Study Guide

Women's Movements

Women's Movements Introduction

Americans were slow to apply their egalitarian principles to women. Remember, "all men are created equal." Women, you'll have to wait your turn.

For decades after the Revolutionary War, few people challenged the fact that women possessed few political or legal rights. But during the 1830s, women in the abolitionist cause discovered that even forward-thinking male reformers believed that women should take a backseat to men. 

And so, the Women's Rights 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, increased educational opportunities, divorce reform, 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 Rights Movement.

After ratification of the 19th Amendment finally gave women the right to vote in 1920, American women had the right to vote, the patriarchy met its demise, and gender roles were a thing of the past.

Except, no. Not at all. The movement only made 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 Rights 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.

What is Women's Movements About and Why Should I Care?

"Women's libbers do not speak for the majority of American women."—Phyllis Schlafly, 1972.

Why the inequality? Perhaps part of the answer lies in the attitude toward "women's lib."

Women's Movements Resources


Katherine H. Adams and Michael L. Keene, Alice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaign (2007)
This biography fills a gap in the literature on the early 20th-century suffrage campaign. Paul's formation as an activist, her growing dissatisfaction with the moderate strategies of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and the militant campaign of 1917 are all richly described.

Donald T. Critchlow, Phyllis Schlafly and Grassroots Conservatism: A Woman's Crusade (2005)
Critchlow provides a balanced treatment of the figure adored by some and reviled by others. The book offers a particularly interesting comparison of strategies employed by those supporting and opposing ratification of the ERA.

Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963)
This book may still speak to the experiences of many women, but probably most will find the lifestyles and mindset that it describes dated. Regardless, it's still interesting reading. Based largely on Friedan's own experiences as a wife and mother and on material drawn from dozens of interviews, the examples and anecdotes break up some of the more densely analytical sections.

Aileen Kraditor, The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement: 1890-1920 (1981)
This book is less about the movement than the varied and complex ideas of the women who campaigned for the right to vote at the turn of the century. Kraditor also explores the arguments of those opposing women's suffrage, as well as the unique questions surrounding women's suffrage in the South. This isn't the most recent book on the subject, but it's still a good place to start.


Angelina Grimké
The abolitionist turned feminist.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton
The farsighted advocate of women's suffrage.

Alice Paul
The militant suffragette largely credited with pressuring President Woodrow Wilson to support women's suffrage.

Alice Paul's Mentor
British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst photographed during one of her many arrests.

Silent Sentinels
Member of the National Woman's Party picket the White House, 1917.

Alice Paul unfurls a banner to announce the vote in the Tennessee state legislature completing the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

Betty Friedan
Author of The Feminine Mystique and mother of the modern Women's Rights Movement.

Stop ERA
Phyllis Schlafly campaigning to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment.

Women's Strike for Equality
More than 50,000 march to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment and to demand equal rights, August 26th, 1970.

Movies & TV

Iron Jawed Angels (2009)
Hilary Swank stars as Alice Paul in this HBO film about the militant suffragettes fighting for the 19th Amendment.

"Not for Ourselves Alone": The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (1999)
Here's a Ken Burns documentary that combines images, source readings, and commentaries from historians.

Thelma and Louise (1991)
Two classic American genres—the road film and the buddy film—come together with a feminist (perhaps) twist. Some praised the film as a daring inversion of Hollywood misogyny (Gloria Steinem said the film brought tears to her eyes). Others complained that the film succumbed to Hollywood's fascination with stereotypes.


Women of Protest
The Library of Congress has posted a site on the women's suffrage movement entitled "Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman's Party." Along with images and a timeline, there are essays on the NWP and its tactics.

Teaching Women's History
The Smithsonian maintains a site on teaching women's history. It offers biographies and images of women in politics, science, and the arts.

Historical Documents

Women's Suffrage Documents
A handful of documents relating to women's suffrage are made available by the National Archive.

Library of Congress: Women's History
Numerous documents and images have been made electronically available at this Library of Congress site.

Documents of the Modern Women's Movement
Sponsored by Duke University, this site provides a searchable collection of documents from the women's liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s.