Women's Suffrage and the Advancement of Women's Causes
Women's rights in the 1800s were very limited — husbands had the legal right to exercise total authority over their wives. Married women couldn't retain their own wages, control their own property, or even keep custody of their children if they sought a divorce.
During the late nineteenth century, states began the gradual recognition of women's rights. In the prosperous postwar era, women stashed conservative clothing in their closets and wore dresses that clung to their bodies and skirts above the knee. Such fashionable women became known as “flappers.” They cut their hair shorter in a “bobbed” style and enjoyed a new sense of freedom not granted to prior generations of young ladies. These women were the first to smoke and the first to dance “wildly” with the Charleston, popular at that time.
Women also began to enter careers beyond the limits of nursing or teaching, for typewriting skills yielded further job prospects for millions of women — far more than worked around the turn of the century.
Emma Willard, self-taught in algebra, geometry, geography, and history, tutored young ladies and petitioned the New York legislature to open a girl's school. She didn't stop there, though; her strides led to female teachers, more competitive salaries, and financing for women's education.
Though Oberlin College in Ohio had been the first in America to admit women in 1837, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, Massachusetts, carried out Willard's educational philosophy. Mount Holyoke was founded by Mary Lyon the same year as Oberlin College.
Women who had tremendous impact throughout American history included Frances Perkins, the first female cabinet member as secretary of labor during Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration; Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to serve in Congress; and Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman to serve in Congress.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton began crusading as an abolitionist, but her work furthered women's rights as well. Stanton joined Lucretia Coffin Mott, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony in speaking out in favor of a woman's right to vote, a right once granted by some colonies in Colonial America but lost years later.
Carrie Chapman Catt proved to be a talented organizer and served as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. These women reformers became known as suffragettes, and the American suffragist movement scored its major achievement following the victory in World War I.
In 1919, Congress approved the Nineteenth Amendment providing 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 ratified August 18, 1920.
Another important effort benefiting women was Margaret Sanger's crusade for contraceptives and the newly coined phrase “birth control.” As a nurse in some of the poorer sections of New York City, Sanger saw women overburdened with more children than they could care for. She believed that oversized families spawned poverty, and that in any case, women should have rights over their own bodies.
Sanger opened the country's first birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916, but those who viewed her activities and the information she disseminated as obscene thwarted her efforts. But Sanger wasn't deterred easily, and in 1952, she persuaded a friend to back research that ultimately led to “the pill,” or oral contraceptives. However, not until 1965 did the U.S. Supreme Court invalidate Connecticut's law banning the dissemination of birth control information and prescriptions.