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The sphere of women's work had been strictly confined to the domestic realm, prior to the Industrial Revolution. Social isolation, financial dependence, and political disenfranchisement characterized the female experience prior to the twentieth century. The suffrage movement was certainly the first sign of the dismantling of the institutionalization of patriarchy, followed by universal access to education, and finally, the civil rights movement. Opportunities for women have gradually unfolded since the suffrage movement. Although patriarchal social norms still hold sway in some situations, the isolation of women has long been outmoded in the West.
Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton formed the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869, with the fundamental focus of obtaining a Constitutional Amendment guaranteeing women the full rights of citizenship. The early woman suffrage movement coincided with abolitionism, but later evolved as its own distinct social cause. The cause remained localized, confined to petitions to reform state constitutions to allow for local voting rights (DuBois, 1978). Activists like Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell, formed the American Woman Suffrage Association to focus "exclusively on gaining voting rights for women through amendments to individual state constitutions," (Imboroni, 2007). Wyoming, which was not yet granted statehood, passed the first women's suffrage law in 1869. The groundbreaking legislation initiated a wave of woman suffrage and political empowerment movements nationwide, but mainly in the western territories. Imboroni (2007) notes that women began to serve on juries, and by 1893, a wave of states starting with Colorado started ratifying suffrage amendments to their state constitutions.
Susan B. Anthony penned a constitutional amendment for national recognition of women's right to participate in the political process -- granting full rights of citizenship to the other 50% of the population. Anthony's amendment bill was introduced in Congress in 1878. However, the political and cultural climate of the United States made it so that suffrage remained a states' rights issue for several decades longer. It was not until 1919 that the amendment was ratified at the federal level. The political push for women's rights grew, though. In 1890, the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association merged. The union between the states' rights and federalist approaches to woman suffrage ensured the movement towards gender parity would become more politically powerful. Able to lobby and garner influence, the woman suffrage movement was the first major social movement to help dismantle patriarchal social structures, norms, and institutions.
As Buechler (1990) states, "Social movements are often described as collective responses to a group's experience of subordination," (p. 9). This was certainly true of women's rights movements in the United States from suffrage onward. Subordination of women was represented and embodied by the confinement of women's activities to the domestic sphere. Victorian ideals and norms made it so that women engaged in unpaid domestic labor: a form of gender servitude. This would all change, however, gradually, since 1869. The right to participate in state elections brought women "out of the parlors and into the streets," (McCammon, 2003, p. 787). Literally into the streets poured scores of women participating in political rallies that would gain not just regional but national attention.
As McCammon (2003) notes, the diversity of the early women's rights movements in terms of approaches, political tactics, and membership, ensured their eventual success. In 1896, the National Association of Colored Women and the National Council of Negro Women rallied for gender parity as well as racial parity. The African-American woman suffrage and women's rights groups were themselves diverse: consisting of over a hundred different, smaller, groups (Imboroni, 2007). Prominent black feminist leaders like Mary McLeod Bethune also drew attention to the income disparities that symbolized total political oppression in the United States.
Labor politics, as well as race politics, began to seep into the women's rights movements. The need to expand the opportunities for female labor stemmed in part from the fact that women had been working in low wage factory positions, which barely offered the promise of economic, social, or political empowerment. As gender-neutral labor organizations began to form, so too did female-centric labor groups like the National Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) in 1903. The issues of race, class, gender, and social power became more clearly linked in the public consciousness by the turn of the century. Similar movements in Western Europe inspired American women -- and men -- to fight for social justice on a number of different fronts. These political fights brought women further outside of their protective shells, regardless of ethnic background or social class.
By 1913, picketing had become a primary political tool that could be used to rouse attention and bring females out of the domestic and into the public sphere. The push for a national constitutional amendment helped the cause. In 1913, substantive picketing in Washington proved how large and diverse the suffrage movement had become. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns formed the Congressional Union, which later became the National Women's Party. It took several years, but the picketing paid off. In 1919, Anthony's federal woman suffrage amendment that Congress first heard in 1878, was finally passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate. The states ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, making women full citizens of the United States of America.
Suffrage was the most fundamental issue in women's rights. It was also a symbolic measure that expanded women's locus of power and control. Whereas women might have been able to choose only the color of their curtains, now women could also choose their state senators and the president of the United States. Full suffrage helped women who would be activists on a range of issues to cease relying on men to be the public voice and vote for their opinions. Now, women's voices counted every bit as much as men's. Gender disparity and misogyny still impeded women from participating in the social and economic spheres of life, though. Political empowerment was an important first step.
Social empowerment for women stemmed largely from the need to determine whether or not one became pregnant. The push for birth control and contraception represented greater control of women over their own bodies, wresting the female from male social dominion. The first significant shift in awareness of birth control as a political issue happened in 1916, when Margaret Sanger started a birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York. It was the first of its kind in the United States and was promptly shut down ten days after Sanger opened its doors. However, Sanger filed lawsuits -- and won them. A new clinic was opened in 1923, and Sanger later founded the American Birth Control League. The League later became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in the 1940s. Sanger's work and her skillful use of the courts also spawned several subsequent lawsuits that dismantled the patriarchal power over women's bodies. Laws that prohibited the dissemination of birth control information were struck down systematically, paving the way for research and sales of the birth control pill. The Food and Drug Administration approved the pill in 1960. In 1973, the landmark Roe v. Wade case heard in the Supreme Court further solidified the shift in gender norms. Women could now choose whether or not to be pregnant, and whether or not to carry a baby to term. Birth control and abortion rights allowed women to have fuller control over their destinies, which were being less and less defined by their relationships to men. Being forced to carry a child to term effectively confines a woman to a life of domestic servitude.
The impact of birth control awareness on women's life options is significant. For one, birth control helps women extricate themselves from a cycle of procreation that prevented creative or career pursuits outside of the domestic sphere. Birth control also represented the full political empowerment of women, allowing women to forge identities beyond that of wife and mother. Lesbians also began to lead more public lives, expanding opportunities for women's sexuality and social lives. As early as 1955, lesbian social groups expanded options for women beyond the heterosexual domestic enclave. The group Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) was the first publicized lesbian organization in the United States. The social group "later developed into a political organization to win basic acceptance for lesbians in the United States," (Imboroni, 2007). The Daughters of Bilitis started in San Francisco, later expanding into other American cities. The organization offered women an opportunity for socializing outside of the house, in restaurants and bars. Seeming apolitical at first, the lesbian movement revealed the deep connections between public and private life: how the personal becomes political.
The confluence of the personal and the political became integral to the feminist movement that flourished throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. In 1963, Betty Friedan published a seminal book about the systematic subjugation of women by a patriarchal society. The book, The Feminine Mystique, exposes the way women in America remained confined to the domestic sphere in…
Buechler, S.M. (1990). Women's Movements in the United States. Rutgers University Press.
DuBois, E.C. (1978). Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women's Movement in America, 1848-1869. Cornell University Press.
Flexner, E. & Fitzpatrick, E.F. (1996). Century of Struggle: The Women's Rights Movement in the United States. Harvard University Press.
Gallo, M.M. (2005). Winds of change: The Daughters of Bilitis and lesbian organizing. Retrieved online: http://www.gerberhart.org/dob.html
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