Women's Rights Movement Research Paper Starter

Women's Rights Movement

The women's rights movement of the mid-nineteenth century unified women around a number of issues that were seen as fundamental rights for all citizens; they included: the right to own property, access to higher education, reproductive rights, and suffrage. Women's suffrage was the most controversial women's rights issue of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and divided early feminists on ideological lines. After women secured the right to vote in 1917, the women's rights movement lost much of its momentum. World War I and II encouraged women to do their patriotic duty by entering the workforce to support the war effort. Many women assumed they would leave the working world when men returned from service, and many did. However, other women enjoyed the economic benefits of working outside the home and remained in the workforce permanently. After WWII, the women's rights movement had difficulty coming together on important issues. It was not until the socially explosive 1960s that the modern feminist movement would be re-energized. In the four decades since, the women's movement has tackled many issues that are considered discriminatory toward women including: sexism in advertising and the media, economic inequality issues that affect families, and violence against women. Two ongoing issues in which women seek social change are those having to do with wage discrimination and reproductive health.

Sex, Gender & Sexuality


Women's Rights

Like any almost every other modern social movement, the women's rights movement comprises diverse ideals. Feminist and American responses to the movement have generally fallen along three lines:

* Staunch opposition to change;

* Support of moderate and gradual change; and

* Demand for immediate radical change (Leone, 1996).

The women's rights movement rose during the nineteenth century in Europe and America in response to great inequalities between the legal statuses of women and men. During this time, advocates fought for suffrage, the right to own property, equal wages, and educational opportunities (Lorber, 2005).

In the United States, suffrage proved to be one of the driving issues behind the movement. However, when the movement first began, many moderate feminists saw the fight for voting rights as radical and feared that it would work against their efforts to reach less controversial goals such as property ownership, employment, equal wages, higher education, and access to birth control. The divide between moderate and radical feminists started early in America's history and continues to be present in the women's movement (Leone, 1996).


First proposed as a federal amendment in 1868, women's suffrage floundered for many years before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote in 1920. It was 1917 when the National Woman's Party (NWP) met with President Woodrow Wilson and asked him to support women's suffrage. When the women were dismissed by Wilson, members of the party began a picket at the White House. Their protest lasted 18 months. Harriot Stanton Blatch, the daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Alice Paul were among the first organizers of the picket. However, the picket was not supported by the older and more conservative women's rights group, the National American Women's Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Its members saw the picket as somewhat "militant" and sought to win suffrage state by state rather than through a federal amendment (Leone, 1996).

America's involvement in World War I during the spring of 1917 affected the women's suffrage movement in a number of ways. The NWP refused to support the war effort, while NAWSA saw support of the war as an act of patriotism and a way to further women's rights issues. The differences between the two groups led to hostility that continued until August of 1919 when the Nineteenth Amendment was passed. Both the NWP and NAWSA claimed responsibility for the passage of the amendment. Historians disagree about which party was most influential. Many credit the combination of militant and moderate strategies that were employed by each group (Leone, 1996).

After the women's suffrage movement, some men and women considered the fight for women's rights to be over. Many of the organizations that had been so active in promoting suffrage disbanded after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified. Though some women's suffrage groups did continue as organizations--namely, the League of Women Voters--the feminist movement sputtered without a unifying cause (Leone, 1996). The Great Depression of the 1930s further hurt the women's movement: most women simply did not have the time or energy to dedicate to feminist causes. With America's entry into World War II, many women entered the workforce for the first time. However, this entry was accompanied by the assumption that women would exit the workforce once American men returned from service. Postwar America saw a steep decline in participation in the women's rights movement. The numbers of women attending college dropped during the 1950s as women married earlier and had more children.


The women's rights movement re-formed during the 1960s as the women's liberation movement (Lorber, 2005). The period would mark the "revitalization of feminism" (Leone, 1996).

According to Judith Lorber, twentieth-century feminism was more fragmented than nineteenth-century feminism, perhaps as a result of deeper understandings of the sources of gender inequality (Lorber, 2005). In the twenty-first century, there are still many issues that challenge women's economic and political status in the world, and women of all kinds are fighting many battles on many fronts.

Challenges to gender equality occur in many ways. Some of the most commonly recognized issues are:

* Education: Men tend to have higher educational attainments, though in the US and Western world this gap is rapidly closing.

* Wages and Employment: Men occupying the same jobs as women tend to be paid more, promoted more frequently, and receive more recognition for their accomplishments.

* Health Care: In some countries, men have more access to and receive better health care than women.

* Violence and Exploitation: Women are subjected to violence and exploitation at greater rates than men.

* Social Inequality: Women still perform the majority of domestic duties such as housework and child care (Lorber, 2005).


Educational Attainment

Women's unimpeded access to educational opportunities is strongly supported by feminists. The gap in educational attainment is shrinking rapidly in the industrialized world, and the gap in the US is quite small. However, lack of education still hurts women in fundamental ways, the most obvious being economic. This essay will discuss in more detail the gender wage gap that exists in the US. While education does increase a women's earning potential, research suggests that a definite and pervasive gender wage gap exists at every level of the workforce.

Gender Pay Gap

A "gendered division of labor" exists across the globe. A 1980 United Nations report stated that women performed two thirds of the world's work, garnered 10% of wages worldwide, and owned 1% of the world's property (Lorber, 2005). Even in the early twenty-first century, the workplaces of industrialized nations continue to demonstrate a curious paradox. While research shows that companies that encourage diversity and promote women to leadership roles have higher levels of financial performance than companies with less diversity, women's earnings are still significantly less than men's (Compton, 2007).

Great Britain, like the US, has grappled with the existence of the gender pay gap for many years. The US passed the Equal Pay Act in 1963, and Great Britain instituted its own Equal Pay Act in 1970. Both of these acts "offered women a legitimate avenue to seek remuneration for unequal pay"(Compton, 2007, 1(20). In 1970, the pay differential in Great Britain between men and women's wages was 30%. Nearly five decades later, in 2008, the gender pay gap still hovered around 17% and was the highest of all EU countries (De Vita, 2008). Some project that the disparity in wages will not be eliminated until around the year 2030 (De Vita, 2008). The question remains, if women are legally guaranteed equal pay, and if promoting women is generally recognized as good for business, why do women still earn less than men? The causes of the gender wage gap are various and complex.

The fact that many women choose to leave their jobs in order to have children is often identified as one reason for the wage gap. Proponents of this theory argue that, statistically, women earn less than men because some women do not hold paying, full-time jobs, thus dragging down women's average wages. However, most studies of the wage gap only count the earnings of women who work full-time. These studies reveal that of the women who do work full-time, those with children under the age of 18 earn 5 percent lower wages per hour per child than women who do not have children earn (Correll, 2013). In Great Britain, by age forty, men who have...

(The entire section is 4098 words.)