In our Special Report and in celebration of the International Women’s Day, we will talk about Women’s Rights in history. How the movement started, evolved, the rights women got, and the status of women’s rights today.

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Women’s Rights, rights that establish the same social, economic, and political status for women as for men. Women’s rights guarantee that women will not face discrimination on the basis of their sex. Until the second half of the 20th century, women in most societies were denied some of the legal and political rights accorded to men. Although women in much of the world have gained significant legal rights, many people believe that women still do not have complete political, economic, and social equality with men.

Throughout much of the history of Western civilization, deep-seated cultural beliefs allowed women only limited roles in society. Many people believed that women’s natural roles were as mothers and wives. These people considered women to be better suited for childbearing and homemaking rather than for involvement in the public life of business or politics. Widespread belief that women were intellectually inferior to men led most societies to limit women’s education to learning domestic skills. Well-educated, upper-class men controlled most positions of employment and power in society.

Until the 19th century, the denial of equal rights to women met with only occasional protest and drew little attention from most people. Because most women lacked the educational and economic resources that would enable them to challenge the prevailing social order, women generally accepted their inferior status as their only option. At this time, women shared these disadvantages with the majority of working class men, as many social, economic, and political rights were restricted to the wealthy elite. In the late 18th century, in an attempt to remedy these inequalities among men, political theorists and philosophers asserted that all men were created equal and therefore were entitled to equal treatment under the law. In the 19th century, as governments in Europe and North America began to draft new laws guaranteeing equality among men, significant numbers of women—and some men—began to demand that women be accorded equal rights as well.

At the same time, the Industrial Revolution in Europe and North America further divided the roles of men and women. Before the Industrial Revolution most people worked in farming or crafts-making, both of which took place in or near the home. Men and women usually divided the numerous tasks among themselves and their children. Industrialization led male workers to seek employment outside of the home in factories and other large-scale enterprises. The growing split between home and work reinforced the idea that women’s “rightful place” was in the home, while men belonged in the public world of employment and politics.

Organized efforts by women to achieve greater rights occurred in two major waves. The first wave began around the mid-19th century, when women in the United States and elsewhere campaigned to gain suffrage—that is, the right to vote. This wave lasted until the 1920s, when several countries granted women suffrage. The second wave gained momentum during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when the struggle by African Americans to achieve racial equality inspired women to renew their own struggle for equality.


The struggle for women’s rights began in the 18th century during a period of intense intellectual activity known as the Age of Enlightenment. During the Enlightenment, political philosophers in Europe began to question traditional ideas that based the rights of citizens on their wealth and social status. Instead, leaders of the Enlightenment argued that all individuals were born with natural rights that made them free and equal. They maintained that all inequalities that existed among citizens were the result of an inadequate education system and an imperfect social environment. Enlightenment philosophers argued that improved education and more egalitarian social structures could correct these inequalities.

Such radical ideas about equality and the rights of citizens helped inspire both the American Revolution in 1775 and the French Revolution in 1789. However, the ideas of the Enlightenment initially had little impact on the legal and political status of women. Most Enlightenment thinkers had little to say about the position women held in society, and many of their followers assumed that the concepts of liberty, equality, and political representation applied only to men. For example, one of the most influential writers from this period, French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, claimed that women were sentimental and frivolous. Rousseau argued that women were naturally suited to be subordinate companions of men.

In response to Rousseau and others who belittled the role of women in society, English writer Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1791). In this book, Wollstonecraft argued that, like men, women were naturally rational but their inferior education often taught them to be silly and emotional. Education, she believed, should cultivate the natural reasoning capacity in girls. She also claimed that the best marriages were marriages of equals, in which husband and wife were friends as well as legal partners. Wollstonecraft argued that equality in marriage would only come about with equality of education.

In the early 19th century, the vast majority of married women throughout Europe and the United States still had no legal identity apart from their husbands. This legal status—known as coverture—prohibited a married woman from being a party in a lawsuit, sitting on a jury, holding property in her own name, or writing a will. In custody disputes, courts routinely granted permanent custody of children to the father.


In the United States, widespread religious revivalism at the beginning of the 19th century inspired the early women’s rights movement. Large numbers of middle-class women joined evangelical societies whose efforts centered on religious conversion and on moral and social reform. These women campaigned to improve the lives and save the souls of prostitutes, increase the wages of working women, and expand employment opportunities for women. They also campaigned to abolish alcohol, an effort that became known as the temperance movement. Temperance workers considered alcohol to be a primary cause of sexual violence, prostitution, promiscuity, adultery, and the destruction of working-class families. Many prominent early American activists for women’s rights, including Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Elizabeth Blackwell, gained important organizational and political experience in the temperance movement.

American women became involved in many social and moral reform campaigns in the 19th century, but it was their efforts in the movement to abolish slavery that led most directly to the organized campaign for women’s rights. Many of the earliest female abolitionists came from Quaker backgrounds, and drew on Quaker traditions of equality for all people as inspiration for their political work. In some areas, women formed independent abolition societies. Under the leadership of Quaker minister Lucretia Mott, they began demanding that women be admitted as active members to male abolition organizations. By 1850 the majority of members in northern abolition societies were women.

Some of the most influential female abolitionists were Sarah and Angelina Grimké, daughters of wealthy slave-owners and converts to Quakerism. In 1836 they held a series of lectures at women’s abolition societies in which they described their personal experiences of the horrors of slavery. By speaking frankly before both women and men, the Grimké sisters caused a public furor over the right of women to speak publicly. Ministers condemned the sisters for assuming “the place and tone of man as a public reformer” and charged that by speaking publicly, the sisters had adopted an “unnatural character.” In response, the Grimkés drew analogies between the plights of white women and African Americans, both of whom were regarded as intellectually inferior and denied access to a decent education. Sarah Grimké maintained that men and women were created equal and that “whatever is right for a man to do, is right for a woman to do.”

In 1840 Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton traveled to London to attend the World Anti-Slavery Convention. Upon arrival, however, the women were barred from participating in the conference and forced to sit behind a curtain. This experience of discrimination inspired them to organize the first women’s rights convention. This convention met in Seneca Falls, New York, on July 19 and 20, 1848. The Seneca Falls Convention attracted more than 200 women and approximately 40 men. For the convention, Stanton, Mott, and several others wrote a Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, often considered the founding text of the American women’s rights movement. Based on the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of Sentiments stated that men and women were created equal and that, like men, women were born with certain natural rights. The document criticized men for denying women the right to vote, the right to hold property, equal terms in a divorce, and custody of children. It also criticized men for blocking women’s access to higher education, the professions, and “nearly all the profitable employments.” The declaration also faulted the church for excluding women from the ministry.


In the 19th century, state and federal laws that discriminated against women posed some of the most significant obstacles to securing women’s rights. The earliest campaigns to improve women’s legal status in the United States centered on gaining property rights for women. Women also led legislative efforts in the 19th and 20th centuries to ensure their voting, employment, and reproductive rights.

A  Property Rights

Beginning in the 1830s, states passed laws and statutes that gradually gave married women greater control over property. New York state passed the Married Women’s Property Act in 1848, allowing women to acquire and retain assets independently of their husbands. This was the first law that clearly established the idea that a married woman had an independent legal identity. The New York law inspired nearly all other states to eventually pass similar legislation.

B  The Right to Vote

American women did not gain the right to vote until 1920, after amendments were made to the Constitution of the United States. The passage of the 14th Amendment in 1866 and the 15th Amendment in 1870 helped to focus the women’s rights movement on suffrage. The 14th Amendment provided that all citizens were guaranteed equal protection under the law and that no citizen could be denied due process of law. The 15th Amendment stated that citizens could not be denied the right to vote on the basis of race, color, or previous status as a slave. Activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony argued that the 14th Amendment conferred on women constitutional equality and the rights of full citizenship. They also insisted that the 15th Amendment be expanded to guarantee suffrage to women. With the formation of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1890, the women’s rights movement focused almost exclusively on attaining the right to vote. In 1920 the 19th Amendment granted women this right. In theory, the 19th Amendment extended voting rights to all women. However, the vast majority of African Americans—men and women—continued to face restrictions on voting, such as literacy tests and other measures that discouraged them from registering to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 finally banned such restrictions.

C  Protective Labor Legislation

Increasing numbers of women began to enter the industrial labor force in the 19th century. As a result, some social reformers grew concerned about the impact of long hours and poor working conditions on women’s health. The National Consumers’ League, founded in 1899, and the Women’s Trade Union League, founded in 1903, spearheaded efforts to limit women’s work hours and the types of work they could perform. By 1908 the states had passed 19 laws limiting work hours or abolishing night work for women. Even greater numbers of women entered the workforce during World War I (1914-1918), prompting the establishment of the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor in 1920, which initiated the passage of legislation to protect working women.

Protective legislation for women has been a controversial issue throughout the history of the women’s rights movement. Opponents of protective legislation have argued that special rules for women would inhibit women’s struggle for equality with men, even if the legislation related only to labor laws. They have claimed that sex-based labor legislation upheld stereotypes of women as weak and defenseless, limited their options for employment, and reinforced the notion that women belonged in the home.

Protective legislation has been challenged repeatedly in the courts. In Ritchie v. People (1895), the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that limiting women’s work day to eight hours infringed upon a woman’s right to contract for her labor, and thus violated her 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law. In Lochner v. New York (1905) the Supreme Court deemed all protective labor legislation to be unconstitutional. The Lochner decision was revised three years later in Muller v. Oregon (1908). In that case, American jurist Louis D. Brandeis argued that women’s role as mothers required that they be given special protection in the workplace. American courts repeatedly struck down statutes establishing minimum wages for women. In Adkins v. Children’s Hospital (1923), the Supreme Court decided that a minimum wage for women violated the right to freedom of contract. However, passage of the National Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) established a national minimum wage for men and women alike. In 1969 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) declared protective legislation for women invalid.

D  Equal Rights Amendment

After the passage of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, members of the women’s movement focused on gaining other rights for women. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns directed their efforts toward prohibiting all other inequities between men and women. Paul and Burns had established the National Women’s Party in 1916 to work for women’s suffrage. However, they believed that winning the right to vote marked only the beginning of women’s struggle for equality. In the early 1920s the National Women’s Party aimed to pass an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution that would make illegal all forms of discrimination based on sex.

Under the influence of the National Women’s Party, the U.S. Congress introduced the ERA in 1923, but the issue failed to gain significant support. Some people who had previously supported women’s right to vote nevertheless opposed the ERA. They included moderate social reformers, such as Florence Kelley and Jane Addams, and administrators in the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor. These people opposed the ERA because they believed that strict enforcement of equal rights would mean the elimination of protective legislation for women. They thought that the ERA would be particularly harmful to working-class women.

In the 1960s the so-called second wave of the women’s rights movement revived the ERA debate. On the suggestion of Esther Peterson, director of the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, President John F. Kennedy established the first national Commission on the Status of Women in 1961. In 1963 the commission issued a report detailing employment discrimination, unequal pay, legal inequality, and insufficient support services for working women. Nevertheless, the majority of the commission members opposed the ERA, primarily on the grounds that equal rights were already guaranteed in the Constitution.

The ERA measure won congressional approval in 1972 as the 27th Amendment, but it had to be ratified by at least 38 states to become law. Under the leadership of female politicians like U.S. representative Bella Abzug, of New York, and groups such as the National Organization for Women (NOW), which was established in 1966 by activist Betty Friedan, supporters of the ERA campaigned to gain passage of the amendment at the state level. Congress recognized the general support for the ERA and, in an unprecedented step, extended the seven-year deadline for ratification to ten years. Opponents of the ERA argued that a legal doctrine of equality threatened to erase the traditional differences between men and women and confuse the distinct roles that the sexes played in society. Phyllis Schlafly, the founder of STOP ERA, maintained that the ERA offered women no right or opportunity that they did not already possess. In 1982 the ERA was defeated when only 35 states had passed the measure, three short of the 38 required for ratification.

E  Equal Pay Act

The 1963 report by the Commission on the Status of Women led directly to the passage of the Equal Pay Act that same year. The Equal Pay Act made it illegal to pay different wages to men and women who performed the same work. However, the new law had little effect on narrowing the wage gap between the sexes. Most female workers remained in jobs traditionally held by women, offering low wages and little prospect for advancement. In 1963 the average female worker’s wages in the United States were equivalent to 58.9 percent of the average male worker’s earnings. By 2003 women’s earnings had increased significantly, but they were still only 75.5 percent of the amount that men earned.

F  Civil Rights Act (Title VII)

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act barred employment discrimination based on sex as well as race, color, or ethnic origin. The act originally prohibited only racial and ethnic discrimination, but Virginia congressman Howard W. Smith added the word “sex” in an amendment to the act, hoping thereby to ensure its defeat. Instead, Congresswoman Martha Griffiths and Senator Margaret Chase Smith led the campaign for approval of the amended act. Title VII also set up the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to enforce the act. However, women quickly realized that they needed more political influence if their grievances were to be heard by the EEOC.

Betty Friedan started the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 in an effort to increase women’s political power in the United States. In its early years, NOW focused almost exclusively on the attainment of rights for women as individuals. This strategy appealed predominantly to professional women and initially failed to gain a large mainstream following. Membership in NOW expanded dramatically after the organization sponsored the Women’s Strike for Equality, a massive demonstration on August 26, 1970, the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage.

NOW, together with the Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL), persisted in their campaign to force compliance with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In 1970, for example, WEAL demanded that the Department of Labor investigate colleges and universities that received federal funds to assure their compliance with the law. As a result, in that year alone the Department of Labor brought more than 360 institutions to court. This effort contributed to the passage of Title IX of the Higher Education Act (1972), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program receiving federal funds, including athletic programs.

G  Reproductive Rights

Women’s efforts to control their own reproductive systems have been an important part of the women’s rights movement since the mid-19th century. Initially, women advocated the practice of “voluntary motherhood,” whereby a woman had the right to refuse to have sexual intercourse with her husband if she did not want to become pregnant. The campaign for “voluntary motherhood” challenged prevailing legal notions that a husband had the right to sexual intercourse with his wife and the wife did not have the right to refuse. Beginning around 1910 such activists as Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman began advocating birth control in the United States. In 1914 the U.S. government filed criminal charges against Sanger for publishing and distributing through the mail a magazine called The Woman Rebel, in which she argued against the Comstock Law (1873), which forbade the interstate mailing of material considered “obscene,” including contraceptive devices or information related to birth control. Sanger swayed public opinion in her favor, and the charges against her were dropped. In 1921 she founded the American Birth Control League, which became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in 1942. The Comstock Law was overturned in 1938 when courts lifted all federal legal prohibitions against birth control.

Evidence reveals that abortions have been widely performed by doctors, midwives, and pregnant women throughout history. However, by the late 1800s the majority of U.S. states made it a crime to either perform or obtain an abortion, except to save the life of a pregnant woman. In Roe v. Wade (1973), the Supreme Court ruled that states cannot restrict abortion in the first six months—or first two trimesters—of pregnancy. According to the ruling, states could only intervene to protect the life of the fetus once that life could be viable outside the womb. In 1976, however, Congress prohibited Medicaid reimbursement for abortions, an act that the Supreme Court upheld in Harris v. McRae (1980). In Webster v. Reproductive Health Services of 1989, the court further limited the scope of Roe v. Wade by upholding a Missouri law banning the use of public employees or facilities in performing abortions unless the mother’s life was in danger.


Women’s rights supporters from the United States and other countries have attempted to build international ties among activists since the late 19th century. They have formed international advocacy groups and organized women’s conferences with the aim of attaining equal rights for women. Women have used these meetings to focus on such issues as equal pay and equal economic and educational opportunities for women. For example, the International Congress of Women, founded in 1888, demanded equality of access to education and industrial training, equal wages for equal work, and a single standard of moral conduct for men and women. In 1904 activists Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt established the International Woman Suffrage Alliance to secure the right to vote for women of all nations. During the 1930s another group known as Equal Rights International campaigned for the passage of a treaty that would establish equal rights between men and women. In 1935 a coalition of international women’s rights organizations brought the treaty before the League of Nations, which voted to further study the issue of women’s legal status.

Since the 1940s, most international women’s rights efforts have been organized by the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), an office established in 1947 by the United Nations (UN). The Commission is the only existing intergovernmental body that issues reports on and recommendations for the promotion of women’s political, social, economic, and cultural rights. The CSW also acts as an advocate for women’s rights and can urge immediate international action in cases of severe violations of women’s rights.

The UN encouraged equality in the workplace for men and women when it sponsored the Convention Concerning Equal Remuneration for Men and Women Workers for Work of Equal Value in 1953 and the Convention Concerning Discrimination in Respect of Employment and Occupation in 1960. Over 100 countries ratified these measures. In 1975 the UN launched the Decade for Women, a ten-year effort to focus on women’s issues. From 1975 to 1985 international groups formed a series of conferences organized around the themes of equality, development, and peace. The conferences took place throughout the world and drew leaders and delegates from developing and industrialized nations alike. Until these conferences, most international women’s groups had consisted of middle-class or upper-class women from industrialized countries. The Decade for Women culminated in the 1985 UN Nairobi Conference, held in Nairobi, Kenya, which was attended by 375 delegations of women from nations around the world.

The United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing, China, in 1995. Over 17,000 people registered for the event, including delegates from nearly 200 countries. The Platform for Action that emerged from the conference focused on the removal of obstacles to women’s equal participation in society. The most controversial sections of the platform concerned reproductive rights, particularly the right to have an abortion. The final document declared that “the ability of women to control their own fertility forms an important basis for the enjoyment of other rights,” and asserted the right of women and men to have access to all legal methods of fertility regulation.


The status of women’s rights today varies dramatically in different countries and, in some cases, among groups within the same country, such as ethnic groups or economic classes.

In recent decades women around the world have made strides in political participation. By the 1980s women could vote virtually everywhere in the world, except for a few Muslim countries. As of mid-2005, when women in Kuwait won suffrage, women could vote in all countries where men could vote except Saudi Arabia. The right to vote usually included the right to run for elected office. In 2005 there were 12 female national leaders in the world, including 8 heads of state (3 monarchs and 5 presidents) and 4 heads of government (prime ministers). In 2005 women made up almost 16 percent of legislative bodies worldwide, compared to 11 percent in 1999 and 9 percent in 1987. Despite these advancements, women’s role in governmental decision-making remains limited.

Many disparities persist between women’s legal rights and their economic status. Women today constitute nearly 70 percent of the world’s poor, despite international efforts to compensate women and men equally in the workplace. While women made up about 32 percent of the world’s labor force in 1990, the percentage of women in positions to make important decisions was far lower. In 2002 women held only 15.7 percent of corporate executive positions in the 500 largest companies in the United States—an increase of 7 percentage points since 1995. In the mid-1990s women comprised only 1 percent of executives in the 1,000 largest corporations outside the United States.

Women remain at a distinct disadvantage in education as well. While primary school enrollment for girls now roughly equals that of boys, women constitute about two-thirds of the world’s one billion illiterate adults. Of the more than 100 million children who drop out of school before completing the fourth grade, two-thirds are girls. On the other hand, women are entering colleges and universities in increasing numbers. In Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean, more women than men enrolled in institutions of higher education during the 1990s.

Reproductive rights for women vary greatly from country to country. Contraception is available in most countries, with the exception of a few fundamentalist Islamic nations, such as Iran. However, women in many countries are too poor or uneducated to obtain effective birth control. Abortion is legal under specific circumstances in many industrialized Western nations. Some countries with severe overpopulation have the most liberal abortion policies. For example, China, which encourages families to have only one child, places no restrictions on when a woman can have an abortion.

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