Since the beginning of written history, be it the Bible or in Sumerian Cuneiform scripts, women have been seen as less than men. In further advanced civilizations, they were excluded from the privileges that society had to offer, often voting and working a job. Women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, along with many others, demonstrated what it means to stand up for what is right, even as a “lesser” member of society. Their bravery in the Women’s Suffrage movement in America, and eventual success, altered life for women even beyond the voting booths. Today, women reap the benefits of their labors and follow in their footsteps in a march of their own for equality and as a protest againt sexaul and domestic abuse. The fight has been ongoing for years, rolling across in waves, and likely will not end for another many more to come, despite the desperate cries of women from Spokane, WA to Greensboro, NC and everywhere in between.
The Bible is regarded by many as the say-all, know-all resource for life, and multiple verses about women has created a stigma of sorts for them all over. For example, Ephesians 5:22-24 says “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” and 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 says “But I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man.” Based solely off of these verses, women in biblical times did not receive the same rights as men, nor were they even supposed to think for themselves, which would later transfer into American households and translate into the Cult of Domesticity, which is, simply put, the idea that men should go out and earn money while women stay home to cook, clean, and raise the kids. It is not just the Bible that illustrates these well-defined roles for women and men. Sumerian Cuneiform scripts, which are considered to be the first form of written history, are very clear about the standing of females in society. “A girl who [was] seen with a man, or [was] taken away by him with threatening words, without her protesting or saying, ‘Tell this to his father’, will be branded as a slave. This sounds like an attempted elopement.” Girls were bought at alarmingly young ages during these times to act as brides, with no say in the matter. “In Emar and Nuzi a marriage broker would buy these tender brides and the future husband would later pay the bride-price of forty shekels of silver, the normal price.” Women were given few freedoms and even fewer choices in their lives during these times, their only option being to get married to whoever is chosen for them, bear him children, and keep their mouths shut while doing so. This expectation carried on through history until the formation of the U.S. when women finally began to use their voices.
From the founding days of America, women have been inserting their opinions through tiny cracks and forcing their ideas into light from the dark corners into which they had been shoved. They had been stripped of all hope during these times, with the unanimous state action to prohibit women from voting in 1777 and the laws of couverture, which insured their loss of legal identity as soon as they married. They could not own property, control their own money, or sign legal documents, instead, these jobs went to the men who represented the woman, whether father, brother, or husband. Though their legal voices were lost to the world, women did have sway at home. They were incredibly influential when it came to their husbands’ decisions in the workplace, and some of them, like Abigail Adams, were able to squeeze their ideas into the United States government. Adams, who is remembered fondly for her one of her many letters to husband John during the Constitutional Convention, in which she reminded him to “Remember the ladies",” to which he responded “We know better than to repeal our masculine systems.” Women were denied the right to vote based on the belief that their ideas were expressed in the government through their husband’s voice. This did not sate many. Dozens of women began speaking (or more accurately, writing out) against this notion. Phillis Wheatley’s book contested the idea that women and Africans had a lower level intelligence genetically to that of a white male’s. Judith Sargent Murray's essay, “On the Equality of the Sexes",” spread dissent about the rights of women in the U.S.
The women’s rights movement really kicked off in 1848 in Seneca Falls, NY with the Seneca Falls Convention, which was the first ever gathering devoted to women’s rights in the US, and exploded from there, spreading across the country like a wildfire. July 13, 1848, a young woman was invited to tea with a couple of other women her age. Elizabeth Cady Stanton poured out her dissent over the treatment of women and in doing so, she found that others shared her views. They were the first group to lay out a plan of action for their movement. In only a couple days, the tea group had arranged a meeting of sorts to take place in Seneca Falls, NY. They called it “A convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman.” At the convention, which was held in late July of 1848, Stanton presented her “Declaration of Sentiments",” based off the Declaration of Independence. It came with the forefront of familiar phrases, like “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness",” but Stanton altered them slightly to include women: “We hold these truths to be self evident; that all men and women are created equal.” The original Declaration contained fifteen of the colonies’ complaints to Britain, and Stanton’s version followed suit, though with only thirteen grievances that went along the lines of married women being legally dead in the eyes of the law to education and workplace inequalities. At the convention, nearly all of the thirteen grievances were unanimously agreed on, with only one sparking heated debate. The idea of women having the right to vote was mad, and Lucretia Mott, the woman who would later become Stanton’s life-long friend and ally, was aghast at the notion. Though the grievance was passed, just barely skimming by with enough votes, at the convention, the declaration received incredible backlash from the press. Women’s suffrage was inconceivable to most of society, even women who would become stalwart supporters of the cause. Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, and others went on a roundabout trip across the country, spreading their ideas and speaking to large masses of women and their male supporters. There was no singular goal other than total equality. Family responsibilities, lack of educational and economic opportunities, and the absence of a political voice were among the many topics discussed on their tour. They argued passionately that women should be included in the 14th and 15th Amendments, all men born in the U.S. are citizens of it and the right to vote for all men, despite race, respectively, to no avail. After the Civil War, though, the group honed their efforts to one goal: the right to vote. Thus began the roundabout trek to suffrage that they would be on for the next eighty years.
After the movement was made exclusive to suffrage, a couple of organizations began popping up to meet the times. Stanton and Anthony created the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), which aimed to bite at the bud of the matter, and targeted the federal government directly, hoping to get the 15th Amendment repealed because it did not include women. Lucy Stone, a prior abolitionist and known advocate for women, formed the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) to counter the NWSA. Members of Stone’s organization joined on the basis that the NWSA’s plan of action was borderline racist and instead hoped to bring about change at the state level. Later, the NWSA changed its goals to work at the state level as well; it was far more effective than lobbying against the federal government. The greatest roadblock was not the opposition of the government to their cause, it lay with the very women that they were attempting to free. Women were apathetic about the cause, and many did not care one way or the other; they were content to have no voice. In the late 1880’s though, a period of industrialization slammed into the country, and with it came a renaissance of social movements like temperance, city beautification, and the social gospel all came about during this period. In the mad dash to better the nation, supporters of the suffrage movement poured in by the thousands, and the two unions joined to create the NAWSA, or National American Women’s Suffrage Association. They focused on gaining support from individual states before rallying at a federal level. Before 1910, only four states granted Women the right to vote, beginning with Wyoming, and quickly followed by Colorado, Utah, and Idaho. The west was first, perhaps because it was more progressive, perhaps because there were so few living there that it was a surefire way to increase interest in the area and boost population, while some believe that in the rough frontier women played roles that weren’t traditional for the time period and were seen equal to men anyway. Despite the reason, western states quickly joined the cause and together they managed to get five more to hop aboard by 1914: Washington, California, Arizona, Kansas, and Oregon. Despite the steady chug of change, some suffragettes were dissatisfied with the rate it was moving at. Alice Paul formed the National Women’s Party, which conducted mass rallies and marches that spread the word about the movement to women who had either been unexposed or generally impassive toward what it had to offer. Young women flocked to Paul’s rallies, and they began working toward gaining support from the federal government while also attacking President Wilson from withholding the right to vote from women. The final nail in the coffin was hammered in place when Carrie Chapman Chatt took the lead of the NAWSA, and she and Paul steadily began raking in state after state to bend to their cause. President Wilson decided to enter WWI, despite it being completely against the suffragettes’ pacifism. They joined the cause wholeheartedly though, hoping that in the fight to spread democracy across the world, they would be granted it in their home country as a light for the world to follow. There were ulterior motives to their support though. The army sorely needed medics and laundresses to help in the war effort, roles that generally needed to be filled by women. However, if women weren’t allowed to vote, it is plausible that they might not join the war effort at all. Finally, the House passed the amendment January 10, 1918 but the senate did not approve until after the war. In 1920, Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the amendment and tipped the scale for women. They officially won the near-century-long fight on August 26, 1920 with the seal of approval from U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby for Tennessee.
Once women gained the right to vote, many turned their backs on the movement. However, a small few, like Alice Paul, continued the petition for women in a second wave, knowing that the movement was only fueled by their win, not satisfied. The second wave officially began with Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, which “ rails against “the problem that has no name”: the systemic sexism that taught women that their place was in the home and that if they were unhappy as housewives, it was only because they were broken and perverse. “I thought there was something wrong with me because I didn’t have an orgasm waxing the kitchen floor",” Friedan later quipped.” Though her book was not revolutionary content-wise, it did spread the message to over 3 million readers, who were given the right to be outraged at the role they were expected to play. Suddenly, voting wasn’t enough for many of them. The 1960’s washed up what is known as the second wave of the Women’s Movement. The Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor was founded to protect women from unsafe conditions at work. Esther Peterson, the director of the department in 1961, considered it to be the government’s job to monitor discrimination against women in the workplace. President Kennedy enacted the Commission on the Status of Women, which reported that found sexist discrimination to be present in nearly every aspect of a woman’s life. States governments were quick to rise to the issue, creating their own commissions to research the issue and work to protect the victims. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed, which prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of sex as well as race, religion, and national origin. The category “sex” was included as a last-ditch effort to keep the bill from being passed, but that failed, despite the efforts of those averse to change. With its passage, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was established to investigate discrimination complaints in the workplace. Over 50",000 sex-related complaints were filed within the first five years, and nothing was done about them. Groups of women began banding together to fight for their idea of what was wrong in society. Alice Paul drafted an Equal Rights Amendment for the Constitution, which would ensure that men and women were entirely equal throughout the United States. Women boycotted the Miss America pageant for its degrading treatment of women. They threw away bras and copies of magazines that sexualized women. Margaret Sanger introduced the birth control movement and essentially lit a fire under the women who had become passive once more. It became such an issue that Jane Roe, a Texas native, sued District Attorney Henry Wade for limiting her right to terminate a pregnancy. The issue went to federal courts, where it was ruled that women should have the choice to choose whether to continue the pregnancy or not during the first two trimesters. With the success of this sexually related controversy came many others: Is pornography degrading and dangerous to women or an issue of free speech? Where does sexual harassment technically begin? Is surrogate motherhood legal? Is it ok for a woman to basically hire out her womb? Unfortunately, before these issues could be faced head-on, the second wave of feminism died out because of the spreading notion that feminists were man-hating, lonely, and angry.
In 1991, a third wave of feminism wracked America, though confusion and uncertainty bubbled up around it. Two distinct features define the era: the 1991 Anita Hill case and the riot grrrl groups that sprung up in the early 1990’s. Anita Hill testified against Supreme Court Nominee Clarence Thomas on the issue of sexual harassment. She claimed he harassed her at work, and despite the passion in her accusation, Thomas was elected to the Supreme Court and got off scot-free. Though she may have lost the case, the event set into motion hundreds of complaints and accusations of sexaul assault. Women were focused on two things: getting more women into seats of power and battling harassment in the workplace. The next year, 24 women were elected to seats in the House of Representatives and three more to the Senate. During this time, things that were seen as obscene during the first two waves, like girlishness, makeup, high heels, etc. were embraced in backlash to the stereotype that feminists are boarish, uptight women who would never be wanted by a man. Though it brought about a brand-new approach to the issue, the Third Wave lacked unity. There was no national social change for this era like there was for the first two waves, but it did set the scene for the Fourth Wave to begin with a new approach and more unity than ever before.
Almost a hundred years later, women are still marching passionately for their rights. A brand new fourth wave of feminism began in the early 2010’s and has only picked up speed since then. This wave of the movement is likely to be far more successful than the previous three, due to one aspect that was not available to the preceding ones: the internet. “Online is where activists meet and plan their activism, and it’s where feminist discourse and debate takes place. Sometimes fourth-wave activism can even take place on the internet (the “#MeToo” tweets), and sometimes it takes place on the streets (the Women’s March), but it’s conceived and propagated online.” It began right where the Third Wave left off: sexual harassment. Women between the ages of 15-44 are more likely to be sexually harassed than they are to contract cancer or malaria, be in a car accident, and experience war in their lifetime. In addition, close to 50% of female soldiers were sexually harassed while on duty, and more leave with PTSD from harassment or rape than from war itself. These statistics revealed themselves when women barraged social media with #metoo to tell their accounts of sexaul harassment. Piggybacking off the issue of harassment is the debate over birth control. The woman’s right to choose her future by birth control, and more recently other methods, has never been more forward than now. Under the administration of President Trump, women have become frantic that their right to choose what is best for their body will be revoked from them with the nomination of solely anti-abortion senators.