The Fight for Women’s Rights


There is no doubt that women have made great progress since the Seneca Falls Convention. Today, more women than men attend college, and they are more likely than men to graduate.Mark Hugo Lopez and Ana Gonzalez-Barrera. 6 March 2014. “Women’s College Enrollment Gains Leave Men Behind,”; Allie Bidwell, “Women More Likely to Graduate College, but Still Earn Less Than Men,” U.S. News & World Report, 31 October 2014. Women are represented in all the professions, and approximately half of all law and medical school students are women.“A Current Glance at Women in the Law–July 2014,” American Bar Association, July 2014; “Medical School Applicants, Enrollment Reach All-Time Highs,” Association of American Medical Colleges, October 24, 2013. Women have held Cabinet positions and have been elected to Congress. They have run for president and vice president, and three female justices currently serve on the Supreme Court. Women are also represented in all branches of the military and can serve in combat. As a result of the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, women now have legal access to abortion.Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

Nevertheless, women are still underrepresented in some jobs and are less likely to hold executive positions than are men. Many believe the glass ceiling, an invisible barrier caused by discrimination, prevents women from rising to the highest levels of American organizations, including corporations, governments, academic institutions, and religious groups. Women earn less money than men for the same work. As of 2014, fully employed women earned seventy-nine cents for every dollar earned by a fully employed man.“Pay Equity and Discrimination,” (April 10, 2016). Women are also more likely to be single parents than are men.Gretchen Livingston. 2 July 2013. “The Rise of Single Fathers,” As a result, more women live below the poverty line than do men, and, as of 2012, households headed by single women are twice as likely to live below the poverty line than those headed by single men.“Poverty in the U.S.: A Snapshot,” National Center for Law and Economic Justice, Women remain underrepresented in elective offices. As of April 2016, women held only about 20 percent of seats in Congress and only about 25 percent of seats in state legislatures.“Current Numbers,” (April 10, 2016).

Women remain subject to sexual harassment in the workplace and are more likely than men to be the victims of domestic violence. Approximately one-third of all women have experienced domestic violence; one in five women is assaulted during her college years.“Statistics,” (April 10, 2016); “Statistics About Sexual Violence,” (April 10, 2016).

Many in the United States continue to call for a ban on abortion, and states have attempted to restrict women’s access to the procedure. For example, many states have required abortion clinics to meet the same standards set for hospitals, such as corridor size and parking lot capacity, despite lack of evidence regarding the benefits of such standards. Abortion clinics, which are smaller than hospitals, often cannot meet such standards. Other restrictions include mandated counseling before the procedure and the need for minors to secure parental permission before obtaining abortion services.Heather D. Boonstra and Elizabeth Nash. 2014. “A Surge of State Abortion Restrictions Puts Providers–and the Women They Serve–in the Crosshairs,” Guttmacher Policy Review 17, No. 1, Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (2016) cited the lack of evidence for the benefit of larger clinics and further disallowed two Texas laws that imposed special requirements on doctors in order to perform abortions.Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, 579 U.S. ___ (2016). Furthermore, the federal government will not pay for abortions for low-income women except in cases of rape or incest or in situations in which carrying the fetus to term would endanger the life of the mother.Heather D. Boonstra. 2013. “Insurance Coverage of Abortion: Beyond the Exceptions for Life Endangerment, Rape and Incest,” Guttmacher Policy Review 16, No. 3,

To address these issues, many have called for additional protections for women. These include laws mandating equal pay for equal work. According to the doctrine of comparable worth, people should be compensated equally for work requiring comparable skills, responsibilities, and effort. Thus, even though women are underrepresented in certain fields, they should receive the same wages as men if performing jobs requiring the same level of accountability, knowledge, skills, and/or working conditions, even though the specific job may be different.

For example, garbage collectors are largely male. The chief job requirements are the ability to drive a sanitation truck and to lift heavy bins and toss their contents into the back of truck. The average wage for a garbage collector is $15.34 an hour.“Garbage Man Salary (United States),” (April 10, 2016). Daycare workers are largely female, and the average pay is $9.12 an hour.“Child Care/Day Care Worker Salary (United States),” (April 10, 2016). However, the work arguably requires more skills and is a more responsible position. Daycare workers must be able to feed, clean, and dress small children; prepare meals for them; entertain them; give them medicine if required; and teach them basic skills. They must be educated in first aid and assume responsibility for the children’s safety. In terms of the skills and physical activity required and the associated level of responsibility of the job, daycare workers should be paid at least as much as garbage collectors and perhaps more. Women’s rights advocates also call for stricter enforcement of laws prohibiting sexual harassment, and for harsher punishment, such as mandatory arrest, for perpetrators of domestic violence.

Harry Burn and the Tennessee General Assembly

In 1918, the proposed Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, extending the right to vote to all adult female citizens of the United States, was passed by both houses of Congress and sent to the states for ratification. Thirty-six votes were needed. Throughout 1918 and 1919, the Amendment dragged through legislature after legislature as pro- and anti-suffrage advocates made their arguments. By the summer of 1920, only one more state had to ratify it before it became law. The Amendment passed through Tennessee’s state Senate and went to its House of Representatives. Arguments were bitter and intense. Pro-suffrage advocates argued that the amendment would reward women for their service to the nation during World War I and that women’s supposedly greater morality would help to clean up politics. Those opposed claimed women would be degraded by entrance into the political arena and that their interests were already represented by their male relatives. On August 18, the amendment was brought for a vote before the House. The vote was closely divided, and it seemed unlikely it would pass. But as a young anti-suffrage representative waited for his vote to be counted, he remembered a note he had received from his mother that day. In it, she urged him, “Hurrah and vote for suffrage!” At the last minute, Harry Burn abruptly changed his ballot. The amendment passed the House by one vote, and eight days later, the Nineteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution.

How are women perceived in politics today compared to the 1910s? What were the competing arguments for Harry Burn’s vote?

Link to learning graphic

The website for the Women’s National History Project contains a variety of resources for learning more about the women’s rights movement and women’s history. It features a history of the women’s movement, a “This Day in Women’s History” page, and quizzes to test your knowledge.