The role of women has changed drastically throughout history. Women were once thought to only be able to stay at home and tend the house and family. Women were isolated in their domestic sphere; however they did not stay there. Women faced many struggles during their battle to end their isolation from the idea of gender roles within the workforce to the belief that women are not equal to men and therefore do not deserve the same rights as men.
Before 1865 women had very few rights. Her legal standing depended upon her marital status, and once she was married everything became her husbands. She could not control or acquire any property, she was not allowed to control any wages she earned, she could not transfer or sell any property, and she could not bring a lawsuit, or sign any contract. Her life rested solely in the hands of her husband. Women were expected to maintain the home which included cooking and cleaning. They were also expected to bear children and spend their days focused on those children. In 1840 something began to shift when two women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, met and discussed having a convention to address the situation of women. It took eight years for them to get back together and hold the convention known as The Seneca Falls Convention.
The Declaration of Sentiments and its resolutions were presented to a group of three hundred people, including forty men. This stated that men and women were created equal and had a right to equality in all spheres including the right to vote. All of the resolutions were eventually passed. Afterwards they had to deal with ridicule and sarcasm. For example Frederick Douglass wrote “a discussion of the rights of animals would be regarded with far more complacency by many of what are called the wise and the good of our land, than would be a discussion of the rights of woman” (na, http://www.npg.si.edu/col/seneca/senfalls1.htm). This shows just how women were thought of back then. They were thought to be less than animals. While they faced mockery and anger over the fact that they thought they should have rights they did give the idea of women’s rights publicity and brought attention to the idea. This was the way many women lived until the end of the Civil War.
After the Civil War the lives of women saw a change. America was expanding, and people were pushing westward. “Women played a very important role in the conquest of the West” (Bowles, 2011, The New South and New West (1865- 1890), para. 29). Some women moved west with their families, but there were also many single women who wanted to lead their own lives and widowed women who had no other choice. “while I suspect that some of the women traveled west for a mate, others were interested in a life built of their own strength, ambition and endurance. Wishart reports in the 2004 Encyclopedia of the Prairie that, under the Homestead Act, only women who were single, widowed, divorced or deserted could sign for their own land” (Willoughby, C.M., March 26, 2010, Pioneer women: how the west was really won, para. 11). Widowed women were forced to take over the role of their departed men.
“These women took on the day-to-day responsibilities of farm and ranch life and were surprisingly successful. A quote from Katie Adams, a Pioneer widow, reads, “I was just like a hired man. I was right there, I even followed the plow” (Peavey & Smith, 1996)” (Willoughby, C.M., March 26, 2010, Pioneer women: how the west was really won, para. 13). In Wyoming and Colorado, between 11 and 18 percent of all homesteaders were single women or widows” (Bowles, 2011, The New South and New West (1865- 1890), para. 30). There was also a need for educated women in the west in order to teach in the schools that were being created and write for the newspapers. This gave women the opportunity to bring in their own monetary contribution to the household or maintain the single life they were creating.
The late 19th century was still very rural. In these rural communities women were still treated as if their “God-given role was as wife and mother, keeper of the household, guardian of the moral purity of all who lived therein. Housework took on a scientific quality, efficiency being the watchword. Children were to be cherished and nurtured. Morality was protected through the promulgation of Protestant beliefs and social protest against alcohol, poverty and the decay of urban living” (Hartman, D.W., n.d., Women’s Roles in the Late 19th Century, para. 2).
The late 19th century saw a huge growth in industry. This growth changed the nature of work in America. In early 19th century work was performed by skilled workers known as artisans, however this changed as businessmen realized that “mechanization increased profitability and decreased the reliance on skilled labor” (Bowles, 2011, Industrial Titans and Labor Unions (1860’s- 1890’s), para. 16). This opened up the door for women to take these positions.
The time period of the 1890’s through the 1920’s is known as the Progressive Era. During this time period women took on a different role. Women were able to find jobs in retail, or as typists, clerks, and telephone operators. More women were graduating from college and going on to become professionals in the areas of law, healthcare, journalism, and science. “Recognizing the changes that were occurring in the lives of some women, the public and the press coined a phrase for these women, the “New Woman.”
The “New Woman” was supposedly young, college educated, active in sports, interested in pursuing a career, and looking for a marriage based on equality” (The Status of Women in the Progressive Era, 2007, National Women’s History Museum, para.3). Many women, especially married, middle class women still did not work outside the home, but they still played a role in helping the plight of women by focusing their efforts on the reforms of the era. Women were able to reform areas such as education, sanitation, health, wages, working conditions, social welfare, and their greatest achievement was the implementation of the 19th amendment which gave women the right to vote.
This brings us to the Women’s Suffrage Movement in which women sought the right to vote. Granted this movement had been going on for quite some time; however after the 14th and 15th amendment gave the right to vote to not just men but black men as well women believed their time for change had come. Two groups were formed with different ideas in how to achieve this goal. The National Women’s Suffrage Association (NWSA) was formed by Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. This group fought for women’s rights on a national government level. The American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) was the second group that formed. This group fought for rights on a state by state basis. It was not until the two groups put aside their differences and became one forming the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1890 that serious progress was made. Elizabeth Stanton was the NAWSA’s first president.
Susan B. Anthony was the second president. While both of these women were in charge things were handled rather diplomatically and without much in the way of militant tactics. This all changed when Alice Paul took over as the leader after Susan B. Anthony died. Paul organized many protests and marches including one that took place during Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration as president. It was stunts like these that led many women within NAWSA to dislike her ways. She eventually left NAWSA and formed her own group, the National Woman’s Party (NWP). It was this new group that led a seven month picket of the white house which led to the arrest of the NWP suffragists.
While they were imprisoned many of the women were placed in solitary confinement, so they went on a hunger strike in order to protest this unfair treatment. These women were then force fed for up to three weeks. When news of this mistreatment reached the rest of America the suffrage movement gained support including that of President Wilson (na., 2012). It was women’s actions during World War I that finally convinced the government that they were equal to men and in August of 1920 the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote was ratified. Women voted in their first election in November 1920.
Women started off the 20th century in good standing. They had the right to vote finally, they were taking on more professional careers and they were becoming better educated. Women began smoking and drinking publicly, they cut their hair short and their skirts shorter. Women felt a sense of freedom at this point which can be seen when we look at the women’s fashion during these years for instance the flapper was a popular look. This new sense of freedom would be short lived. A change was on the way. On October 24, 1929 the stock market crashed. This brought with it challenges for women that they thought they had overcome. “Prosperity vanished almost over night, and very quickly, gender roles tightened up again. Many people blamed the crash on the loose morals of the previous decade, and the employment crisis–too many laborers, too few jobs—seemed to dictate a return to the “natural” roles” (Radek, K. M., 2001, para. 12).
This was the beginning of a time known as the Great Depression. Families lost everything during this time. There were very few jobs, so what jobs there were went to men. “There was an emotional crisis, as well, especially as men had been traditionally defined by working—especially since the industrial revolution—but couldn’t find work. In other words, without work, they couldn’t see themselves as men. To this end, many areas enacted laws to privilege men over women in regard to employment. Women were thrown out of work, and many states had laws mandating that if men were available, women couldn’t legally work—or if a woman’s husband worked, she couldn’t” (Radek, K. M., 2001, para. 12). Women were expected to take care of everything in the house regardless of a reduction in income.
“Sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd noticed this trend in a study of Muncie, Indiana, published in 1937: “The men, cut adrift from their usual routine, lost much of their sense of time and dawdled helplessly and dully about the streets; while in the homes the women’s world remained largely intact and the round of cooking, housecleaning, and mending became if anything more absorbing.” To put it another way, no housewife lost her job in the Depression” (Ware, S., nd., para. 3). While traditional gender roles seemed to take over men could not be expected to fill the role of receptionist or nurse, therefore women in these positions were able to maintain their employment although they usually took a pay cut. This lasted until America became part of World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
With the onset of World War II it became necessary for men and women to change their view on gender roles in the workforce. The men in the country were being mobilized to go to war, and the country needed someone to fill their positions. Who else could they turn to but the women of the country? Women took up jobs in factories manufacturing clothes and boots for soldiers; they started working in munitions plants and aircraft factories, shipyards, and railways. Women were mail carriers, transit workers, and taxi drivers. They worked on farms and picked crops. Every area of the workforce became focused on the war and creating that which was needed to win the war against Hitler.
Some women took a place in the military. Many women served as nurses for the army and the navy; however for the first time women were allowed to serve. According to the National Women’s History Museum (2007) “more than 400,000 women served, 432 died, and 88 were prisoners of war”. Women also served as pilots flying aircrafts from the place they were manufactured to the place where they were needed. “Eighteen classes of women graduated from the Army Air Forces flight training school; they called the Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs). These were the first women military pilots in U.S. history, and the nation needed them because there was a general shortage of trained pilots for the war. In total, 25,000 women applied, 1,800 were accepted, and 1,000 completed the training (Cole, 1995)” (Bowles, 2011, The World at War (1941-1945), para. 17).
World War II could not last forever, and with its end men returned home expecting to have their positions back. Women who had found a purpose in working now found themselves no longer needed. They were sent back to their domestic sphere. “Families moved to the suburbs, fostered a baby boom, and forged a happy life of family togetherness in which everyone had a specified role. Women were considered domestic caregivers, with sole responsibility for the home and child rearing, while men ‘brought home the bacon.’ “Popular since the 1950s, this tenacious stereotype conjures mythic images of culture icons — June Cleaver, Donna Reed, Harriet Nelson — the quintessential white, middleclass housewives who stayed at home to rear children, clean house and bake cookies.” (Meyerowitz, 1994)” (Holt, J. (nd)., para. 1).
America after World War II was a place of hope and new beginnings for many families in America. This was the time of the baby boom. Women were having more babies which increased their duties in the household therefore solidifying their role as caretaker. This was also a time of great consumerism. Many things were being created with the hope that it would make the lives of women easier such as vacuum cleaners, toasters, washing machines, and then of course there was the television. This allowed manufacturers to create commercial specifically geared towards the women of the household. It seemed as if the goal of most families was to be prosperous, happy members of society, but for the women of the 1950’s there was an underlying anger that stemmed from being removed from jobs that made them feel accomplished and good about themselves. “The culture was simply
not portraying a lifestyle women wanted: indeed, studies indicate as many as 80% of post-war women felt working outside of the home would lead to a more satisfied life (Renzetti & Curran, 2004)” (Holt, J. (nd)., para.8). It is this animosity that sets the stage for the women of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
The women of the 1960’s and 1970’s were dissatisfied with their lives and the fact that they were being relegated to the role of housewife and mother. They wanted something else, something more than what they were being given. This is the beginning of the women’s liberation movement. Women watched as the civil rights movement was fought for, and gained insight into the fact that a movement could reach an entire nation. The civil rights movement breathed new life in to the women of this time. In 1966 the National Organization for Women (NOW) was created. The purpose of NOW was to bring about the true equality of women in America. According to NOW’s statement of purpose (1966) a majority of the women working outside the home “are in routine clerical, sales, or factory jobs, or they are household workers, cleaning women, hospital attendants” which indicates that the better jobs are going to the men.
The statement (1966) also shows how poor the wages are for those women that are working outside the home with the women only earning 60% of what the men earn. One of the last things that the statement (1966) brings to light is the fact that well educated women are not able to hold jobs of importance in society. Women wanted a change in politics, education, and business.
They wanted to be treated as equals. In 1972 the equal rights amendment was passed out of congress and ratified by 28 states, but that was not enough to make it a part of the constitution. This amendment would make it illegal for any form of gender discrimination. One major accomplishment of the women’s liberation movement was the ruling in Roe v. Wade which ended a ban on abortion in 46 states. The strides gained during these critical years were short lived as the 1980’s brought with it the idea that everything had been settled.
Things essentially remained the same in the 1980’s. These were quiet times for women. More women were entering professional positions in their careers and achieving better education. There were some key accomplishments during the 1980’s such as the fact that the ERA expired in 1982. Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman justice of the Supreme Court in 1981. Sally Ride became the first woman in space in 1983. In 1984 Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman nominated for the office of vice president. President Ronald Reagan made it known that a teacher would be selected as the first private US citizen in space.
This idea was called the Teacher in Space Program and on July 19, 1985 a high school teacher named Christa McAuliffe was selected to participate in this program. Unfortunately the joy of this accomplishment was short lived. On January 28, 1986 when the space shuttle Challenger took off it exploded 73 seconds into its journey killing everyone on it. In 1986 over half of college graduates are women. For most working women during the 1980’s there is the harsh realization that although they have made advancements in their respective fields; their advancements can only go so far before they hit the “glass ceiling”. It is obvious that the 1980’s had some large gains for women in society, but it also had some downfalls as well.
The 1990’s saw great changes for women as they learned that they could be appointed to higher roles in the government. Madeleine Albright was appointed Secretary of State, Janet Reno became the United States Attorney General, Sheila Widnall became Secretary of the Air Force, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court. Women saw a boost in their sense of self-worth as several women including Anita Hill came forward to testify about the fact that they had been sexually harassed by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. The fact that this case was put in the public eye showed women that they did not have to put up with sexual harassment, and gave many women the courage to stand up for themselves.
In 1991 the Glass Ceiling Commission was created in order to ensure that women who are qualified for a job are not blocked from advancements. In 1993 emphasis is put on women in the work place as the first annual Take Our Daughters to Work Day is held. The Violence Against Women Act was established in 1994. This act made a priority out of investigating and prosecuting violent crimes against women. In 1997 General Claudia Kennedy became the first female three star general, and the WNBA is created. By 1999 some 60% of women work outside the home (Women of the Century, 2012). At this point it is obvious that there has been a huge shift in the way Americans view women’s role in society.
The role of women has changed drastically since 1865. There is even a drastic change in the way women are treated and viewed in just the last 50 years. The modern woman of the 21st century has moved out of the kitchen and into the workplace. Her focus has shifted from that of housekeeping and child bearing to that of education and career. “In the past, college was viewed by many as a place for women to find a husband or get their Mrs. Moving past that mentality has resulted in an increasingly large number of female college graduates, all coming from a variety of backgrounds (Sarna, M., 2004, para. 3). The education of women has gone from teaching them how to be the perfect wife and mother to giving them the opportunity to study anything they want including areas that were considered for men.
Women are choosing to climb the corporate ladder rather than start a family. They are remaining single longer and waiting to have kids until their careers are solid. Women of today are living a completely different life than any of the women that have come before them. They have access to better education, careers, and are actually living longer than women in 1865. There are still people that maintain the idea that women should be barefoot and pregnant cooking for their husband, but that is not the thought of the majority. There is still progress to be made which is why the role of women is ever evolving. Women have faced many struggles, but they have been able to overcome those struggles and are no longer trapped in the domestic sphere of women in the past.
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