3 1.3. History of Women in the United States

For Women’s suffrage see also History of women’s suffrage in the United States.

For lesbians see also Lesbian American history.

This is a history of women in the United States.



A stamp honoring Virginia Dare, who in 1587 became the first English child born in the United States.

In June 1526, a judge from Santo Domingo, Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, obtained from Charles I, King of Spain, a patent authorizing him to make settlements on the mainland of America, and to Christianize the American natives.[1] Accordingly, with 600 settlers, including women, men, and children, he sailed to America from Puerto de la Plata, San Domingo, with three small vessels.[1] The settlers founded the colony of San Miguel de Gualdape at what is present-day Georgetown, South Carolina.[2] This was the first European settlement in North America.[3] It also contained the first slaves brought to America, about 100 African people, who eventually staged a rebellion and fled into the forest, where they may have taken refuge with the Native Americans.[4] In any case, owing to the severity of winter, the hostility of the Native Americans, and internal discord, in the spring of 1527 all the settlers, under the leadership of Francis Gomez, reembarked for Santo Domingo in two of the vessels, one of which sank along with all on board, leaving only 150 of the people alive to reach their destination.[1]

In 1564 French settlers built Fort Caroline in what is today Jacksonville, Florida.[5][6] About 300 people founded this colony, including four women, 110 sailors, 120 soldiers, some artisans, and some servants.[7][8] However, in 1565 the Spanish destroyed the French colony and built their own settlement in nearby St. Augustine, which became the first permanent European settlement in the continental United States. French leader Jean Ribault had left Fort Caroline virtually undefended, as he sailed in a growing hurricane to challenge the new Spanish presence in St. Augustine.[9] The French at Fort Caroline had no idea that the Spanish were in the vicinity and were not prepared for this attack.[6] The Spanish soldiers stormed through the unlocked gates of the fort early on the morning of September 20, 1565, easily capturing the fort and many of its defenders.[6] It is believed that 40 or 50 of the French men escaped by leaping over the walls or taking refuge on boats in the river. All the French women and children who did not escape (there were about 50) were taken captive, and later shipped to Puerto Rico.[6][10] The 140 or so men in the fort were killed.[6] St. Augustine was established in 1565, with 800 people founding it, including less than one hundred women (the exact number is unknown), 500 soldiers, 200 sailors, and some married men, children, and officials; all were from Spain.[11]

The first English people to arrive in America were the members of the Roanoke Colony. This colony was established in what is now North Carolina in July 1587, with 17 women, 91 men, and 9 boys as the founding colonists.[12][13] On August 18, 1587, Virginia Dare was born; she was the first English child born in the United States.[13] She was the daughter of Eleanor and Ananias Dare of the Roanoke colony, who were parishioners of St Bride’s and were married in the church, and also had Virginia baptized there.[14] A bust of Virginia now stands above the baptismal font in the church.[14] It is not known what happened to the members of the Roanoke colony; however, it is likely that they were attacked by Native Americans, and those not killed were assimilated into the local tribes.[13]



Matoaka, better known by her nickname Pocahontas

Matoaka (better known by her nickname “Pocahontas,” meaning “little wanton” or possibly “the naughty one” or “spoiled child”), was born about 1600 to the Native American chief Powhatan.[15] Powhatan had numerous wives (each wife gave him a single child and then was sent back to her village to be supported by the paramount chief until she found another husband), and thus Matoaka had many half-brothers and half-sisters.[16] Her mother’s name is unknown.[16]

The legend that she saved John Smith from being clubbed to death by her father in 1607 has no evidence behind it.[15] Smith told the story for the first time 17 years after it supposedly happened, and Smith also claimed that he was saved from death by a woman on two other occasions.[15] The rescue legend was part of a longer account used as justification to wage war on Powhatan’s Nation.[citation needed] Early histories did establish that Matoaka befriended Smith and the Jamestown colony. She often went to the settlement and played games with the boys there. When the colonists were starving, “every once in four or five days, Pocahontas with her attendants brought him (Smith) so much provision that saved many of their lives that else for all this had starved with hunger.”[17] But as the colonists expanded their settlement further, the Virginia Indians felt their lands were threatened, and conflicts arose again.

In 1612, at the age of 17, Matoaka was taken prisoner by the colonists while she was on a social visit, and was held hostage at Jamestown for over a year, during which time she converted to Christianity and agreed to marry John Rolfe. This marriage occurred in April 1614, resulting in her being given the name Rebecca Rolfe.[15] She never married John Smith.[15] Little is known about her life while imprisoned, although colonist Ralph Hamor wrote that she received “extraordinary courteous usage.” Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow, in a 2007 book, asserted that Pocahontas was raped during this time, citing oral tradition handed down over four centuries. However, according to historian Helen Rountree, “Other historians have disputed that such oral tradition survived and instead argue that any mistreatment of Pocahontas would have gone against the interests of the English in their negotiations with Powhatan.”[18]

Matoaka’s marriage to John Rolfe was the first recorded interracial marriage in American history.[19] This marriage brought a peace between the English colonists and the Powhatans, and in 1615 Matoaka gave birth to her first child, Thomas.[20]

In 1616, Matoaka and John Rolfe sailed to England.[20] Matoaka proved popular with the English gentry, and she was presented at the court of King James I.[20] In March 1617, Matoaka and John prepared to sail back to Virginia.[20] However, the day before they were to leave, Matoaka died, probably of smallpox, and was buried at the parish church of St. George in Gravesend, England.[20]

Jamestown, the first English settlement in America, was established in 1607 in what is now Virginia.[21] The first women to arrive in Jamestown, Mrs. Anne Forrest and her fourteen-year-old maid, Anne Burras, arrived in late 1608.[22] In December 1608 Anne Burras married a carpenter and laborer named John Laydon in the first wedding ceremony held in Jamestown, and in 1609 they had a child named Virginia Laydon (not to be confused with Virginia Dare), who was the first child born in Jamestown.[23][23][24][24]

In 1619, slaves were brought to America, the first American slaves since those in Lucas Vasquez de Allyon’s unsuccessful colony in 1526–1527.[25] These slaves were from the Caribbean, and there were twenty of them, including three women.[25][26]

Also in 1619, 90 young single women from England went to Jamestown to become wives of the men there, with the women being auctioned off for 150 pounds of tobacco each (to be paid to the shipping company), as that was the cost of each woman’s travel to America.[27] Such women were called “tobacco brides“. There were many such voyages of women to America for this purpose (the 1619 voyage being the first), with the women promised free passage and trousseaus for their trouble.[28]

On November 21, 1620, the Mayflower arrived in America (specifically in what is today Provincetown, Massachusetts), bringing the Pilgrims.[29] There were 102 people aboard – 18 married women traveling with their husbands, seven unmarried women traveling with their parents, three young unmarried women, one girl, and 73 men.[30] Three of the married women – Elizabeth Hopkins, Susannah White, and Mary Allerton – had been in their last trimester of pregnancy when the Mayflower left.[31]

No women died during the Mayflower’s voyage; however, 78% of the women died during their first winter in America, a far higher percentage than for men or children.[31] Dorothy Bradford was the first woman to die, and the only woman who died in the month of December; while many of the men, including her husband, were out exploring on Cape Cod, she accidentally fell off the Mayflower into the waters of Provincetown Harbor.[31] Only a few of the women’s death dates were recorded: Rose Standish died on January 29, Mary Allerton died on February 25, and Elizabeth Winslow died on March 24.[31] Most of the women died in February and March.[31] The extremely high mortality rate among women is probably explainable by the fact the men were out in the fresh air, felling trees, building structures and drinking fresh New England water, while the women were confined to the damp and crowded quarters of the Mayflower, where disease would have spread much more quickly.[31] The women continued to live on the Mayflower for four months after it docked, while the men built storehouses and living quarters onshore.[31] Furthermore, many of the sick were probably cared for on board the ship by the women, increasing their exposure to colds and pneumonia.[31]

Only five women survived their first winter in America, and one of the five survivors, Katherine Carver, died in May, her husband John having died of sunstroke a month earlier.[31] Therefore, by the time of the first Thanksgiving in autumn 1621, there were only four women from the Mayflower left alive: Eleanor Billington, Elizabeth Hopkins, Mary Brewster, and Susanna Winslow.[31][32] Susanna Winslow was the widow of William White, who had died the first winter; she remarried to Edward Winslow, whose wife Elizabeth had also died the first winter.[31] Meanwhile, all of the wives who had been left behind in England were still living.[31] Four of them came on the ship Anne in 1623, had additional children, and raised their families at Plymouth.[31]

In the 1630s Anne Hutchinson began to hold religious meetings in her home, which attracted the attendance not only of women but of prominent men, including affluent young civil officials.[33] Hutchinson’s charisma indeed was so great that it became a threat to the ability of the clergy to govern; this was especially clear when some of her male supporters refused to join the militia in pursuit of Pequot natives.[33] The authorities, led by Reverend John Winthrop (who was also the colony’s governor), first attacked her indirectly by banishing her brother-in-law, a minister who shared her views.[33] Hutchinson herself was summoned to trial late in 1637 and also banished, but allowed to remain under house arrest until the end of winter.[33] In March, 1638, she was again brought before the court and formally excommunicated; she and her children soon joined her husband, who had prepared a home for them in the new colony of Rhode Island, which had been founded less than two years earlier by other dissidents exiled from Massachusetts.[33] At nearly 47, Anne Hutchinson was once again pregnant and so severely ill that her physical condition had interfered with her ability to defend herself on trial.[33] Her medical problem probably was a gross tumor of the placenta that had killed the fetus she delivered in late summer, but Puritan leadership — who saw all events in theological terms — deemed this “monstrous birth” to have been the judgment of God.[33] In 1642, at age 51, she took her six children to the Dutch colony that now is New York; however, a year later, disgruntled Algonquians attacked her home, killing everyone but her youngest daughter Susanna, who was taken captive.[33][34] Today a river and a highway in that area bear the Hutchinson name.[33] In 1660 Mary Dyer, a Quaker who had been among Hutchinson’s followers, was hanged in Massachusetts for her religious beliefs.[35] The hangman, Edward Wanton, was so impressed by her he quit his job and became a Quaker himself.[36]

In 1645 Lady Deborah Moody led a group of religious dissenters fleeing persecution to found the town of Gravesend, in the Dutch colony of New Netherland. Today the area is part of Brooklyn in New York City, with the original town square still evident in the street layout.

In 1648 Margaret Brent, an English immigrant to the Colony of Maryland, was the first woman in the English North American colonies to appear before a court of the Common Law. Appointed as Lord Baltimore‘s representative, on January 21, 1648, Brent attended the Provincial Court’s assembly to request a voice in the council; she also asked for two votes in its proceedings (one as an independent landowner and the other as Lord Baltimore’s attorney.) Governor Thomas Greene refused her request, as the assembly at the time considered such privileges for women to be reserved for queens. Brent left but said that she “Protested against all proceedings … unless she may be present and have vote as aforesaid.”

In 1650 Anne Dudley Bradstreet became America’s first published poet, with the publication of her book of poetry entitled The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America.[37]

In 1655 Elizabeth Key Grinstead, who was a slave in Virginia, won her freedom in a lawsuit based on her father’s status as a free Englishman (her mother was a slave and her father was her mother’s owner), helped by the fact that her father had baptized her as Christian in the Church of England.[38] However, in 1662 the Virginia House of Burgesses passed a law stating that any child born in the colony would follow the status of its mother, slave or free.[38] This was an overturn of a longheld principle of English Common Law, whereby a child’s status followed that of the father; it enabled white men who raped slave women to hide the mixed-race children born as a result and removed their responsibility to acknowledge, support, or emancipate those children.[38]

In the small Puritan community of Salem Village, Massachusetts, the Salem witch trials began in 1692.[39] They began when a group of girls (Betty Parris, her cousin Abigail Williams, and several others) gathered in the evenings in the home of Reverend Parris to listen to stories told by one of his slaves, Tituba.[39] They also played fortune-telling games, which were strictly forbidden by the Puritans.[39] One night, while trying to see the faces of their future husbands in an egg white dropped in a glass of water, one girl believed she saw the shape of a coffin.[39] Soon after, the girls began acting strangely, leading the Puritan community to suspect that the girls were victims of witchcraft.[39]

The girls named three townswomen as witches – Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osbourne; Tituba confessed to having seen the devil and also stated that there was a coven of witches in the Salem Village area.[39] The other two women insisted they were innocent, but were found guilty of practicing witchcraft.[39] As the weeks passed, the affected girls accused other townspeople of torturing them with witchcraft, and some on trial also named others as witches.[39] By the end of the trials in 1693, 24 people had died, some in jail but 19 by hanging, and Giles Corey by being pressed to death.[39] Some of the accused confessed to being witches, but none of those were hanged, only those who maintained their innocence;[39] those who were hanged include 13 women and 6 men – Bridget Bishop, George Burroughs, Martha Carrier, Martha Corey, Mary Easty, Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, George Jacobs, Sr., Susannah Martin, Rebecca Nurse, Alice Parker, Mary Parker, John Proctor, Ann Pudeator, Wilmott Redd, Margaret Scott, Samuel Wardwell, Sarah Wildes, and John Willard.[40]



Abigail Adams.

Lucy Terry‘s poem “Bars Fight,” the earliest known work of literature by an African American and by a slave, was composed in 1746 and was first published in 1855 in Josiah Holland’s “History of Western Massachusetts[41] “. The poem describes a violent incident that occurred between settlers and Native Americans in Deerfield, Massachusetts in 1746.[42]

In 1756 Lydia Chapin Taft became the first woman in American history to vote, casting a vote in the local town hall meeting in place of her deceased husband.[43][44][45] She voted that her town of Uxbridge (in Massachusetts colony) should increase the amount of money sent to help fight the French and Indian war.[43][46] She later voted in two other town hall meetings.[44]

Former slave Phillis Wheatley became a Boston sensation in 1770 after she wrote a poem on the death of the evangelical preacher George Whitefield.[47] In 1773, 39 of Phillis Wheatley’s poems were published in London as a book entitled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.[48] This was the first published book by an African American.[48]

The typical woman in colonial America (that is, America before the Revolutionary War) was expected to spin, sew, preserve food, cook, and clean while caring for her children and perhaps raising chickens and geese.[49] Families tended to be large, and childbearing was dangerous to health in those days; so many women died from that and other causes (such as the American climate’s effect on their health) that the term “now-wife” was coined to refer to a man’s present wife as compared to those that he had previously lost.[49] Often women were taught to read so that they could read the Bible, but few learned to write as it was thought that there was no reason a woman should know how to write.[49] Furthermore, a colonial woman was expected to be subservient to her father until she married and then to her husband.[49] Ministers often told their congregations that women were inferior to men and more inclined to sin and error.[49]

Deborah Sampson was the only woman who fought in the Revolutionary War (1775–1783).[50] Women were not allowed to join the army, but in 1782 Deborah disguised herself as a man and joined the 4th Massachusetts Regiment, going by the name of Robert Shurtliff of Uxbridge and soon saw action in the front lines against the British.[50] When shot in the thigh she removed the musket ball herself, fearful of having her identity discovered.[50] However, her leg never healed properly, and her gender was finally revealed when she was hospitalized for a wound-related infection in 1783.[51] But despite her deception, she was given an honorable discharge in recognition of her fine service.[51] Furthermore, in the American Revolution women served on the battlefield as nurses and under many other jobs.[52] In 1776 at the battle of Fort Washington, Margaret Corbin fired her husband’s cannon after he was killed, and was herself severely wounded in the battle, later receiving a pension from Congress in recognition of her service, making her the first American woman ever to receive a government pension.[53] Also, in 1778 at the battle of Monmouth, Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley fired her husband’s cannon after he was wounded in battle.[54] Mary’s deed, although a true story, is the source of the “Molly Pitcher” legend.[54]

During the Revolutionary War in March 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John Adams, who was one of the revisers and signers of the Declaration of Independence,[55][56] stating, “And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands.”[57] However, John Adams replied in April 1776, “As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh…Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems.”[57] The Declaration of Independence (written beginning in June 1776[55]) stated “All men are created equal” and did not mention women’s rights.[56]

In 1777 women lost the right to vote in New York, in 1780 women lost the right to vote in Massachusetts, and in 1784 women lost the right to vote in New Hampshire.[58] Furthermore, women in all states except New Jersey lost the right to vote in 1787 when the Constitutional Convention placed voting qualifications in the hands of the states.[58] From 1775 until 1807, the state constitution in New Jersey permitted all persons worth over fifty pounds to vote; free black people and single women therefore had the vote until 1807, but not married women, who could have no independent claim to ownership of fifty pounds (anything they owned or earned belonged to their husbands by law).[59]

Zagarri (2007) argues the Revolution created an ongoing debate on the rights of woman and created an environment favorable to women’s participation in politics. She asserts that for a brief decade, a “comprehensive transformation in women’s rights, roles, and responsibilities seemed not only possible but perhaps inevitable” (p. 8) However the opening of possibilities also engendered a backlash that actually set back the cause of women’s rights and led to a greater rigidity that marginalized women from political life.[60]

The American Revolution also produced the idea of “Republican Motherhood”, which was the idea that if the republic of America were to succeed, women must be schooled in virtue so they could teach their children.[61] Therefore, the first American academies for women were founded in the 1790s.[61]

In 1796 Amelia Simmons wrote the first known cookbook written by an American, called American Cookery.[62] It was popular and was published in many editions, but only four copies of the original 1796 edition are known to have survived[62] In 1798, Judith Sargent Murray self-published a three-volume book of political essays and plays titled The Gleaner. She is considered the first woman in America to self-publish a book. It became a minor classic, and was read by George Washington and John Adams.

The legend that Betsy Ross designed or made the first American flag has no evidence behind it, although she was a real person who lived in Philadelphia during the Revolution.[63]


During the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804–1806), which was the first overland expedition undertaken by Americans to the Pacific coast and back, the Shoshone woman Sacagawea was the only woman to accompany the 33 members of the permanent party to the Pacific Ocean and back.[64] She joined the expedition in November 1804, after the explorers (Lewis and Clark) made winter camp at Fort Mandan in present-day North Dakota.[65] The two captains hired her husband, the French-Canadian fur trapper Toussaint Charbonneau, as an interpreter, with the understanding that she would come along to interpret the Shoshone language, which she did. Sacagawea was only about 16 and was pregnant at the time.[65]

The Cult of Domesticity, a new ideal of womanhood was also created at this time.[66] This ideal rose from the reality that a 19th century middle-class family did not have to make what it needed in order to survive, as previous families had to, and therefore men could now work in jobs that produced goods or services while their wives and children stayed at home.[66] The ideal woman became one who stayed at home and taught children how to be proper citizens[66]

Nevertheless, many women of the time did work outside the home; for example, in the War of 1812 (1812–1815) Mary Marshall and Mary Allen worked as nurses aboard American commodore Stephen Decatur’s ship United States.[52] Furthermore, during the War of 1812, in 1814 when the British army was advancing to the White House, First Lady Dolley Madison insisted on staying until the Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington was rescued, and personally took the Declaration of Independence with her before leaving.[67] With the help of volunteers and a wagon, she also took with her President Madison’s working papers from his desk, his books, some paintings, and the White House silver and china.[68]

In 1821, Emma Willard founded the Troy Female Seminary in Troy, New York.[69] The seminary was the first American educational institution to offer young women a college education equal to that given to young men.[69]

Many women in the 19th century were involved in reform movements, particularly abolitionism.[70] In 1831, Maria Stewart (who was African-American) began to write essays and make speeches against slavery, promoting educational and economic self-sufficiency for African Americans. The first woman of any color to speak on political issues in public, Stewart gave her last public speech in 1833 before retiring from public speaking to work in women’s organizations.[71] Although her career was short, it set the stage for the African-American women speakers who followed; Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman, among others.[71] Since more direct participation in the public arena was fraught with difficulties and danger, many women assisted the movement by boycotting slave-produced goods and organizing fairs and food sales to raise money for the cause.[71] To take one example of the danger, Pennsylvania Hall was the site in 1838 of the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, and as 3,000 white and black women gathered to hear prominent abolitionists such as Maria Weston Chapman, the speakers’ voices were drowned out by the mob which had gathered outside.[71] When the women emerged, arms linked in solidarity, they were stoned and insulted.[71] The mob returned the following day and burned the hall, which had been inaugurated only three days earlier, to the ground.[71] Furthermore, the Grimke sisters from South Carolina (Angelina and Sarah Grimke), received much abuse and ridicule for their abolitionist activity, which consisted of traveling throughout the North, lecturing about their first-hand experiences with slavery on their family plantation.[72] Since more direct participation in the public arena was fraught with difficulties and danger, many women assisted the movement by boycotting slave-produced goods and organizing fairs and food sales to raise money for the cause.[71] To take one example of the danger, Pennsylvania Hall was the site in 1838 of the Anti-Slavery Convention of American Women, and as 3,000 white and black women gathered to hear prominent abolitionists such as Maria Weston Chapman, the speakers’ voices were drowned out by the mob which had gathered outside.[71] When the women emerged, arms linked in solidarity, they were stoned and insulted.[71] The mob returned the following day and burned the hall, which had been inaugurated only three days earlier, to the ground.[71] Furthermore, the Grimke sisters from South Carolina (Angelina and Sarah Grimke), received much abuse and ridicule for their abolitionist activity, which consisted of traveling throughout the North, lecturing about their first-hand experiences with slavery on their family plantation.[72] Even so, many women’s anti-slavery societies were active before the Civil War, the first one having been created in 1832 by free black women from Salem, Massachusetts[73] Fiery abolitionist, Abby Kelley Foster, was an ultra-abolitionist, who also led Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony into the anti-slavery movement.

The first three women in the United States to earn and receive their bachelor’s degrees – Mary Hosford (later Fisher), Elizabeth Smith Prall (later Russell), and Mary Caroline Rudd (later Allen) – received them from Oberlin College in 1841;[74] Oberlin College had become the first coeducational college in the United States in 1833.[74] Furthermore, Oberlin was also the first college to grant a degree to an African-American woman, Mary Jane Patterson, in 1862.[74]

Prior to the Civil War’s beginning in 1861 (when she became the Union’s Superintendent of Female Nurses), Dorothea Dix investigated the conditions of many jails, mental hospitals, and almshouses, and presented her findings to state legislatures.[75] Due to her work, many hospitals were built, along with additions and improvements made to existing facilities.[75] In contrast to popular attitudes of the time that such things were not necessary, she insisted on a therapeutic setting for the curable insane and a humanely comfortable setting for those regarded as incurable.[75]

During the Mexican War (1846–1848) Elizabeth Newcom enlisted in Company D of the Missouri Volunteer Infantry disguised as a man, calling herself Bill Newcom.[52] She marched 600 miles from Missouri to winter camp at Pueblo, Colorado, before she was discovered to be a woman and discharged.[52] Also, in 1846 Sarah Borginnis resupplied American soldiers with food while they were under fire, and was therefore nicknamed “the heroine of Fort Brown”; then-General Zachary Taylor rewarded her with the rank of brevet colonel.[76]

The first wave of feminism began with the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention, held at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, on July 19 and 20, 1848.[77] This Convention was inspired by the fact that in 1840, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton met Lucretia Mott at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, the conference refused to seat Mott and other women delegates from America because of their gender.[78] Stanton, the young bride of an antislavery agent, and Mott, a Quaker preacher and veteran of reform, talked then of calling a convention to address the condition of women.[78] An estimated three hundred women and men attended the Convention, including notables Lucretia Mott and Frederick Douglass.[78] At the conclusion, 68 women and 32 men signed the “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions”, which was written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the M’Clintock family.[78] The style and format of the “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” was that of the “Declaration of Independence”; for example the “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” stated, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men and women are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.”[79] The Declaration further stated, “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man towards woman.”[79] It went on to specify female grievances in regard to the laws denying married women ownership of wages, money, and property (all of which they were required to turn over to their husbands; laws requiring this, in effect throughout America, were called coverture laws), women’s lack of access to education and professional careers, and the lowly status accorded women in most churches.[79] Furthermore, the Declaration declared that women should have the right to vote.[79] Two weeks later a Woman’s Rights Convention was held in Rochester, New York on August 2.[80] It was followed by state and local conventions in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York.[80] The first National Woman’s Rights Convention was held in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1850.[80] Women’s rights conventions were held regularly from 1850 until the start of the Civil War.[81]

In 1849 Elizabeth Blackwell, born in England, graduated from Geneva Medical College in New York at the head of her class and thus became the first female doctor in America.[82][83] In 1857 she and her sister Emily, and their colleague Marie Zakrzewska, founded the New York Infirmary for Women and Children, the first American hospital run by women and the first dedicated to serving women and children.[83][84]


Harriet Tubman.

Women continued to be active in reform movements in the second half of the 19th century. In 1851 former slave Sojourner Truth gave a famous speech, called “Ain’t I a Woman?,” at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio.[85] In this speech she condemned the attitude that women were too weak to have equal rights with men, noting the hardships she herself had endured as a slave.[85]

In 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin.[86] Begun as a serial for the Washington anti-slavery weekly, the “National Era”, the book focused public interest on the issue of slavery, and was deeply controversial for its strong anti-slavery stance at the time it was written.[86] In writing the book, Stowe drew on her personal experience: she was familiar with slavery, the antislavery movement, and the underground railroad because Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Ohio, where Stowe had lived, was a slave state.[86] Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a best-seller, selling 10,000 copies in the United States in its first week; 300,000 in the first year; and in Great Britain, 1.5 million copies in one year.[87] Following publication of the book, Harriet Beecher Stowe became a celebrity, speaking against slavery both in America and Europe.[86] She wrote A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1853, extensively documenting the realities on which the book was based, to refute critics who tried to argue that it was inauthentic; and published a second anti-slavery novel, Dred, in 1856.[86] Later, when she visited President Lincoln, legend claims that he greeted her as “the little lady who made this big war,” meaning the Civil War, but there is no proof this happened.[86] Campaigners for other social changes, such as Caroline Norton who campaigned for women’s rights, respected and drew upon Stowe’s work.[86]

In the years before the Civil War, Harriet Tubman, a runaway slave herself, freed more than 70 slaves over the course of 13 secret rescue missions to the South.[88] Furthermore, in June 1863, Harriet Tubman became the first woman to plan and execute an armed expedition in United States history; acting as an advisory to Colonel James Montgomery and his 300 soldiers, Tubman led them in a raid in South Carolina from Port Royal to the interior, some twenty-five miles up the Combahee River, where they freed approximately 800 slaves.[89]

During the American Civil War (1861–1865) at least 240 biological women are known to have worn male clothing in order to serve; however, some of them, such as Albert Cashier, were transgender men.[90] Dorothea Dix served as the Union’s Superintendent of Female Nurses throughout the war, placing her in charge of all female nurses working in army hospitals, which was over 3,000 nurses;[91] women provided casualty care and nursing to Union and Confederate troops at field hospitals and on the Union Hospital Ship Red Rover.[52] Furthermore, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker served as assistant surgeon with General Burnside’s Union forces in 1862 and with an Ohio regiment in East Tennessee the following year; imprisoned in Richmond as a spy, she was eventually released and returned to serve as a hospital surgeon at a women’s prisoner-of-war hospital in Louisville, Kentucky.[92] After the war, President Andrew Johnson awarded her the Medal of Honor, making her the only woman ever to receive it.[92]

In 1866 Lucy Hobbs Taylor became the first American woman to receive a dentistry degree[93]

Also in 1866, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the American Equal Rights Association, an organization for white and black women and men dedicated to the goal of suffrage for all.[94] In 1868 the Fourteenth Amendment was passed, this was the first Amendment to ever specify the voting population as “male”.[94] In 1869 the women’s rights movement split into two factions as a result of disagreements over the Fourteenth and soon-to-be-passed Fifteenth Amendments, with the two factions not reuniting until 1890.[94] Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the more radical, New York-based National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA).[94] Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, and Julia Ward Howe organized the more conservative American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), which was centered in Boston.[94] In 1870 the Fifteenth Amendment enfranchised black men.[94] NWSA refused to work for its ratification, arguing, instead, that it be “scrapped” in favor of a Sixteenth Amendment providing universal suffrage.[94] Frederick Douglass broke with Stanton and Anthony over NWSA’s position.[94]

From 1870 to 1875 several women, including Virginia Louisa Minor, Victoria Woodhull, and Myra Bradwell, attempted to use the Fourteenth Amendment in the courts to secure the vote (Minor and Woodhull) or the right to practice law (Bradwell), but they were all unsuccessful.[94] In 1872 Susan B. Anthony was arrested and brought to trial in Rochester, New York, for attempting to vote for Ulysses S. Grant in the presidential election; she was convicted and fined $100 and the costs of her prosecution but refused to pay.[94][95] At the same time, Sojourner Truth appeared at a polling booth in Battle Creek, Michigan, demanding a ballot; she was turned away.[94] Also in 1872, Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to run for President, although she could not vote and only received a few votes, losing to Ulysses S. Grant.[96] She was nominated to run by the Equal Rights Party, and advocated the 8-hour work day, graduated income tax, social welfare programs, and profit sharing, among other positions.[97] In 1874 The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded by Annie Wittenmyer to work for the prohibition of alcohol; with Frances Willard at its head (starting in 1876), the WCTU also became an important force in the fight for women’s suffrage.[94] In 1878 a woman suffrage amendment was first introduced in the United States Congress, but it did not pass.[94][98]

In 1871 the first state laws specifically making wife beating illegal were passed, though proliferation of laws to all states and adequate enforcement of those laws lagged very far behind.[99]

In 1878 Mary L. Page became the first woman in America to earn a degree in architecture when she graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.[100] In 1879 Belva Lockwood became the first woman allowed to argue before the Supreme Court; the first case in which she did so was the 1880 case “Kaiser v. Stickney”.[101] Arabella Mansfield had previously become America’s first female lawyer when she was admitted to the bar in 1869.[102]

In 1889 Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr established the first settlement house in America (a settlement house is a center in an underprivileged area that provides community services), in what was then a dilapidated mansion in one of the poorest immigrant slums of Chicago on the corner of Halstead and Polk streets.[103] This settlement house, called Hull House, provided numerous activities and services including health and child care, clubs for both children and adults, an art gallery, kitchen, gymnasium, music school, theater, library, employment bureau, and a labor museum.[103] By 1910, 400 settlement houses had been established in America; the majority of settlement house workers were women.[104] Jane Addams was also a noted peace activist who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Nicholas Murray Butler in 1931[105]

In 1891 Marie Owens, born in Canada, was hired in Chicago as America’s first female police officer.[106]

In 1891 Queen Liliuokalani, the last reigning monarch of the Hawaiian islands, ascended the throne.[107] The McKinley Tariff (passed in 1890) had begun to cause a recession in the islands by withdrawing the safeguards ensuring a mainland market for Hawaiian sugar, and American interests in Hawaii began to consider annexation for Hawaii to re-establish an economic competitive position for sugar.[107] In 1893, Queen Liliuokalani sought to issue a new constitution through an edict from the throne, but could not as a group led by politician Sanford B. Dole overthrew her.[107] They had the help of the American minister in Hawaii, John L. Stevens, who called for troops to take control of Iolani Palace and various other governmental buildings.[107] In 1894 the Queen was deposed, the monarchy repealed, and a provisional government was established which later became the Republic of Hawaii[107] In 1895, Liliuokalani was arrested and forced to reside in Iolani Palace after a cache of weapons was found in the gardens of her home in Washington Place, although she denied knowing of the existence of this cache and was reportedly unaware of others’ efforts to restore the royalty.[107] In 1896, she was released and returned to her home at Washington Place where she lived for the next two decades.[107] Hawaii was annexed to the United States through a joint resolution of the U. S. Congress in 1898.[107]

During the Spanish-American War (1898) thousands of US soldiers sick with typhoid, malaria, and yellow fever overwhelmed the capabilities of the Army Medical Department, so Dr. Anita Newcomb McGee suggested to the Army Surgeon General that the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) be appointed to select professionally qualified nurses to serve under contract to the US Army.[52] Before the war ended, 1,500 civilian contract nurses were assigned to Army hospitals in the US, Hawaii (not a state at that time), Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, as well as to the hospital ship Relief.[52] Twenty nurses died.[52] The Army appointed Dr. McGee as Acting Assistant Surgeon General, making her the first woman ever to hold the position.[52] The Army was impressed by the performance of its contract nurses and had Dr. McGee write legislation creating a permanent corps of Army nurses.[52]



The 1st Martha Washington postage stamp, issue of 1902.

In June 1900, temperance activist Carrie Nation, believing herself to be inspired by God, smashed liquor bottles with a rock in saloons in Kiowa, Kansas; she soon switched to a hatchet.

In July 1900 Marion Jones won 3rd place in Women’s Singles Tennis and 3rd in Mixed Doubles Tennis with her male partner from the United Kingdom at the second modern Summer Olympics in Paris, France. In October, Margaret Ives Abbott, Pauline Whittier, and Daria Pratt won the Women’s 9 Hole Golf 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place, respectively. These were the only women’s events (there were none at the first Olympics, and medals debuted later).

In 1902, Martha Washington became the first woman to be honored on a U.S. postage stamp.

In 1911 Harriet Quimby became the first American woman to earn a pilot’s license.[108] In the spring of 1912, she became the first woman to fly a plane over the English channel;[108] it was a 50 hp monoplane.[108]

In the 1910s Margaret Sanger worked as a visiting nurse in the New York City’s tenements and wrote about sex education and women’s health.[109] In 1914, Sanger’s articles in “The Woman Radical” brought her a federal indictment for violating the Comstock Act (which since 1873 had banned birth control devices and information on birth control devices, sexually transmitted diseases, human sexuality, and abortion[110]), prompting her to flee to England.[109] As soon as the ship left U.S. waters, she cabled a radical publisher in New Jersey to tell them to distribute 100,000 copies of her birth control pamphlet, “Family Limitation”.[109] “. Sanger remained exiled in Europe until late 1915; William Sanger had been arrested and jailed for distributing one copy of “Family Limitation”, and Margaret Sanger returned to face the charges against her.[109] Personal tragedy intervened when the Sanger’s five-year-old daughter died suddenly from pneumonia; public sentiments resulted in dismissal of the charges against Margaret Sanger.[109] Rather than backing away from controversy, Sanger and her sister Ethel Byrne, also a nurse, opened the first birth control clinic in the United States on October 16, 1916, modeled after those Sanger had seen in Holland.[109] Nine days later police closed the clinic and arrested Sanger, Byrne, and the clinic’s interpreter.[109] Byrne was tried and convicted first, and went on a hunger strike; Sanger was convicted and served 30 days in jail.[109] However, the publicity surrounding Sanger’s activities had made birth control a matter of public debate.[109]

A parade for women’s suffrage was held on Monday, March 3, 1913, down Pennsylvania Avenue in America’s capital.[111] Suffragist and lawyer Inez Milholland led the parade, clad in a white cape astride a white horse; behind her stretched a long line with nine bands, four mounted brigades, three heralds, about 24 floats, and more than 5,000 marchers.[111] Furthermore, in 1916 Inez was the keynote speaker in a western pro-suffrage tour organized by Alice Paul.[112] Between one and two thousand people usually attended Inez’s speeches, which centered on the power of uniting women.[112] Though she hid her pernicious anemia, the difficult traveling and speaking schedule made it worse, and she collapsed in October 1916 during her last public appearance.[112] Inez was carried from the stage, but fifteen minutes later she returned, took a seat, finished her speech, and stayed for a question and answer session.[112] That night she went into the hospital, and she died six weeks later.[112] Inez’s last sentence before her collapse became a battle cry for suffragists: “Mr. President, how long must women go on fighting for liberty?”[112]

In 1917 Jeannette Rankin, a Republican from Montana, became the first woman elected to the House of Representatives.[113]


Suffragists picketing in front of the White House.

In the spring of 1917, shortly after Woodrow Wilson had been inaugurated for his second term as President and war with Germany had been declared, women from the National Woman’s Party (founded in 1913 by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns) began picketing the White House and the Capitol in support of an amendment that would guarantee women’s suffrage.[94][114] By mid-June, Alice Paul had been warned by the chief of police that further demonstrations would lead to arrests, and between June 22 and 26, 27 women were arrested for obstructing traffic, but were released without penalty.[114] On June 26 several of the picketers were arrested and charged with obstructing traffic, and confined to the District Jail for three days after refusing to pay a 25 dollar fine.[114] The next series of arrests produced the same penalties; however, on July 14 sixteen women were arrested, tried, and sentenced to 60 days in Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia,[114] where the cells were infested with rats, and the food was infested with mealworms.[114] Furthermore, on November 14, 1917, newly convicted suffragists arrived at Occoquan and were waiting in a holding room; what happened to them has come to be known as the “Night of Terror”.[114] Superintendent Whittaker burst into the room, followed by 15 to 20 guards (the exact number is uncertain) and shouted orders to take the suffragists to their cells.[114] May Nolan, a 73-year-old woman with a lame leg, was literally dragged off by two guards, despite saying that she would go willingly.[114] Dorothy Day had her arm twisted behind her back and was purposefully slammed down twice over the back of an iron bench.[114] Dora Lewis was thrown into a cell with such force that she was knocked unconscious, and for several minutes her companions believed that she was dead.[114] Alice M. Cosu of New Orleans was also thrown forcefully into her cell; she suffered a heart attack and repeated and persistent requests for medical attention for her went unanswered by the authorities throughout the night.[114] Lucy Burns, who had been arrested once again on November 10, shortly after completing her previous 60-day sentence, was identified by Superintendent Whittaker as the ringleader for the group.[114] She was manacled to her cell bars, hands above her head, and remained that way until morning; later, her clothing was removed and she was left with only a blanket.[114] While in Occoquan, several suffragists went on hunger strikes and were subsequently placed in solitary confinement and subject to forced-feeding.[115][116]

World War I (which America entered in 1917, and which ended November 11, 1918) was the first American war in which women were officially allowed to serve in the military (although some had served in previous wars by disguising themselves as men.[117]) The Army Nurse Corps (all female until 1955[118]) was founded in 1901, and the Navy Nurse Corps (all female until 1964[119]) was founded in 1908, and nurses in both served overseas at military hospitals during the war.[52] During the course of the war, 21,480 Army nurses served in military hospitals in the United States and overseas and eighteen African-American Army nurses served stateside caring for German prisoners of war (POWs) and African-American soldiers.[52] More than 1,476 Navy nurses served in military hospitals stateside and overseas.[52] More than 400 military nurses died in the line of duty during World War I; the vast majority of these women died from a highly contagious form of influenza known as the “Spanish Flu,” which swept through crowded military camps and hospitals and ports of embarkation.[52] In 1917 women were first able to join the Navy for jobs other than nurse; they were able to become yeomen, electricians (radio operators), and any other ratings necessary to the naval district operations.[117] 13,000 women enlisted, and the majority became yeomen and were designated as yeoman (F) for female yeoman.[117][120]

Furthermore, in order to release men for the front lines, the Army employed 450 female telephone operators who served overseas, beginning in March 1918 and continuing until the war ended.[121] These women, who retained their civilian status and were not officially considered veterans until 1978, were the members of the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit 25, better known as the “Hello Girls”.[121] They were required to be fluent in both French and English,[121] and assisted the French and British, both allies of America, in communicating with each other.[121]

On August 13, 1918, Opha Mae Johnson became the first female Marine when she enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve; over 300 women served in the Marines during World War One, performing duties within the United States so that the male Marines could fight overseas.[122]

In 1918 twin sisters Genevieve and Lucille Baker became the first women to serve in the Coast Guard; they were the only women to serve in the Coast Guard during World War One.[123]

After World War I ended in 1918, American women were no longer allowed to serve in the military, except as nurses, until World War II.[124]

However, in 1920 a provision of the Army Reorganization Act granted military nurses the status of officers with “relative rank” from second lieutenant to major (but not full rights and privileges).[52]

The 19th amendment to the Constitution, giving all American women the right to vote, passed in 1920.[125] It came up before the House of Representatives in 1918 with the two-thirds votes needed for passage barely within reach; Representative Frederick Hicks of New York had been at the bedside of his dying wife but left at her urging to support the cause.[125] He provided the final, crucial vote, and then returned home for her funeral.[125] However, the Senate failed to pass the amendment that year.[125] The amendment was approved by Congress next year on June 4, 1919, and the states started ratifying. In 1920, Tennessee was the 36th to do so, meeting the 3/4s (of then 48 states) required for enactment; the remaining states ratified later.[125]

The amendment passed the Tennessee Senate easily.[125] However, as it moved on to the House, vigorous opposition came from people in the liquor industry, who thought that if women got the vote, they would use it to pass Prohibition.[125] Distillery lobbyists came to fight the amendment, bringing liquor.[125]

“Both suffrage and anti-suffrage men were reeling through the hall in an advanced state of intoxication,” suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt reported.[125] Nevertheless, the suffragists thought they could count on a one-vote victory in the House.[125] Then the speaker, whom they had counted on as a “yes” for the amendment, changed his mind.[125] Yet suddenly, Harry Burn, the youngest member of the House, a 24-year-old “no” vote from East Tennessee, got up and announced that he had received a letter from his mother (Febb Ensminger Burn) telling him to “be a good boy and help Mrs. [Carrie Chapman] Catt.”[125] “I know that a mother’s advice is always the safest for a boy to follow”, Burn said, switching sides, and the amendment was ratified that day, August 18, 1920, officially becoming part of the Constitution when it was signed into law on August 26, 1920.[125]

Suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt calculated that the campaign for women’s right to vote had involved 56 referendum campaigns directed at male voters, plus 480 campaigns to get Legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters, 47 campaigns to get constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions; 277 campaigns to get State party conventions to include woman suffrage planks, 30 campaigns to get presidential party campaigns to include woman suffrage planks in party platforms and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.[125]

The first wave of feminism is generally considered to have ended in 1920 when American women won the right to vote.[126]

On August 31, 1920, five days after the 19th amendment was signed into law, Hannibal, Missouri, held a special election to fill the seat of an alderman who had resigned. At 7 a.m., despite pouring rain, Mrs. Marie Ruoff Byrum, wife of Morris Byrum and daughter-in-law of Democratic committeeman Lacy Byrum, cast her ballot in the first ward. She thus became the first woman to vote in the United States under the 19th amendment, as well as the first woman to vote in the state of Missouri. [127]


Clara Bow, a famous actress and “It Girl” of the 1920s.

The “new woman” was in fashion throughout the twenties; this meant a woman who rejected the pieties (and often the politics) of the older generation, smoked and drank in public, had casual sex, and embraced consumer culture.[128] Also called “flappers”, these women wore short skirts (at first just to the ankles, eventually up to the knees) and bobbed hair in a short cut – like a boy’s, but longer.[129] Just as the flapper rejected the long hair popular in earlier years, she also discarded Victorian fashions, especially the corset, which accentuated women’s curves.[130] Flappers preferred to be slender, although it sometimes meant dieting or binding their breasts and wearing restrictive undergarments to appear thin, flat-chested, and long-limbed.[130] Cultivating a flapper image and adhering to modern beauty standards also involved purchasing and applying cosmetics, which had not often been done previously by women other than prostitutes.[130] These women further pushed the boundaries of what was considered proper for a woman by their public activities; swearing, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol (illegal from 1920 until 1933), dancing, and dating.[130] The first appearance of the word “flapper” and the flapper image in the United States came from the popular 1920 Frances Marion movie, The Flapper, starring Olive Thomas.[131] Thomas had starred in a similar role in 1917, though it was not until The Flapper that the term was used. In her final movies she was seen in the flapper image.[132] Other actresses, such as Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, Colleen Moore, and Joan Crawford would soon build their careers on the same image, achieving great popularity.[131]

In 1921 Edith Wharton became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, due to her novel “The Age of Innocence”.[133]

In 1921 the first Miss America contest was held in Atlantic City.[134] Margaret Gorman (then 16 years old) won.[134]

In 1922, Rebecca Felton of Georgia became the first woman appointed to the U.S. Senate; however, she served for only two days.[135]

In 1923 the Equal Rights Amendment, written by suffragist Alice Paul, was first introduced to Congress.[136] Never ratified, the amendment states “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.[137]

Also in 1923, Margaret Sanger opened the Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau in Manhattan, to provide contraceptive devices to women and collect accurate statistics to prove their safety and long-term effectiveness.[138] That same year, Sanger incorporated the American Birth Control League, a new organization meant to work on the global issues of world population growth, disarmament, and world famine.[138] The two organizations subsequently merged, becoming Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc. (PPFA).[138]

In 1925, Nellie Tayloe Ross became the first woman elected as a governor in the United States, for the state of Wyoming.[136]

Also in 1925, the World Exposition of Women’s Progress (the first women’s world’s fair) opened in Chicago.[136]

In 1926 Gertrude Ederle, born in New York, became the first woman to swim across the English channel, arriving in almost two hours less time than any of the men who had swum across before her.[139]

In 1928, women competed for the first time in Olympic field events.[136] Also in 1928, women earned 39% of all college degrees in America, up from 19% at the turn of the 20th century.[136]

A National Education Association survey showed that between 1930 and 1931, 63% of cities dismissed female teachers as soon as they became married, and 77% did not hire married women as teachers.[140] Also, a survey of 1,500 cities from 1930 to 1931 found that three-quarters of those cities did not employ married women for any jobs.[141] In January 1932, Congress passed the Federal Economy Act which stipulated that no two persons in the family could be working in government service at the same time; three-fourths of employees discharged as a result of this Act were women.[140] However, during the Great Depression white women’s unemployment rate was actually lower than that for men, because women were paid less and because men would not take what they considered to be “women’s jobs” such as clerical work or domestic service.[142] Yet as a result of rising unemployment, white women’s movement into professional and technical work slowed.[142]

In 1932 Hattie Caraway of Arkansas became the first woman elected to the Senate.[143] Furthermore, in 1932 Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, taking her journey on the 5th anniversary of Lindbergh’s solo Atlantic flight .[144] She was awarded the National Geographic Society’s gold medal from President Herbert Hoover, and Congress awarded her the Distinguished Flying Cross.[144] Later in 1932 she became the first woman to fly solo nonstop coast to coast, and set the women’s nonstop transcontinental speed record, flying 2,447.8 miles in 19 hours 5 minutes.[144] In 1935 she became the first person to solo the 2,408-mile distance across the Pacific between Honolulu and Oakland, California; this was also the first flight where a civilian aircraft carried a two-way radio.[144] Later in 1935, she became the first person to fly solo from Los Angeles to Mexico City.[144] Still later in 1935, she became the first person to fly solo nonstop from Mexico City to Newark.[144] In 1937 Amelia Earhart began a flight around the world but vanished during it; her remains, effects, and plane have never been found.[144] The first woman to fly solo around the world and return home safely was the American amateur pilot Jerrie Mock, who did so in 1964.[145]

In 1933 Frances Perkins was appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt as his Secretary of Labor, making her the first woman to hold a job in a Presidential cabinet.[146]

In 1936 Margaret Sanger helped bring the case of “United States v. One Package” to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.[110] The decision in that case allowed physicians to legally mail birth control devices and information; however, it applied only to New York, Connecticut, and Vermont; birth control did not become legal for married couples throughout the United States until the 1965 Supreme Court decision Griswold v. Connecticut, and did not become legal for unmarried couples throughout the United States until the 1972 Supreme Court decision Eisenstadt v. Baird.[110][138][147][148] In 1937 The American Medical Association officially recognized birth control as an integral part of medical practice and education, and North Carolina became the first state to recognize birth control as a public health measure and to provide contraceptive services to indigent mothers through its public health program.[138]

In 1939 black singer Marian Anderson sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, which was considered a milestone in the civil rights movement.[149] She had originally wanted to sing at Washington D.C.’s largest venue, Constitution Hall, but The Daughters of the American Revolution barred her from performing there because of her race.[149] Due to this, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was then the First Lady, resigned from the organization.[149] This stands as one of the first actions taken by someone in the White House to address the era’s racial inequality.[149] Anderson performed at the White House three years prior in 1936, making her the first African-American performer to do so.[149]


A female welder at the Richmond Shipyards, Richmond, California, USA, in 1943.

When the United States entered World War II in 1941, 12 million women were already working (making up one quarter of the workforce), and by the end of the war, the number was up to 18 million (one third of the workforce).[150] However, while eventually 3 million women worked in war plants, the majority of women who worked during World War II worked in traditionally female occupations, like the service sector.[150] During this time, the “Rosie the Riveter” image became an icon of working women.[150]

Furthermore, during World War II 350,000 women served in the military, as WACS, WAVES, SPARS, Marines and nurses.[52] More than 60,000 Army nurses served stateside and overseas during World War II; 67 Army nurses were captured by the Japanese in the Philippines in 1942 and were held as POWs for over two and a half years.[52] More than 14,000 Navy nurses served stateside, overseas on hospital ships, and as flight nurses during the war.[52] Five Navy nurses were captured by the Japanese on the island of Guam and held as POWs for five months before being exchanged; a second group of eleven Navy nurses were captured by the Japanese in the Philippines and held for 37 months.[52]

Over 150,000 American women served in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) during World War II; the Corps was formed in 1942.[151] Many Army WACs computed the velocity of bullets, measured bomb fragments, mixed gunpowder, and loaded shells.[151] Others worked as draftswomen, mechanics, and electricians, and some received training in ordnance engineering.[151] Later in the war, women were trained to replace men as radio operators on U.S. Army hospital ships.[151] The “Larkspur”, the “Charles A. Stafford”, and the “Blanche F. Sigman” each received three enlisted women and one officer near the end of 1944.[151] This experiment proved successful, and the assignment of female secretaries and clerical workers to hospital ships occurred soon after.[151]

Eventually the Air Force obtained 40% of all WACs in the Army; women were assigned as weather observers and forecasters, cryptographers, radio operators and repairmen, sheet metal workers, parachute riggers, link trainer instructors, bombsight maintenance specialists, aerial photograph analysts, and control tower operators.[151] Over 1,000 WACs ran the statistical control tabulating machines (the precursors of modern-day computers) used to keep track of personnel records.[151] By January 1945 only 50% of AAF WACs held traditional assignments such as file clerk, typist, and stenographer.[151]

A few Air Force WACs were assigned flying duties; two WAC radio operators assigned to Mitchel Field, New York, flew as crew members on B-17 training flights.[151] WAC mechanics and photographers also made regular flights.[151] Three WACs were awarded Air Medals, including one in India for her work in mapping “the Hump,” the mountainous air route overflown by pilots ferrying lend-lease supplies to the Chinese Army.[151] One woman died in the crash of an aerial broadcasting plane.[151]

In 1942 the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) division was founded as an all-female division of the Navy, and more than 80,000 women served in it, including computer scientist Grace Hopper, who later achieved the rank of rear admiral.[152] While traditionally female secretarial and clerical jobs took a large portion of the WAVES women, thousands of WAVES performed previously atypical duties in the aviation community, Judge Advocate General Corps, medical professions, communications, intelligence, science and technology.[153] The WAVES ended and women were accepted into the regular Navy in 1948.[152] The first six enlisted women to be sworn into the regular Navy on July 7, 1948 were Kay Langdon, Wilma Marchal, Edna Young, Frances Devaney, Doris Robertson. and Ruth Flora.[154] On October 15, 1948, the first eight women to be commissioned in the regular Navy, Joy Bright Hancock, Winifred Quick Collins, Ann King, Frances Willoughby, Ellen Ford, Doris Cranmore, Doris Defenderfer, and Betty Rae Tennant took their oaths as naval officers.[155]

Semper Paratus Always Ready, better known as SPARS, was the United States Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, created Nov. 23, 1942; more than 11,000 women served in SPARS during World War II.[156] SPARs were assigned stateside and served as storekeepers, clerks, photographers, pharmacist’s mates, cooks, and in numerous other jobs.[52] The program was largely demobilized after the war.[156]

The Marine Corps created a Women’s Reserve in 1943; women served as Marines during the war in over 225 different specialties, filling 85% of the enlisted jobs at Headquarters Marine Corps and comprising one-half to two-thirds of the permanent personnel at major Marine Corps posts.[157] Marine women served stateside as clerks, cooks, mechanics, drivers, and in a variety of other positions.[52]

The Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (also known as WASP) was created in 1943 to free male pilots for combat service. WASPs flew stateside missions as ferriers, test pilots, and anti-aircraft artillery trainers.[52] Some 25,000 women applied to join the WASP, but only 1,830 were accepted and took the oath, and out of those only 1,074 women passed the training and joined.[158][159] The WASPs flew over 60 million miles in all, in every type of military aircraft.[158] WASPs were granted veteran status in 1977, and given the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.[160]

Many women were spies for America during World War II, for example the singer Josephine Baker, whose long residency in France helped her form an underground network, and Claire Phillips, a spy in the Philippines (then occupied by Japan) who in addition to spying sent aid and supplies to the American POWs; Claire was tortured, but never admitted to knowing the people in her spy ring, and after the war she was recognized by the American and Philippine governments for her heroism.[161][162][163][164]

Once World War II ended in 1945, civilian female workers were expected to give up their jobs to returning male veterans and go back home to have and raise children put off by the war.[165] In 1946, 4 million women were fired from their jobs.[165] But for many women, work was an economic necessity, and they simply went back to the sort of low-paying jobs they had held before the war.[165] However, most people in the 1950s felt that ideally women should be homemakers and men should be breadwinners.[166] A booming economy helped to make this possible; by the mid-1950s, 40% of Americans were living in the suburbs with, on average, 3.8 children, two cars and two television sets.[166] Although 35% of women did go to college in the 1950s, most attended not to learn skills but to find a husband.[166] Furthermore, although 46% of women worked during the 1950s, 75% of them worked in simple clerical or sales jobs.[166] The average working woman in the 1950s earned 60% of the average working man’s salary.[166]

The Army-Navy Nurse Act of 1947 made the Army Nurse Corps and Women’s Medical Specialist Corps part of the regular Army and gave permanent commissioned officer status to Army and Navy nurses.[52] In 1948 Congress passed the Women’s Armed Forces Integration Act, which authorized women to enlist in the military alongside men, rather than in their own separate units, although women were still not allowed to serve in combat.[167][168] Furthermore, in 1948 Executive Order 9981 ended racial segregation in the armed services.[52] In 1949 the Air Force Nurse Corps was established (the Air Force itself was created in 1947).[52] That same year, the first African-American women enlisted in the Marine Corps.[52]

The Korean War was fought from 1950 until 1953.[52] Many servicewomen who had joined the Reserves following World War II were involuntarily recalled to active duty during the Korean War.[52] 540 Army nurses (all military nurses during the Korean War were female) served in the combat zone and many more were assigned to large hospitals in Japan during the war.[52][169] One Army nurse (Genevieve Smith) died in a plane crash en route to Korea on July 27, 1950, shortly after hostilities began.[52][169] Navy nurses served on hospital ships in the Korean theater of war as well as at Navy hospitals stateside.[52] Eleven Navy nurses died en route to Korea when their plane crashed in the Marshall Islands.[52] Air Force nurses served stateside, in Japan and as flight nurses in the Korean theater during the war.[52] Three Air Force nurses were killed in plane crashes while on duty.[52] Many other servicewomen were assigned to duty in the theater of operations in Japan and Okinawa.[52]

In 1955 the first national lesbian political and social organization in the United States, called Daughters of Bilitis, was founded by four lesbian couples in San Francisco (including Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon).[170]

On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a seamstress and volunteer secretary for the NAACP, was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, as required by law at the time; shortly after this a bus boycott began, inspired by her actions, advocating for an end to all segregated busing.[171][172] The night of Rosa Parks’ arrest, with her permission, Mrs. Jo Ann Robinson stayed up mimeographing 35,000 handbills calling for a boycott of the Montgomery bus system. Prior to Rosa Parks’ action, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith had refused to give up their seats on buses to white women, but their cases were rejected by civil rights lawyers as they were not considered sympathetic enough.[173][174][175][175] Aurelia Shines Browder refused to give up her seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama in April 1955, and she filed suit against the city and its Mayor W.A. “Tacky” Gayle.[176][177] It was on her case, known as Browder v Gayle, that the Supreme Court ruled in 1956 that segregated busing was unconstitutional, thus ending the bus boycott.[176] Aurelia Browder was the lead plaintiff in the case, and Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin, and Mary Louise Smith were the other plaintiffs.[176][178]

In 1957, the National Manpower Council (NMC) at Columbia University published its study, “Womanpower, A Statement by the National Manpower Council with Chapters by the Council Staff”.[179] It was a comprehensive look at the experience of women in the labor force, their employment needs, and the implications of both for education, training, and public policy.[179] This NMC analysis called women “essential” and “distinctive” workers and recommended that the Secretary of Labor establish a committee to review “the consequences and adequacy of existing Federal and state laws which have a direct bearing on the employment of women.”[179] But this suggestion was not acted upon by the Eisenhower Administration.[179]

In 1959, three landmark books on women were published: “A Century of Struggle” by Eleanor Flexner, the first professional history of the 19th century women’s movement, which contained an implicit call to arms; “A Century of Higher Education for American Women” by Mabel Newcomer, which disclosed that the relative position of women in the academic world was in decline; and “Women and Work In America” by Robert Smuts, which drew attention to the fact that “the picture of women’s occupations outside the home between 1890 and 1950 had changed in only a few essentials.[179]

In 1961 the first birth control pill, called Enovid, received FDA approval and went on the market.[180]

By 1961, President John F. Kennedy was under pressure to establish a President’s Commission on the Status of Women.[179] Esther Peterson, Assistant Secretary of Labor and director of the Women’s Bureau, and the highest ranking woman in the Kennedy Administration, wanted such a commission.[179] Along with equal pay legislation, it had long been on the agenda of labor movement women and it was in that movement that Peterson’s working career had been concentrated.[179]

Women’s organizations, notably the American Association of University Women and Business and Professional Women, had been proposing a similar idea; they found a champion in Eleanor Roosevelt, who backed the proposal when she met with Kennedy at the White House after his election.[179] The establishment of the Commission may also have been regarded by Kennedy as an expedient way to pay off his political debts to the women who had supported his campaign but were disappointed with his poor record of appointments of women to his administration.[179] There was also a desire to have Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the most respected women in the country, associated with the Kennedy Administration.[179] Roosevelt had only reluctantly supported JFK’s presidential candidacy after her first choice, Adlai Stevenson, lost the nomination.[179] However, she agreed to be the Chairperson of the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, which was held from 1961 until 1963.[179]

The Commission’s Report, called “The American Woman” and issued in 1963, noted discrimination against women in the areas of education, home and community services, employment, social insurance and taxation, and legal, civil and political rights.[181] The report also recommended continued network-building.[181] President Kennedy implemented two Commission recommendations that established an Interdepartmental Committee on the Status of Women and a Citizens’ Advisory Council on the Status of Women, composed of twenty private citizens appointed by the President.[181] These two groups co-sponsored four national conferences of state commissions on the status of women.[181]

Another important event of 1963 was the publication of Betty Friedan’s influential book “The Feminine Mystique”, which is often cited as the founding moment of second-wave feminism.[182] This book highlighted Friedan’s view of a coercive and pervasive post-World War-II ideology of female domesticity that stifled middle-class women’s opportunities to be anything but homemakers.[182] Friedan’s book is credited with sparking second-wave feminism by directing women’s attention to the broad social basis of their problems, stirring many to political and social activism.[182]

Also in 1963, President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law, which amended the Fair Labor Standards Act to prohibit pay discrimination because of sex.[183] It requires the employer to pay equal wages to men and women doing equal work on jobs requiring equal skill, effort, and responsibility, which are performed under similar working conditions.[183]

Furthermore, 1963 was the year in which feminist activist Gloria Steinem published her article I Was a Playboy Bunny, a behind the scenes look at the sexist treatment of Playboy bunnies, which was one of her first major assignments in investigative journalism.[184]

On November 22, 1963, following the assassination of President Kennedy, federal judge Sarah T. Hughes administered the Presidential Oath of Office to Lyndon Johnson aboard Air Force One, the only time a woman has done so, as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court normally has this honor.

1964 was the first year in which more women voted in a Presidential election than men; more women have voted than men in every Presidential election since.[185][186]

On Saturday, February 8, 1964, while the Civil Rights Act was being debated on the House floor, Howard W. Smith of Virginia, Chairman of the Rules Committee and staunch opponent of all civil rights legislation, rose up and offered a one word amendment to Title VII, which prohibited employment discrimination.[187] He proposed to add “sex” to that one title of the bill in order “to prevent discrimination against another minority group, the women,”…. (110 Cong. Rec., February 8, 1964, 2577).[187] This stimulated several hours of humorous debate, later called “ladies day in the House”, before the amendment was passed by a teller vote of 168 to 133.[187] Howard W. Smith later confessed to his colleague, Congresswoman Martha Griffiths, “Martha, I’ll tell you the truth. I offered it as a joke.”[188]

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in charge of the enforcement of Title VII, ignored sex discrimination complaints, and the prohibition against sex discrimination in employment went unenforced for the next few years.[189] One EEOC director called the prohibition “a fluke…conceived out of wedlock,” and even the liberal magazine “The New Republic” asked, “Why should a mischievous joke perpetrated on the floor of the House of Representatives be treated by a responsible administration body with this kind of seriousness?”[189]

In 1966, at the third National Conference of State Commissions on the Status of Women, the conference organizers did not allow resolutions or actions of any kind meant to abolish discrimination against women, so some women who were attending decided to form an advocacy organization of their own.[190] Cornering a large table at the conference luncheon, so that they could start organizing before they had to rush for planes, each of those women chipped in five dollars, Betty Friedan wrote the acronym NOW on a napkin, and the National Organization for Women was created.[190] Its first meeting was held on June 28, 1966 in Betty Friedan’s hotel room, with 28 women attending.[191] At its first conference in October 1966, Friedan was elected NOW’s first president, and her fame as the author of the bestselling book The Feminine Mystique helped attract thousands of women to the organization.[191] Friedan drafted NOW’s original Statement of Purpose, which began, “The purpose of NOW is to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.”[191]

Furthermore, in 1966, Congresswoman Martha Griffiths admonished the EEOC on the floor of Congress for their failure to enforce the prohibition against sex discrimination in employment.[192]

In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson issued Executive Order 11375, which declared that federal employers must take affirmative action to ensure that employees receive equal treatment and opportunities regardless of gender, race, color, or religion.[193] Also, in 1967 Katharine Switzer became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon (having entered the race under the name K.V. Switzer), and Muriel Siebert became the first woman to buy her own seat on the New York Stock Exchange.[194]

In 1968 the EEOC, following two years of protests by NOW, banned all help wanted ads which specified which sex a job applicant should be, except those jobs for which being a certain sex was a bona fide occupational requirement (such as actress), opening many hitherto unattainable jobs to women.[195] The Supreme Court ruled the ban legal in Pittsburgh Press Co. v Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations, 413 U.S. 376 (1973).[196]

Also, in 1968 conservative women separated from NOW and organized Women’s Equity Action League (WEAL) to campaign for equal opportunities for women in education, economics, and employment, while avoiding issues such as abortion, sexuality, and the Equal Rights Amendment.[197]

Also, in the summer of 1968 Robin Morgan led a protest of the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City;[198] at the protest a group of about one hundred women tossed items that they considered symbolic of women’s oppression into a Freedom Trash Can, including copies of Playboy, high-heeled shoes, corsets, and girdles.[199] They also crowned a sheep as Miss America.[198] Lindsy Van Gelder, a reporter for the Post, wrote a piece about the protest in which she compared the trash-can procession to the burning of draft cards at antiwar marches.[199] However, the rumor that women burned their bras at the protest is not true.[199]

In 1969 California adopted the nation’s first no-fault divorce law, which was intended to promote equality between men and women.[200][201] By 2010, all 50 states had legalized no-fault divorce, with New York being the last state to do so.[202]

In 1969 the case Weeks v Southern Bell was decided in favor of Lorena Weeks, who had applied for a better job as a switchperson, but had her application rejected because, her union boss said, “the man is the breadwinner in the family, and women just do not need this type of job.”[203] Weeks filed a complaint with the EEOC, but the phone company cited a Georgia law that prohibited women from lifting anything heavier than 30 pounds, although the 34-pound manual typewriter Weeks used as a clerk had to be lifted by hand onto her desk every morning and stored away every night.[203] After the case was decided, she received $31,000 in back pay and got the job.[203]

On August 26, 1970 (the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage being signed into law), 50,000 people marched in New York City at a protest called Women’s Strike for Equality.[200] This march was organized by NOW to call attention to American women’s inequality with men.[204]

In the 1971 Supreme Court case Reed v Reed, the Supreme Court ruled that it is illegal for any state to prefer all men over all women as administrators of assets.[205] This was the first time ever that the Court had struck down a state law on the ground that it discriminated against women in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment.[205]

In 1971 Rep. Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem founded the National Women’s Political Caucus to advocate for more women and feminists in elective office.[206]

In 1971 Gloria Steinem and others began publishing Ms. Magazine, the first national feminist magazine[207] The first three hundred thousand copies of Ms. sold out in eight days; the magazine name comes from the fact that the title Ms. was originally popularized by feminists in the 1970s to replace Miss and Mrs. and provide a parallel term to Mr., in that both Ms. and Mr. designate gender without indicating marital status.[207][208]

In 1972, former NOW members Pat Goltz and Cathy Callaghan founded Feminists for Life, with the goal of eliminating the root causes that they felt drove women to abortion, contending that abortion violated core feminist principles of justice, non-discrimination and nonviolence.[209][210]

In 1972 President Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Bill of 1972, which many feminists advocated and which would have established both early-education programs and after-school care across the country, with tuition on a sliding scale based on a family’s income bracket, and the program available to everyone but participation required of no one.[199]

However, Nixon signed into law the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.[211] The Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 gives the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) authority to sue in federal courts when it finds reasonable cause to believe that there has been employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.[211] In the case of public employment, the EEOC refers the matter to the United States Attorney General to bring the lawsuit.[211] Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 requires gender equity in every educational program that receives federal funding including but not limited to sports.[212]

The Equal Rights Amendment passed the Senate and then the House of Representatives in 1972, and on March 22, 1972, it was sent to the states for ratification.[213] However, it was not ratified before the deadline for ratification passed, and therefore never became law.[213] The most influential ERA opponent was Phyllis Schlafly, right-wing leader of the Eagle Forum/STOP ERA, who claimed that the ERA would deny a woman’s right to be supported by her husband, privacy rights would be overturned, women would be sent into combat, and abortion rights and same-sex marriages would be upheld.[213] Furthermore, some states’-rights advocates thought the ERA was a federal power grab, and business interests such as the insurance industry opposed a measure they believed would cost them money.[213] Opposition to the ERA was also organized by fundamentalist religious groups.[213] Pro-ERA advocacy was led by the National Organization for Women (NOW) and ERAmerica, a coalition of nearly 80 other organizations.[213]

In 1973 in the Supreme Court case Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court ruled that it is an illegal violation of privacy to outlaw or regulate any aspect of abortion performed during the first trimester of pregnancy, and that government can only enact abortion regulations reasonably related to maternal health in the second and third trimesters, and can enact abortion laws protecting the life of the fetus only in the third trimester.[214] Furthermore, even in the third trimester, an exception has to be made to protect the life of the mother.[214] This ruling has been extremely controversial from the moment it was made.[214] Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington had brought the lawsuit that led to Roe v Wade on behalf of a pregnant woman, Dallas area resident Norma L. McCorvey (“Jane Roe”), claiming a Texas law criminalizing most abortions violated Roe’s constitutional rights.[214] The Texas law banned all abortions except those necessary to save the life of the mother, and Roe claimed that while her life was not endangered, she could not afford to travel out of state and had a right to terminate her pregnancy in a safe medical environment.[214]

In 1973 the first battered women’s shelter in the United States opened in St. Paul, Minnesota.[99]

On September 20, 1973, in Houston, Texas, women’s tennis champion Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, in a famous tennis match before a worldwide television audience estimated at almost 50 million.[215] 55-yr-old former tennis champion Bobby Riggs had defeated Australian tennis player Margaret Court earlier that year, and he was an outspoken opponent of feminism, saying “If a woman wants to get in the headlines, she should have quintuplets,”[216] ” and calling himself a “male chauvinist pig”.[215]

The Women’s Educational Equity Act, enacted in 1974, provides federal funds for projects designed to promote gender equity in the curriculum, in counseling and guidance, in physical education, and in the development of classroom materials.[217] The Act also supports activities for reentering women students, expanding vocational and career education for women, and funding women’s resource center initiatives.[217]

The Equal Credit Opportunity Act, enacted in 1974, illegalizes credit discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age, or because someone receives public assistance.[218] Due to this Act, creditors may ask you for most of this information in certain situations, but they may not use it when deciding whether to give you credit or when setting the terms of your credit.[218]

Approximately 7,000 American military women served in Vietnam during the Vietnam War (1965–1975), the majority of them as nurses.[52][219] An Army nurse, Sharon Ann Lane, was the only U.S. military woman to die from enemy fire in Vietnam.[52][220] An Air Force flight nurse, Capt Mary Therese Klinker, died when the C-5A Galaxy transport evacuating Vietnamese orphans which she was aboard crashed on takeoff.[52][221] Six other American military women also died in the line of duty.[52]

In the 1975 Supreme Court case Taylor v Louisiana, the Supreme Court ruled that excluding women from the jury pool is illegal because it violates a person’s right to a fair trial by a representative segment of the community.[222]

In 1976, the five federal United States Service academies (West Point, Coast Guard Academy, Naval Academy, Air Force Academy, Merchant Marines Academy) were required to admit women as a result of Public Law 94-106 signed by President Gerald Ford on Oct. 7, 1975.[223] The law passed the House by a vote of 303 to 96 and the Senate by voice vote after divisive argument within Congress, resistance from the Department of Defense and legal action initiated by women to challenge their exclusion.[223] More than 300 women enrolled in the academies in 1976.[223]

In 1978, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed, making employment discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions illegal.[224]

During the 1970s, feminists also worked to bring greater attention and help to women suffering from domestic violence and rape.[225] While it is not true that the expression “rule of thumb” comes from men beating women with sticks as big as their thumbs, as has been rumored,[226] it is true that little help was available to battered women before the 1970s, when the first battered women’s shelters were created and states began adopting domestic violence laws providing for civil orders of protection and better police protection.[227] It is not true that either Catherine MacKinnon or Andrea Dworkin (both feminist activists) said “all sex is rape”, or “all men are rapists,” or “all sex is sexual harassment”, as has been rumored;[228] however, during the 1970s feminist activists worked to change laws stating that there had to be a witness other than the woman herself to charge a man with rape, and that a woman’s sexual history could be brought up at trial, while the alleged rapist’s could not.[229] Also, due to feminist activism the first law against marital rape (raping one’s spouse) was enacted by South Dakota in 1975.[230] By 1993, marital rape had become a crime in all 50 states in America.[231]

1980 was the first year that a higher percentage of women than men voted in a Presidential election, and a higher percentage of women than men have voted in every Presidential election since.[232]

In 1981 Sandra Day O’Connor was confirmed unanimously by the Senate and became the first female Supreme Court Justice.[233] However, although Ronald Reagan nominated her, he was the first president to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment since Congress passed it in 1972.[234] The Equal Rights Amendment was never ratified and thus never became law.[235]

In 1983 Sally Ride became the first female American astronaut.[236]

In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman nominated for Vice President by a major party (the Democratic Party), although she was not elected.[237] Also, in 1984 Katherine Sullivan became the first American woman to walk in space.[238]

In 1987 Wilma Mankiller became the first woman to be elected chief of a major Native American tribe (Cherokee).[239] In 1991 she was re-elected with 83% of the vote; during her tenure the Cherokee nation’s membership more than doubled, to 170,000 from about 68,000.[239]

In 1987, Congress declared March as National Women’s History Month in perpetuity. A special Presidential Proclamation is issued every year which honors the achievements of American women.[240]

In the early 1990s, third wave feminism began as a response to the second wave’s perceived inadequacies and shortcomings.[241] Third wave feminism, which continues today, is most often associated with a younger generation of feminist activism, an interest in popular culture and sexual agency, and an acceptance of pluralism and contradiction.[242]

The Persian Gulf War (1990–1991) utilized an unprecedented proportion of women from the active forces (7%) as well as the Reserve and National Guard (17%).[243] Over 40,000 US military women served in combat support positions throughout the war.[243] Sixteen women died during the war and two were held prisoner.[243]

In 1991 the Tailhook Scandal occurred at the annual Tailhook Association convention held in Las Vegas, with more than 26 women (14 of them officers) being assaulted by scores of drunken naval and marine officers.[244] Accusations that the Navy mishandled the subsequent investigation were deeply damaging to the Navy’s reputation.[244]

In 1991 in Olympia, Washington, Riot grrrl began in reaction to the domination of the punk rock scene of America’s Pacific Northwest by all-male bands, and as an attempt to establish a female-friendly presence within this scene.[245] Riot grrrl consisted of feminist punk bands such as Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, and their zines, meetings and songs.[246]

In 1991 Anita Hill, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, came forward with accusations that Clarence Thomas (who had just been nominated for the Supreme Court) had sexually harassed her.[247] Hill had worked for Thomas years earlier when he was head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and she charged that Thomas harassed her with inappropriate discussion of sexual acts and pornographic films after she rebuffed his invitations to date him.[247] When Thomas testified against Hill’s claims before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he called the hearings, “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks,” although Hill herself was black.[247] In the end, the Senate voted 52-48 to confirm Clarence Thomas as an associate justice of the Supreme Court.[247]

1992 was known as the “Year of the Woman” because more women than ever before were elected to political office that year (women gained 19 House and 3 Senate seats for a total of 47 seats in the House and seven seats in the Senate) including Carol Moseley Braun, the first black female senator.[248]

In 1993 Ruth Bader Ginsburg was confirmed by Congress as a Supreme Court Justice, becoming the second woman on the court.

In 1994 Shannon Faulkner applied to the The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina and was accepted for admission.[249] She had left her gender information off the application.[249] When it was discovered that she was a woman, The Citadel revoked her offer, so Faulkner filed suit against The Citadel to gain admission.[249] The court rejected The Citadel’s arguments, clearing her way to attend the school under court order.[249] Faulkner became the first female cadet in 1995, but resigned a few days into her first week.[249] A similar case occurred about this time that forced the Virginia Military Institute to open its doors to women.[249] On June 28, 1996, two days after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in United States v Virginia, the Citadel’s governing board voted unanimously to remove a person’s gender as a requirement for admission.[249] In 1999 Nancy Mace became the first woman to graduate from the Citadel.[250] The first women graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in 2001.[251]

The Matter of Kasinga was a legal case decided in June 1996 involving Fauziya Kassindja (surname also spelled as Kasinga), a Togolese teenager seeking asylum in the United States in order to escape a tribal practice of female genital mutilation.[252] The Board of Immigration Appeals granted her asylum in June 1996 after an earlier judge denied her claims. The case set a precedent in United States immigration law as applicants could now seek asylum in the United States from gender-based persecution, whereas previously religious or political grounds were often used to grant asylum.

In 1999 Lilly Ledbetter, a supervisor at a Goodyear tire plant in Alabama, sued Goodyear because she was being paid at least 15% less than the men who held the same job.[253] A jury sided with her and awarded her back pay of $224,000 and nearly $3.3 million in punitive damages, but the company appealed, arguing she filed her claim too late, and it won a reversal from a U.S. appeals court in Atlanta.[253] In 2007 the Supreme Court agreed with the company and ruled that her suit should have been thrown out at the start because it relied on evidence of discrimination in the 1980s, not on unfair pay decisions in 1998 or 1999; the Supreme Court declared that employees wishing to file discrimination charges must do so no more than 180 days after they have received their first discriminatory paycheck, although Lilly Ledbetter did not know she had been discriminated against in pay until much more than 180 days had passed.[253] However, in 2009 President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law (the first bill signed into law during his presidency), which changed the law so that now workers can sue up to 180 days after receiving any discriminatory paycheck, not just the first discriminatory paycheck.[253]

2000 – present


Ann Dunwoody, the first female four-star general in the United States military (shown while two-star general).

From 2003 until 2011 American women soldiers served in the Iraq War.[254]

In 2004, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon became the first same-sex couple to be legally married in the United States,[255] since San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom allowed city hall to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples.[256] However, all same-sex marriages done in 2004 in California were annulled.[257] But after the California Supreme Court decision in 2008 that granted same-sex couples in California the right to marry, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon remarried, and were again the first same-sex couple in the state to marry.[258][259] Later in 2008 Prop 8 illegalized same-sex marriage in California,[260] but the marriages that occurred between the California Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage and the approval of Prop 8 illegalizing it are still considered valid, including the marriage of Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon.[261]

In 2006 Venus Williams‘s essay on the inequality of women’s tennis championship prize money was published in The Times; in 2007 Wimbledon and the French Open made women’s and men’s prizes equal.

In 2007 Nancy Pelosi became the first female Speaker of the House of Representatives;[262] she held the position for just under four years.

In 2008 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton became the first woman to win a presidential primary, winning the New Hampshire Democratic primary although polls had predicted she would lose.[263][264] She eventually lost the Democratic nomination for President to Barack Obama, who went on to become President;[265][266] however, Hillary Clinton did receive 18 million votes.[267]

In 2008 Alaska governor Sarah Palin became the first woman nominated for Vice President by the Republican Party, although she was not elected.[268]

Also, in 2008 Ann Dunwoody became the first female four-star general in the United States military.[269][270]

In 2009, due to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act being signed into law, the definition of federal hate crime was expanded to include those violent crimes in which the victim is selected due to their actual or perceived gender and/or gender identity; previously federal hate crimes were defined as only those violent crimes where the victim is selected due to their race, color, religion, or national origin.[271] Furthermore, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act requires the Federal Bureau of Investigation to track statistics on hate crimes based on gender and gender identity (statistics for the other groups were already tracked).[272]

In 2009 and 2010, respectively, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan were confirmed as Supreme Court Associate Justices, making them the third and fourth female justices, but because Justice O’Connor had previously retired, this made the first time three women have served together on the Supreme Court.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland was re-elected to a fifth term in 2010; when the 112th Congress was sworn in, she became the longest serving female senator ever, passing Sen. Margaret Chase Smith. During this term, she surpassed Edith Nourse Rogers as the woman to serve the longest in the U.S. Congress.[273]


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