The 1st Women’s Rights Movement… and the Rest is History

by | Mar 13, 2023 | 2 comments

Cropped shot of an unrecognizable woman holding up a poster that reads "Women's rights are human rights" while protesting with other unrecognizable women in the city

“I think about how much we owe to the women who went before us – legions of women, some known but many more unknown. I applaud the bravery and resilience of those who helped all of us – you and me – to be here today.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1993-2020

March is Women’s History Month.

Let’s take a look at how history was made with the first Women’s Rights Movement meeting, which happened on July 13, 1848 in upstate New York. On a sweltering summer day, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a young housewife and mother, received and was invited to have tea with four women friends. After pleasantries, the talk turned to a discussion of the situation of women. Hadn’t the American Revolution been fought only 70 years ago for the purpose of winning freedom from tyranny? Why hadn’t women gained the same freedoms as men, even though they’d been a major part of the revolution efforts and taken tremendous risks during those dangerous years.

After the afternoon tea meeting ended, Elizabeth returned home to write a Declaration of Sentiments. The declarations Elizabeth wrote out largely mirrored the Declaration of Independence and, in the preamble, specifically stated that “all men and women are created equal.” (The Declaration of Independence reads only that all men are equal.)

Elizabeth Cady Stanton Declaration of Sentiments listed a total of 18 grievances. Here are the most relevant:

  • Married women are legally dead in the eyes of the law.
  • Women are not allowed to vote.
  • Women have to submit to laws without a voice in their formation.
  • Married women have no property rights.
  • Husbands have legal power over and responsibility for their wives to the extent that they could imprison or beat them with impunity.
  • Divorce and child custody laws favored men, giving no rights to women.
  • Women had to pay property taxes, although they had no representation in levying these taxes.
  • Most occupations were closed to women; when women worked, they were paid only a fraction of what men earned.
  • Women were not allowed to enter professions such as law or medicine.
  • Women had no means to gain an education since no college or university would accept women students.
  • With only a few exceptions, women were not allowed to participate in church affairs.
  • Women were robbed of their self-confidence and self-respect and were made totally dependent on men.

And, so the Women’s Right’s Movement begins…


Passed by both houses of Congress, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution states that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex”. The Amendment was sent to the states for ratification. After 8 days the Amendment was passed into law and took effect…for white women. (It was another 50 years before black women achieved voting equality.)

In that same year, the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor was established to gather information about the situation of women at work and to advocate for changes it found were drastically needed to protect women from abuse and unsafe conditions.

At the time, another controversial idea came from a public health nurse, Margaret Sanger. She professed that a woman should have the right to control her body; specifically reproduction and sexuality. Sanger’s movement not only endorsed educating women about existing birth control methods, but that freedom for modern women meant they had the right to decide for themselves whether they would become mothers, and when, if at all.


Largely due to Sanger’s efforts, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York City heard the case of United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries and found, as long as a physician provides the information, it legal for materials relating to contraception to be distributed through the U.S Mail. Previously, the Comstock Act of 1873 prohibited the dissemination of obscene items, which information relating to birth control was considered. (The Comstock Act was written by dry goods merchant, Anthony Comstock, who claimed that anything related to sex, gambling or drinking is obscene. The act defined obscene as anything that referred to sex or promoted, discussed or distributed methods of contraception or abortion.)

1939 – 1945

During World War II many women worked factory and homefront jobs, but  some 350,000 women served in the Armed Forces, both at home and abroad. Many civilian women on the homefront were critical to the war effort. During this era of “Rosie the Riveter“, women in the workforce increased from 27% to 37% and by 1945, nearly one-out-of-four married women worked outside the home. Alas, although the war opened the door for women to work in more types of jobs than ever before, when the male soldiers returned home at the war’s end the opportunities for women ended as they were pressured to return to their homemaker status.


United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries set the foundation for Griswold v. Connecticut, which granted married couples the right to access birth control. However, this did not apply to single women.


Under President John F. Kennedy, The Equal Pay Act, amending the Fair Labor Standards Act, protected against wage discrimination based on sex. However, the Department of Labor rarely enforced the Act for many years.


Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was passed, prohibiting employment discrimination based on sex, race, religion, and national origin. According to the history of this legislation, the category of “sex” was included by some politicians as a last ditch effort to kill the bill. But thanks to some brave, stand up men, it passed by a slim majority.


Finally, the Supreme Court case of Eisenstadt v. Baird granted that married women will have legal access to birth control. The Court, in this case, held that both married and unmarried people should be granted the right to privacy, free of unwanted intrusions from the government, as to whether or not they want children.

The next debate for women centered around education opportunities. It was widely held by politicians of the day that allowing women to go to college would shrink their reproductive organs. Thanks to those who fought on behalf of women to be included in Title IX in the Education Codes, equal access for women to higher education and professional schools became the law. As a result, the number of women doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects and other professionals doubled as quotas limiting women’s enrollment in graduate school were outlawed. However, during this same period of time (the 1970s), women could not get a bank loan without a male co-signer. And women who worked full time were making 59 cents to every dollar earned by a man.

Interestingly, women’s athletics has been the most contested and controversial area of Title IX and has seen the most improvements for women. The rise in girl’s and women’s participation in athletics tells the story. The world saw how impressive American women athletes were during the Olympic games.


Although men were able to acquire credit cards since they first became a financing option, it wasn’t until the Title VII of the Consumer Protection Act, that women were allowed to apply for credit in their name, regardless of their marital status. (“Credit” dates back thousands of years to Mesopotamia, where merchants issued the earliest I.O.U.s for their goods.)


In researching the evolution of women’s rights I found that Time Magazine awarded its “Man of the Year” to “American Women”, noting that “enough U.S. Women have so deliberately taken possession of their lives that the event is spiritually equivalent to the discovery of a new continent”. Unfortunately, the article failed to mention that men managed women’s rights in said “new continent”.


The case of Kirchberg v. Feenstra, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Louisiana state law that designated a husband as “head and master” of the household with unilateral control of any and all property owned jointly with his wife. The ruling found it was unconstitutional as it was based on outdated concepts about marriage. It’s important to note the outdated concepts of medical care for women in the Dobbs decision referred to below were the basis for overruling Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to abortion.


The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that sexual harassment is a type of job discrimination and is considered a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans sex discrimination by employers.


The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) made it illegal to terminate the employment of pregnant women on medical leave for pregnancy or who took time off to care for a relative or new child.


Women’s control over their financial lives has come a long way since the passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963 and the subsequent Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 that permitted women to own credit cards, regardless of gender or marital status. A June 2022 study by Bank of America found that 94% of women surveyed believed they would be solely responsible for their own finances at some point in their life. Only 48% felt confident about their ability to handle their finances.

Despite all this progress, some forces at work are determined to undermine rights women have long understood to be theirs. While the Supreme Court of the United States once seemed to hold that women’s rights were human rights, the June 24, 2022 decision Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, changed that. The Court held: “The Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision, including the one on which the defenders of Roe and Casey now chiefly rely – the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. That provision has been held to guarantee some rights that are not mentioned in the Constitution, but any such right must be “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition” and “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.” Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, 721 (1997).”

The 76 page opinion delves deeply into what the abortion laws were in this country around the time the 14th Amendment ratified in 1868 and gives other examples stretching back to the 1200s. Unfortunately, the opinion spent almost no time analyzing the role abortion plays in 21st century medicine or whether the Constitution protects a woman’s right to avail herself of that care. Instead, the conservative Court heavily emphasized abortion laws in the mid-19th century, when women had few rights, and medical science was exceedingly primitive by modern standards. By mostly ignoring abortion as healthcare, the Court does more to protect the fetus than the life and health of the person carrying it.

The harsh reality of this decision is that it intrudes into the patient-physician relationship by limiting the physician’s ability to provide the health care that the patient, in consultation with her physician, decides is best for her. It puts clinicians in a challenging position to choose between providing care consistent with their best medical judgment, scientific evidence and ethical obligations or risk losing their medical license. Every day since the Dobbs decision, examples of illness and suffering have quickly piled up.

Women have much to celebrate regarding the rights established by those who have gone before us. But we are obligated to future generations of girls and women to guard against the erosion of those rights. It’s imperative that we use the most powerful right that has been given to us – the right to vote.

It’s imperative that we use the most powerful right that has been given to us – the right to vote!


  1. Nancy,

    This is an important overview of the journey for, by, and about women’s rights which is enhanced by your own experiences.

    Thank you for this.

  2. Wow! What a great succint summary of such important events we have come to take for granted. Sadly, we realize we are sometimes complacent in assuming that because it’s the law it will be enforced. The reality of this falls unduly on women who can probably least afford for that to happen. Thank you for reminding us of the actions of many brave women throughout the ages.


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Legal Disclaimer

The information in this article is for educational purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice or establish an attorney-client relationship. I am a writer who is also a lawyer, helping lay people learn about law-related issues. Consult a qualified lawyer in your jurisdiction for all legal opinions for your specific situation.

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