Civil Rights - Women


Position of Women in 1865

Before American Civil war (1861-65), women more involved in public life, becoming more active outside the home.

Often supporters of the ablolition of slavery, as well as taking an active part in the movement against alcohol and drunkenness and promoted temperance.

They were campaigners for social improvements which helped move them into political roles.

A major turning point was the first convention to discuss female suffrage in Seneca Falls in 1848. The first female Anti-Slavery Convention taken place in 1847.

The Civil War:

Both sides relied on their home fronts to run farms/ plantations and working in some factories. They found themselves taking charge of homess in absence of men. The war brought political rights for AAs (although limited) which saw hope for womens rights.

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Position of Women in 1865

Civil War:

Most men did not support a greater political role or social equality for women. An increased divide between the men who worked and the women who stayed at home and concerned purely with domestic affairs.

When women worked it was often low paid/skilled, causual employment or domestic service. Women worked alongside men on farms or in Southern share cropping smallholdings.

In 1865 families remained large, with limited use of contraception, leaving women with heavy childcare roles. Few opportunities in professional work, widespread prostitution in urban areas led to dangers and exploitation.

Women had greater role in public life, often linked to traditional female concerns of social care, morality and religion. It planted the female ambition for greater public responsibility and social equality.

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Campaigns up to WW1

The Campaign for prohibition:

Major impact on the suffrage campaign was the women's fight for prohibition, which women had been urging since 1830's.

In 1874 the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) became national organisation with 800,000 members by 1920.

Its leader Frances Willard, became a political force capable of lobbying state legislatures and getting local areas, even whole states to ban alcohol sales.

Prohibition activists supported the right of women to vote, the campaign had strong religious roots but was given political weight by women voters.

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Campaigns up to WW1

The Campaign for Womens Suffrage:

Disappointment that the right to vote given to AA's and not women. This led S.B. Anthony and E.Stanton to form the National Women Suffrage Assocciation (NWSA) in 1869. However weakened by rival organisation American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), which admitted men and focused more on getting women to vote in state legislatures. 

The two organisations merged in 1890 to form National American Women Suffrage Assocciation (NAWSA).

In 1875, as result of legal challenges by NWSA, Supreme court confirmed that women ccould not run for Congress but local states allowed voting. Wyoming (1869) and Utah (1870) were early pioneers of women's suffrage. Some states allowed only married women with school-aged kids to vote. Southern states did not give AA women the Vote.

Substantial opposition among some women's groups. They saw political participation as reducing the special place of women in caring for children and in social and charitable work.

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Women's Rights up to WW1

19th Amendment:

1900s saw female activists influenced by radical tactics in Britain, this provoked hostility at first but after USA entered WW1 public opinion changed as Womens contribution apparent.

Alice Paul and Lucy Stone founded Congressional Union, the forerunner for the National Women's Party of 1916. 1917 entry into WW1 was a major turning point, NWSA urged Fed. and state support for women working for war effort. 

It seemed a war for democracy against German militarism required true democracy at home, which included women voting.

In 1919 Congress passed the 19th Amendment allowing womens suffrage, came as result for war effort by women and result of campaigns by women's organisations. Many States allowed women to vote and because of changes in the wider world.

  • Britain had enfranchised women in 1918.
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Women's Rights up to WW1

19th Amendment:

The results were disappointing in the short-term:

  • Women still had to gain influence in the Democrat and Republican parties, which remained male preserves.
  • The women's movements were divided on how to best use the vote.
  • Women did not vote in huge numberss until 1920s, in the first national elecction in which they were eligible to participate.
  • The NWSA became the League of Women Voters, but attracted fewer than 10% of its former members.
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Women's rights up to WW2

In 1920s equality for women seemed a long way away, with women suffering from discrimination in voting qualifications in some states, similar to AA's after the end of Reconstruction.

Still restrictions on their rights to run for public office and, in some states, to own land. As late as 1960s some states did not let married women sign legal contracts by themselves.

In every sphere, economic, social and political, men dominated. Voting was often dominated by husbands' preferences.

By 1933 there were only 146 women in state legislatures and by 1939 there had only been two female state governors, both standing in for husbands who had died or become ill while in office.

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Women's rights up to WW2

The New Deal:

In 1920s or the so called 'flapper era', clothing less restricted and more acceptance of freer social and sexual behaviour. However, for most women, their freedom was limited. Rural America did not experience economic boom or social freedom of cities.

The Depression from 1929 was bad for women who had to give jobs up to unemployed men. Roosevelt elected in 1932, with the promised 'New Deal' for America. His wife was a vocal supporter for womens rights.

There was a female cabinet member for the first time, Frances Perkins, who was Secretary for Labour. By 1945 there was 245 women elected for state legislatures. Women gained from legislation which affected working practices and conditions for all workers. 

New Deal legislation which promoted equality and opportunity. Generally, men decided all major policies and came first in schemes to create work.

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Women's rights up to WW2

The Second World War:

WW2 saw increase in women working and an extension of the work women did due to men being recruited into the armed forces. 'Rosie the Riveter' was a famous poster picturing a women doing a job in engineering which is a male job. 

Women's Advisory Committee to facilitate the use of female labour for the war effort. More women in armed forces, public office, civil service and Congress during WW2. 


  • Women were paid less than men, and had limited provision for childcare so had dual responsibilities.
  • AA women did not get same opportunities as white women.
  • Many women remained in clerical work. by 1945 70% of clerical work was done by women.

At the end of the war, 2 million women lost their jobs by 1946 and wage gap increased by 1960.

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The rise in Feminism and it opponents

New Feminism:

Increasing demands for AA civil rights, helped by actions of AA women like Rosa Parks, stimulated a new feminist movement. As well as moves towards reforms under J.F.K and Johnson in 1960s, led to the revival of organised protest by women.

Betty Friedan wrote 'The feminine mystique' which was highly influential, she condemned the false attitude towards women for preventing women from realising their true potential.

National Organisation of Women (NOW) started in 1966 and aimed to end discrimination, which was made illegal under civil rights act of 1964.

Womens demands went beyond more political influence and wider proposals inc. equality in education, employment and political organisations.

Equal pay act of 1963 helped push this, as well as abortion laws to ensure women had control of their own bodies.

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The rise in Feminism and it opponents

Equal Rights Amendment:

Campaign to gain the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to constitution from 1970 and in 1972 it gained enough support to be spoken about by Congress. NOW had supported the Amendment since 1967, with major campaign in 1970 and strikes in 1972.

A congresswomen Martha Griffiths succeeded in getting it passed by both houses and accepted by Nixon, however it was not ratified by the required 2/3 majority of the states.

Great deal of opposition to ERA, one being Republican Phyllis Schlafly who stressed traditional values. Many women thought women would lose more than they gained through equality through not being respected if they stayed at home to look after husbands and kids.

Older women feared they might lose in divorce settlements.

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Economic and Employment Opportunities

 From 1865 to WW1, economic growth meant greater employment of women. By 1920s 24% of free women worked. from mid 19th century most paid employment for women was in domestic services, textiles, education and care professions.

Changes in employment inc:

  • Much less domestic services by 1917 than in 1860s.
  • A rise in office work.
  • Female labour overtook child labour in textiles.

However elements of continuity:

  • Lot of women employment was based on traditional female roles such as childcare. Opportunities for management etc. limited as well as still a wage gap.
  • Employers reluctant to employ married women, and for AA women could only do low-paid factory work, domestic services.
  • Little female membership of Trade unions.
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Economic and Employment Opportunities

First World War:

WW1 created a considerable demand for engineering products, war materials and food etc which created opportunities for employment for women. 3 million extra jobs in industry and agriculture, 30,000 women worked directly for the armed forces by 1918. 20,000 travelled overseas on war work.

Opportunitiess did not outlast the war, with the majority of women during the war that worked were unmarried. There was more continuity than change in the type of work women did in the inter-war period. 

The onset depression put pressure on women not to 'steal' jobs from men, however as women worked less there were actually more being employed. Women in work rose from 12% to 15% in the 1930s.

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Economic and Employment Opportunities

Second World War:

Onset of US involvement in the war in 1941, women needed again for war production. 100,000 women were recruited for the armed forces. 6 million women entered the workforce, making up 1/3 of the workforce. 

Propaganda stressed their ability to do heavy work and skilled assembly tasks. However wage levels remained unequal and women often kept their domestic responsibilities.

At the end of the war there was a return to more traditional employment patterns. However, more women were going into higher education ( half of university graduates were women by 1986.).

Economic diversification and growth of government meant more white-collar and public service work. While inequality remained a feature of economic life, the Equal Pay Act and feminism improved awareness of other issues women faced in the work place, such as sexual harassment and the 'glass ceiling'.

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