Amending America: Women's Rights and Gender Equity

U.S. National Archives

Explore selected stories about civil rights and individual freedoms featured at our National Conversation on #RightsAndJustice: Women's Rights and Gender Equality in New York City.

On October 21, the National Archives, in partnership with the National Museum of American Indian, hosted the National Conversation on #RightsAndJustice: Women's Rights and Gender Equality.

New York has been at the forefront of debates about women’s rights and gender equality since the first Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Fall, New York was held 150 years ago. Led by award-winning journalist Soledad O'Brien, panelists continued this debate.

For more information, please Join the Conversation!

To make their voices heard on the important social issues of their day, women organized themselves and used petitions to influence Congress.

In 1844, sixty-five Philadelphia women signed and presented this petition to Congress, urging the abolition of slavery.

“As the question of Suffrage is now agitating the public mind, it is the hour for Woman to make her demand.”

This form letter from Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucy Stone asks friends to send petitions for women's suffrage to their representatives in Congress.

Susan B. Anthony devoted more than fifty years of her life to the cause of woman suffrage. After casting her ballot in the 1872 Presidential election in her hometown of Rochester, New York, she was arrested, indicted, tried, and convicted for voting illegally.

At her two-day trial in June 1873, which she later described as "the greatest judicial outrage history has ever recorded," she was convicted and sentenced to pay a fine of $100 and court costs.

The Expatriation Act in 1907, mandated that “any American woman who marries a foreigner shall take the nationality of her husband.”

Harriot Stanton, daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, married a man from the United Kingdom and lost her American citizenship. After his death, she moved back to America and petitioned to become a U.S. Citizen again in 1911.

The “Married Women’s Independent Nationality Act” or the “Married Women’s Act” passed on September 22, 1922, and repealed the 1907 Expatriation Act.

On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire. The stairwells and exits were locked to discourage employee theft, trapping many inside. 146 workers, 123 women and 23 men, were killed.

The accident helped spur legislation to improve factory safety. It also led to the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU), which fought for better working conditions.

In 1914, Margaret Sanger launched a monthly newsletter called “The Woman Rebel.” She published seven issues, five of which were seized from the mails. Sanger used the publication to inform women about birth control in articles such as “The Prevention of Contraception” and “Are Preventive Means Injurious?”

Sanger, birth control activist, sex educator, writer, and nurse, opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. and other organizations that eventually became Planned Parenthood.

The 1873 Comstock Act defined birth control as obscene and made it a Federal offence to send contraceptive devices or references to it through the mail.

Sanger was indicted for “depositing non-mailable matter for mailing and delivery.” But times had changed, and the public pressured the Government to drop the charges. Sanger lived to see her battle vindicated. In 1965, when Sanger was 81, the Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that laws banning contraceptive use violated the right to privacy.

Women’s roles in the military and workforce expanded during WWI and WWII, giving them opportunities in new industries.

The U.S. Government recruited women into war industries and non-combatant military units to meet production needs and fill the gap left by men fighting overseas.

After the war, women were encouraged to leave these jobs, but women’s workforce participation continued to grow.

In 1943, Minnie Spotted Wolf was the first Native American woman enlisted in the United States Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. Spotted Wolf served for four years in the Marines as a heavy equipment operator as well as a driver.

Born and raised on a ranch near Heart Butte, Montana, Spotted Wolf stated that growing up doing such ranch work as “cutting fence posts, driving a two-ton truck, and breaking horses” prepared her for the rigors of Marine Corps boot camp, which she was quoted as saying was “hard, but not too hard.”

In the 1940s and 1950s, many workplaces were segregated based on race and gender, including federal agencies.

White and African American census employees performed similar tasks but sat in separate office areas.

“Where, after all, do universal rights begin? In small places, close to home…Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.”

Eleanor Roosevelt was First Lady to President Franklin Roosevelt. She also served as the United States Delegate to the United Nations General Assembly from 1945 to 1952 with President Truman. Roosevelt regarded her role in drafting and securing adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as her greatest achievement.

Betty Ford was an outspoken advocate of women’s rights and aspirations in an era when there was much debate on the matter.

As First Lady, she encouraged the appointment of more women to senior government posts, supported the U.N. International Women’s Year in 1975, and supported passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

In 1977, President Gerald R. Ford called for a National Women’s Conference. The chairperson was U.S. Congresswoman Bella Abzug, who declared, “This woman’s place is in the House - the House of Representatives.”

Present at the conference were also author of The Feminine Mystique and co-founder of the National Organization for Women Betty Friedan, and winner of the Battle of Sexes professional tennis player Billy Jean King.

Barbara Jordan, first African American woman elected to Congress from Texas, is remembered for her commitment to the U.S. Constitution. Her speech in favor of the impeachment of President Richard Nixon was a key moment in the Watergate investigation. After retiring from Congress in 1979, she remained actively engaged in issues. She gave a rousing speech at the 1992 Democratic National Convention.

What was not known publicly was that she shared 30 years of her life with another woman. While not outspoken about her sexuality during her lifetime, she remains a hero to the LGBTQ community.

In 1977, Melissa Ludtke, a female sports reporter for Sports Illustrated magazine, filed a civil rights action against Major League Baseball Commissioner for the New York Yankees. The action sought to prevent the New York Yankees from enforcing a ban of accredited female sports reporters from entering the team clubhouse in Yankee Stadium.

The Court determined that the policy violated Ludtke’s fundamental right to pursue a career under the equal protection and due process clauses guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

In 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

She served as an Associate Justice from 1981 to 2006. Prior to serving on the court, O'Connor was an elected official and judge in Arizona. She served as the Republican leader in the Arizona Senate, making her the first female Majority Leader in the United States. In 2009, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States.

On June 18, 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman in space on the Space Shuttle Challenger’s second mission.
Dr. Ride served as the mission specialist. Her tasks included using the robotic arm to launch satellites into space.

“Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.” Hillary Rodham Clinton, September 5, 1995

Credits: Story

This online exhibit was created under the direction of Jim Gardner, the Executive for Presidential Libraries, Legislative Archives, and Museum Programs. The exhibition and this online exhibit would not have been possible without the combined efforts and expertise of many National Archives staff.

Co-Curator - Michael Hussey

Amending America at the National Archives

Amending America Exhibition in Washington, D.C. presented in part by The National Archives Foundation, AT&T, HISTORY®, and The Lawrence O'Brien Family.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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