement, these critics said, needed to develop a more expansive vision that better incorporated the needs of poor, non-white, and working-class women.
There is evidence to support the allegation that the women's movement was too moderate in its ambitions. Women still earn far less, on average, than men, and they are underrepresented in politics and business. Yet, a young woman of the twenty-first century enjoys a set of social and occupational realities virtually unknown forty years ago, much less in the time of Alice Paul, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, or Angelina Grimké.