American Women’s History

American Women's History


The Declaration of Independence gives a classic affirmation of Human Rights:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Unfortunately, this declaration refers only to men.

What follows is a brief list of some of the historical milestones in the struggle of American women to achieve equality with American men.  Although this background information is helpful, your ability to comprehend the essentials—Main Idea, Detail, Inference—from what you are given to read is more important for answering questions than tapping into an encyclopedic memory.

Milestones in the History of American Women

1607  According to history and/or legend, the Native-American princess Pocahontas saves Captain John Smith from death at the hands of her father Chief Powhatan in Jamestown, Virginia.

1614  Pocahontas marries colonist John Rolfe in the first recorded interracial marriage.
She later gives birth to his child and converts to Christianity.

1619  English “tobacco brides” are auctioned for the price of 150 pounds of tobacco to pay for their passage and marriage to settlers in Jamestown.

1620  Ultimately, only four women survive the Pilgrims’ crossing on the Mayflower to Massachusetts.

1637  Although Massachusetts was founded by Pilgrims seeking religious freedom, Anne Hutchinson is banished from Massachusetts for holding religious meetings in her home.

1692  Salem Witch Hunt.  Thirteen women are hanged in Salem, Massachusetts after bogus Puritan allegations of witchcraft.

1607 – 1776  Coverture.  Originating in England, the legal doctrine of coverture continues in America, subsuming a married woman’s legal rights to those of her husband.  Colonial women are limited to the role of housewives, responsible for childbearing, childrearing, and household management.

1775 – 1783  Revolutionary War.  The idea of “republican motherhood,” in which women take a more prominent role in citizenship, comes to the fore.  The legal rights and everyday roles of women do not advance beyond coverture, however.

1804  Native-American Sacagawea accompanies and assists Lewis and Clark on their expedition.

1848  Seneca Falls Convention.  First women’s rights convention held in upstate New York.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton drafts the “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions,” which states, “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,” as well as, “the history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man towards woman.”

1849  Harriet Tubman uses the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses, to help slaves (like herself) escape.

1851  Sojourner Truth, an escaped and emancipated slave, gives an extemporaneous, women’s-rights speech entitled, “Ain’t I A Woman?”

1852  Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin fuels anti-slavery fervor.

1870  15th Amendment.  Gives all men the right to vote, regardless of race, color, or previous slavery.  Meanwhile, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) advocate universal suffrage (voting rights) for women, not just men.

1889  Jane Addams, a social activist, ushers in the Progressive Era, by establishing Hull House, America’s first settlement house for the poor and underprivileged in Chicago.

1914  Margaret Sanger advocates for birth control, which is illegal under the Comstock Act.

1920  19th Amendment.  Establishes the right of women to vote (women’s suffrage).

1932  Amelia Earhart becomes the first woman to fly an airplane solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

1941 – 1945  World War II.  With American men off to war, millions of American women join the workforce.  Some—like Rosie the Riveter in the image above—perform jobs previously reserved for men.  Hundreds of thousands of women also work in support positions in the military.

1945 – 1964  Baby Boom.  With family formation no longer impeded by a world war, America experiences a baby boom of 76 million childbirths.  Many American women return to traditional roles as housewives during this period.

1963  Betty Friedan publishes The Feminine Mystique, which recounts women’s dissatisfaction with housewifery, domesticity, and, for all intents and purposes, coverture.  This book is seen as launching Feminism and the Women’s Rights Movement toward securing equal civil, social, political, economic, sexual, and reproductive rights for women.

1966  Friedan founds the National Organization for Women (NOW), whose purpose 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.”

1972  Gloria Steinem founds feminist Ms. magazine.

1972  Equal Employment Opportunity Act.  Grants the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) the authority to sue over employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

1972  Title IX.  This part of the Education Amendments Law of 1972 requires gender equity in every educational program that receives federal funding, including but not limited to sports.

1972 – 1979  The Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, designed to secure equal rights for women, passes Congress but fails to be ratified by the requisite number of states before its 1979 deadline.

1973  Reproductive Rights.  In its Roe v. Wade decision, the Supreme Court rules that it is an unconstitutional violation of privacy to outlaw or regulate any aspect of abortion performed during the first trimester of pregnancy.

1976  Voting Gender Gap.  More women vote than men (and have ever since).

1981  Sandra Day O’Connor becomes the first female Supreme Court Justice.

1983  Sally Ride is the first female American astronaut.

1984  Geraldine Ferraro is the first female Vice-Presidential nominee.

1987  Congress approves March as Women’s History Month.

2003 – 2011  Female soldiers serve in increasingly dangerous support roles, with casualties, for the American military during the Iraq War.

2008  Hillary Clinton narrowly loses the Democratic nomination for President of the United States.  She goes on to serve as Secretary of State under President Barack Obama.

2013  The American military removes its ban on women serving in combat.

2020  Kamala Harris is elected the first female (as well as the first African-American and the first Asian-American) Vice-President of the United States.

Honoring a Rosie: Margaret Archie
– 2014

1  Margaret Archie, a spry and articulate great grandmother of seven, breaks into laughter as she recalls how her late husband, a shipyard worker, opened the doors to her new life when she arrived in Richmond [California] in 1944 at age 22, fresh off an Arkansas sharecropper farm.  “He said, ‘You can work in the shipyards, but you’re not working as a sweeper like other women.  So he paid the union man $20 under the table and they trained me to be a welder.”

2  Archie was used to hard work, but not to the rich camaraderie among shipyard workers of different races and cultures and the other rewards that she experienced as a Rosie.  “People got along real well in the yards, everyone helped one another.  And we got paid equal pay for equal work.”  Her only complaint was that her female supervisor expected women welders to work through the lunch break to prove they could do as much or more work than the men.

3  When her third child arrived, Archie transitioned into food service jobs, remaining a union worker for the next 40 years.  But it was that brief time in the World War II shipyards, she says, that opened up “an enlightened world” that changed her life forever.

Practice – Questions
1.  The above passage is a recollection by a “Rosie the Riveter,” one of the millions of women (depicted in the poster at the top of the page) who entered the American workforce as American men went off to fight World War II.  Which of the following can you infer from this passage?
A.  American women couldn’t hack it in the workforce.
B.  The morale of American women in the workforce was low.
C.  Working in a shipyard is easy.
D.  American women were ready to enter the workforce decades before our time.

2.  What is the main idea of this passage?
A.  Farming is no fun.
B.  Entering the workforce was a life-changing experience.
C.  Welding is fun.
D.  Female workers had it easy.

3.  Female supervisors expected women welders to work through:
A.  sunrise
B.  sunset
C.  hell freezing over
D.  the lunch break

4.  Margaret Archie’s job before working in the shipyard was:
A.  in a grocery store

B.  on a sharecropper farm
C.  driving a truck
D.  sitting around

5.  Which of the following women’s issues is implied as ongoing?
A.  transportation
B.  agriculture
C.  equal pay for equal work
D.  voting rights

Practice – Answers
1.  D.  American women were ready to enter the workforce decades before our time.

2.  B.  Entering the workforce was a life-changing experience.
Main Idea

3.  D.  the lunch break

4.  B.  on a sharecropper farm

5.  C.  equal pay for equal work

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