Strength & Persistence

The American Woman’s Journey to Equality

by Lauren Salinero

Strong. Leader. Powerful. Prior to just a few decades ago, these words were almost exclusively used to describe men. Women in the U.S. were relegated to the background, left at home to take care of the family while men made their way in the world. Males were the leaders; females were the caregivers. Throughout history, there have always been women who “broke the mold.” Not all women were born to be followers, after all; and even in a repressed society, those women stood out. However, among the many steps women in America have taken to wrangle their independence, there are a few significant events that paved the way for all women to be free of the shackles that chained them to the men in their lives.

Voting Rights

As early as the 1800s in America, women strained against the constrictions put on them. They refused to have their voices silenced and made strides to be heard. The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 was proof of this, being the first women’s rights convention to be organized by women. Attended by 300 men and women, it featured the signing of the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments by 100 of those present, men and women alike.

In its closing remarks the document declared “because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States.” It was too controversial to gain much public support; however, the groundwork was set for those who would take the sentiment of equal rights even further.

Victoria Claflin Woodhull is the first woman to run for the U.S. presidency.

The first female U.S. presidential candidate was seen in 1872. Victoria Claflin Woodhull ran as a third-party candidate, elected by the Equal Rights Party, against Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (R) and Horace Greenley (D). Her campaign trail was riddled with intrigue, eliciting a degree of scrutiny that was unrivaled. She was even arrested just a few days prior to the election for publishing a series of scandalous and accusatory articles about prominent men in the newspaper run by Woodhull and her sister, Tennessee Claflin.

There is no way to tell how many votes Woodhull ultimately received, ballots bearing her name went uncounted, and some districts eliminated her from the ballots altogether. This election saw another woman step up. Susan B. Anthony chose to challenge the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which stated all persons born in the U.S. are citizens, claiming that since women were citizens, they should be allowed to vote. She became the first woman to cast a vote in a presidential election — for Gen. Grant — and was convicted of “unlawful voting” for her efforts.

Women line up to learn how to exercise their right to vote.

A Turning Point

It was clear that women were not backing down from their efforts to achieve equality. In 1890, Wyoming became the first state to grant women the right to vote in all elections. Yet, it wasn’t until 1920 that, with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, women were granted the right to vote in the U.S. This was a crucial victory and a turning point for women. However, women being allowed to vote didn’t automatically make them equals in the eyes of their male counterparts. Just as the ending of slavery didn’t abolish racism, it was still a long road for women to be seen as equal to men.

With more women entering the workforce, equality in treatment became a point of contention.

The first version of the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced in 1923. It stated, “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.” Although it passed the Senate and the House of Representatives in 1972, it has yet to be ratified in all states.

With the many strides that had been taken until this point, women in the workforce were still a rarity. “Housewife” continued to be the dominant role for American women throughout the ’50s and ’60s. They were pretty much expected to marry in their early 20s, immediately start having babies, and spend the rest of their lives taking care of their homes, husbands and children.

The feminist movement of the ’60s and ’70s began to alter the expectations of women’s lives. Although, at that time, women were still legally bound to their husbands — not having rights to their husbands’ earnings or property, whereas men had access to their wives’ money — and were relegated to a limited choice in careers. Women were most often employed as secretaries, nurses or teachers. Change came about slowly, but steady progress was made as more and more women joined the workforce, giving rise to new challenges, as well.

One of the more glaring grievances became an inequality of pay. Female workers were paid less than men doing the same type of work. In an effort to combat this disparity, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act of 1963. It promised equitable wages regardless of the sex of the worker. Although the EPA was an unequivocal victory in women’s rights, equal pay is a battle still being waged in many places today.

The ’80s were a time of more leaps in females taking leadership career roles and asserting themselves as not only capable of keeping up with their male coworkers, but oftentimes surpassing them and rising to the tops of their fields. From what was previously a minor number of women in the workforce and landing governmental roles, became a surge of women who chose to pursue careers.

A couple of notable pioneers were Sandra Day O’Connor, who became the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court in 1981, and Sally K. Ride, Ph.D., the first American woman sent into space in 1983.

Known as The Year of the Woman, 1992 saw a record number of women elected to Congress, four winning Senate elections and two dozen elected to first terms in the House. One of these women, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, regarded the phrase with contempt.

“Calling 1992 the Year of the Woman makes it sound like the Year of the Caribou or the Year of the Asparagus,” she said. “We’re not a fad, a fancy or year.”

Modern Feminism

Mikulski was certainly correct in her statement; “women in power” was not a fad. In fact, women’s roles only grew throughout the end of the 20th century, giving rise to the modern feminism we have today.

Today, women are more involved than ever in politics, claiming 104 House seats and 21 Senate seats.

A few key legislations have aided the cause, such as the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act in 2009, which allows victims — usually women — of pay discrimination to file a complaint against their employer within 180 days of their last paycheck.

In 2013, the ban against women in military combat positions was lifted. This year, a Marine lieutenant became the first female to earn the infantry officer military occupational specialty, graduating Sept. 25. She has chosen to remain unnamed. Thirty-two other female officers had previously attempted to complete the 13-week course since it first opened to women in 2012.

Currently, Congress boasts a record number of women, with 104 female House members and 21 female Senators, including the chamber’s first Latina, Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.

Today women are stronger than they ever have been. American culture does not silence female voices, and there are more avenues than ever from which they can be heard. More women are forgoing marriage and motherhood to pursue careers, while others are simply waiting until later in life to settle down in domesticity. Their leadership roles in society have become as important as men’s roles.

Not that the war against inequality is won — there are yet many battles to wage. Pay gap is still a critical point of contention, as is women’s education and sexual harassment, among others. However, thanks to the women of the past, who achieved the unthinkable in their times, the girls of today will grow up with the knowledge that they are as worthy as boys to possess the attributes of strength, leadership and power. ♥

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