Women's Rights Movement in the U.S. Timeline: 1789-Present
Women's rights and women's suffrage have been contentious issues for centuries, with any movement toward equality and inclusivity being an uphill battle for many. Here, we will break down the women's rights movement and women's suffrage into three main timelines, spanning from 1789 to the present day.
What Did the Women’s Rights Movement Fight For?
The Women’s Rights Movement has historically fought for a variety of rights, and continues to do so. Some areas of activism include:
- The right for women to vote.
- Equal pay for equal work.
- An end to employment discrimination.
- Property rights for women.
- Outlawing marital rape.
- Social equality.
- Equality under the law.
- Equal access to education.
- Reproductive rights.
What Did Women’s Suffrage Mean?
“Suffrage” means the right to vote. Suffragists and the suffrage movement fought for the right of women to vote. This was an incredibly important movement during the years when women did not enjoy the same rights and equality as men in terms of deciding who could run the country and how.
What Were 3 Major Events in the Women's Rights Movement?
Three major events in the history of women’s rights in the United States are the Seneca Falls Convention on Women’s Rights, the passing of the 19th Amendment, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The Seneca Falls Convention took place on July 19 and 20, 1848, in Seneca Falls, New York. This was the first official convention on women’s rights, and was attended by 300 women and men. This convention would be the model for many subsequent conventions, and the resulting Declaration of Sentiments would set the agenda for the women’s rights movement in the years to come.
The Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution gave women the right to vote. It was passed on August 6, 1920, though the text was originally penned by Senator Aaron Augustus Sargent in 1878. When it passed, not a word had been changed from Sargent’s original text.
Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act barred, for the first time, discrimination in employment on the basis of race and sex and established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to investigate discrimination complaints and impose penalties.
The Complicated Relationship Between Gender and Racial Equality
Although the movements for gender and racial equality have shared roots in the 19th-century abolitionist movement, they have not always moved forward together.
The first significant split occurred following the Civil War. The movement split over whether to work first for women’s suffrage, or for the suffrage of Black men. In the South, some parties would promote white women’s suffrage as a bulwark against newly-emancipated Blacks gaining power.
The 15th Amendment, passed in 1860, which extended the franchise to Black men, would prove a point of contention for some. The pervasive racism of the time further exacerbated the split.
The movements for gender and racial equality would come together and diverge numerous times over subsequent decades, and divisions still exist to this day.
History of the American Women's Rights Movement: 1789 to Present Day
Discover the key events of the women's rights movement in the United States. This timeline covers the years of 1789 to 2022, which includes the famed women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., the formation of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and the passage of the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote.
And while the Seneca Falls convention of 1848 is considered to be the beginning of the American Women’s Rights Movement, the roots of that movement go back a bit further.
Congress grants states the right to set voting requirements. New Jersey allows property-owning women, regardless of color, to vote.
New Jersey rescinds women’s right to vote.
The first National Female Anti-Slavery Society Convention is held in New York City. It is attended by 81 delegates.
Kentucky passes a statewide law allowing female heads of household in rural areas to vote in elections regarding taxes and local school boards.
Mississippi passes a Married Women’s Property Act, allowing women to keep their earnings and protecting them from their husband’s creditors. Similar acts would follow in subsequent years in other southern states, Michigan, Ohio, Iowa, New York, Indiana, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Kansas, Oregon, and Nevada.
The first World Anti-Slavery Convention is held in Exeter Hall in London, England. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton attend with their husbands, but are not allowed to participate in the convention because they are women. They become friends and vow to organize a convention to further the cause of women’s rights.
Female textile workers in Massachusetts found the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. The LFLRA was one of the first women’s labor associations in the US.
The first women's rights convention is held in Seneca Falls, New York. This was considered by many to be the start of the Women’s Rights Movement, and would be stated as such in Stanton’s later document, History of Woman Suffrage.
The convention was organized by local Quakers, along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was not a Quaker. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass attended, and was the convention’s only African-American attendee. About 300 people of both sexes attended the conference.
After two days of discussion and debate, 68 women and 32 men signed a Declaration of Sentiments, which outlined grievances and sets the agenda for the Women's Rights Movement. A set of 12 resolutions was adopted calling for equal treatment of women and men under the law and voting rights for women.
The Rochester Women’s Convention. The convention was organized by a coalition of Quakers and Unitarians.
The convention elected Abigail Bush to be its presiding officer. This would be the first convention attended by both men and women, to be presided over by a woman. Some 500 people attended in total.
The convention approved the Declaration of Sentiments drawn up at the Seneca Falls convention. Abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Cooper Nell spoke in favor of women’s rights. The convention also discussed the rights of working women and the topic of equal pay.
The Ohio Women’s Convention at Salem.
This was the first convention to be organized at the statewide level. It was attended by some 500 people. The Salem convention declared its intention to fight for “equal rights and the extension of the privileges of government without distinction of sex, or color.”
Abolitionist Betsy Mix Cowles was elected president of the convention. Abolitionist Jane Elizabeth Jones gave the convention’s main address. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Lucy Stone were also in attendance.
Men attended the convention but were not allowed to vote or speak. After the convention male attendees put together their own organization in support of the action items set forth by the women’s convention.
The document that came out of the Ohio convention gathered 8,000 signatures.
The National Women’s Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts.
This was the first national convention on women’s rights. More than 1,000 people attended, the majority of whom were men. Delegates came from 11 states, including the new state of California.
Paulina Wright Davis presided over the convention, and abolitionist Sarah H. Earle opened the proceedings. The convention called for legal, social, and political equality. One resolution called for the word “male” to be stricken from every state constitution. Property rights, access to education, and employment opportunities were also discussed.
Speakers included Sojourner Truth, Lucretia Mott, Frederick Douglass, and others. Susan B. Anthony, who was not in attendance, would say that a speech given by Lucy Stone converted her to the cause of women’s rights.
Stone later paid to have the convention proceedings bound and distributed as tracts. One of these tracts inspired women in Sheffield, England, to present a petition for women’s suffrage to the House of Lords.
After this, national conventions would be held yearly (except for 1857) through 1860.
Sojourner Truth delivers her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech at a conference in Akron, Ohio.
The coming of the Civil War brought several setbacks to the fight for women’s rights. Many people redirected their activism from women’s rights to emancipation, and in 1862, the New York legislature repealed several of the gains that women had made there.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony,and Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis join with Lucy Stone and others to form the Women’s National Loyal League. The League held its first convention on May 14.
The women would also gather 400,000 signatures to support the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery. The amendment passed on April 8, 1864.
The Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention was held in New York City. This was the first convention to be held after the Civil War.
The convention was organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Also in attendance were Lucrecia Mott, Ernestine L. Rose, Wendell Phillips, Reverend Octavius Brooks Frothingham, and others. African-American activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper spoke about racial discrimination.
The first meeting of the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) is held in Boston, Massachusetts. The group’s goal was equal rights for all citizens, including suffrage.
Internal struggles would cause the group to split between those supporting women’s suffrage, those supporting suffrage for Black men only, and those supporting female suffrage after achieving Black male suffrage. The group would eventually dissolve in conflict.
Two rival groups would emerge: the American Women’s Suffrage Association and the National Women’s Suffrage Association. The groups wouldn’t find enough common ground to join together until 1890.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton declares her candidacy for Congress. She is the first woman to do so.
The 14th Amendment to the Constitution is passed. This constitutional amendment’s equal protection clause would become the basis of subsequent laws about discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation.
Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton formed the National Woman Suffrage Association. The primary goal of the organization was to achieve voting rights for women by means of a Congressional amendment to the Constitution.
Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, and others form the American Woman Suffrage Association. This group focussed exclusively on gaining voting rights for women through amendments to individual state constitutions.
The territory of Wyoming passes the first women's suffrage law. The following year, women begin serving on juries in the territory.
Women in Utah gain the vote.
Susan B. Anthony is arrested for violating the Enforcement Act of 1870 by casting a vote in the 1872 presidential election. Anthony was not allowed to speak during the trial, but after the trial was over, gave what has been called the most famous speech in support of female suffrage.
Anthony was sentenced to pay a fine of $100 (about $2,440 in 2023), of which she would not pay a penny.
Also in this year, journalist Victoria Claflin Woodhull forms her own political party and runs for president.
Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage begin working on "The History of Woman Suffrage". The work began as a tract, but would become a six-volume work spanning more than 5,700 pages written over 41 years.
Senator Aaron Augustus Sargent, a supporter of women’s rights and a speaker at suffrage conventions, introduced a female suffrage amendment to Congress. More than 40 years later (August 6, 1920) Sargent’s amendment, unaltered, would become the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
The National Women Suffrage Association and the American Women Suffrage Association merge to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) under the leadership of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. As the movement's mainstream organization, NAWSA wages state-by-state campaigns to obtain voting rights for women. By 1910 the NAWSA would have two million members.
Also this year Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull House, a woman-operated settlement house project in Chicago, serving recent immigrants to the United States. This project, which would establish more than one hundred settlement houses across the country within a year, would bring women of all colors into the field of social work, and increase women’s voice in the political sphere.
Colorado is the first state to adopt a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. Idaho follows suit in 1896, Washington State in 1910, California in 1911, Oregon, Kansas, and Arizona in 1912, Alaska and Illinois in 1913, Montana and Nevada in 1914, New York in 1917; Michigan, South Dakota, and Oklahoma in 1918.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton publishes "The Woman’s Bible", which challenged traditional Biblical teachings that subjugate women.
Although the suffragist and abolitionist movements were once entwined, thirty years of conflict over female suffrage and Black suffrage, combined with the prevalent anti-Black racism would exacerbate the growing division in the women’s rights movement.
In 1896, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Harriet Tubman, Mary Church Terrell, Margaret Murry Washington, and others gather in Washington, DC to form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW).
In New York, Mary Dreier, Rheta Childe Dorr, and others establish the National Women's Trade Union League (WTUL). The group is composed of working women from the middle and working classes, and promotes women’s suffrage and labor organization of working women.
This group would later help to found the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).
Inspired by the British suffrage movement, Harriet Stanton Blatch founded the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women (later the Women’s Political Union). The membership was largely working women. The group would hold suffrage parades and rallies, in which as many as 25,000 people would take part.
Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Party becomes the first national political party to make women’s suffrage part of its platform.
Alice Paul and Lucy Burns form the Congressional Union to work toward the passage of a federal amendment to give women the vote. The group is later renamed the National Women's Party. Members would picket the White House and practice other forms of civil disobedience.
Margaret Sanger opens the first U.S. birth-control clinic in Brooklyn, N.Y. Although the clinic is shut down 10 days later and Sanger is arrested, she eventually wins support through the courts and opens another clinic in New York City in 1923.
Also in this year, the National Woman’s Party (NWP) is founded. The party’s first goal was to fight for women’s suffrage. Following the passage of the 19th amendment, the NWP would advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment and other goals.
Starting on January 10 of this year, 2,000 suffragists from the NWP picket in front of the White House. “The Silent Sentinels” would also protest in Lafayette Square, and would not stop until the 19th amendment was passed, despite nearly 500 of their number being arrested, and 168 serving jail time.
Jeannette Rankin is sworn in at the House of Representatives. She is the first elected female congress member.
After the end of the first world war, President Woodrow Wilson publicly acknowledges the vital role women played in the war effort. This would go far toward changing public opinion in favor of women’s suffrage.
The Federal Woman Suffrage Amendment, originally written by Susan B. Anthony and introduced in Congress in 1878, is passed by the House of Representatives and the US Senate. It is then sent to the states for ratification.
The Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor is formed to collect information about women in the workforce and safeguard good working conditions for women.
Alice Paul drafts the Equal Rights Amendment. Congress would pass the amendment in 1972, but the amendment would die ten years later, having not been ratified by the required minimum of 38 states.
Mary McLeod Bethune organizes the National Council of Negro Women, a coalition of Black women's groups that lobbies against job discrimination, racism, and sexism.
The federal law prohibiting the dissemination of contraceptive information through the mail is modified and birth control information is no longer classified as obscene. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, birth control advocates are engaged in numerous legal suits.
The Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the first lesbian organization in the United States, is founded. Although DOB originated as a social group, it later developed into a political organization whose goal was to win basic acceptance for lesbians in the United States.
The Food and Drug Administration approves birth control pills.
The report issued by the Commission in 1963 documented substantial discrimination against women in the workplace and made specific recommendations for improvement, including fair hiring practices, paid maternity leave, and affordable child care.
Betty Friedan publishes her highly influential book The Feminine Mystique, which describes the dissatisfaction felt by middle-class American housewives with the narrow role imposed on them by society. The book becomes a best-seller and galvanizes the modern women's rights movement.
Congress passes the Equal Pay Act, making it illegal for employers to pay a woman less than what a man would receive for the same job.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act bars discrimination in employment on the basis of race and sex. At the same time it establishes the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to investigate complaints and impose penalties.
In Griswold v. Connecticut, the US Supreme Court strikes down the one remaining state law prohibiting the use of contraceptives by married couples.
The National Organization for Women (NOW) is founded by a group of feminists including Betty Friedan. The largest women's rights group in the US, NOW, seeks to end sexual discrimination, especially in the workplace, by means of legislative lobbying, litigation, and public demonstrations.
Executive Order 11375 expands President Lyndon Johnson's affirmative action policy of 1965 to cover discrimination based on gender. As a result, federal agencies and contractors must take active measures to ensure that women as well as minorities enjoy the same educational and employment opportunities as white males.
The EEOC rules that sex-segregated help wanted ads in newspapers are illegal. This ruling is upheld in 1973 by the Supreme Court, opening the way for women to apply for higher-paying jobs hitherto open only to men.
California becomes the first state to adopt a "no fault" divorce law, which allows couples to divorce by mutual consent. By 1985 every state has adopted a similar law. Laws are also passed regarding the equal division of common property.
In Schultz v. Wheaton Glass Co., a U.S. Court of Appeals rules that jobs held by men and women need to be "substantially equal" but not "identical" to fall under the protection of the Equal Pay Act. An employer cannot, for example, change the job titles of women workers in order to pay them less than men.
"Ms. Magazine" is first published as a sample insert in "New York" magazine; 300,000 copies are sold out in 8 days. The first regular issue is published in July 1972. The magazine becomes the major forum for feminist voices, and cofounder and editor Gloria Steinem is launched as an icon of the modern feminist movement.
The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) is passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification. Originally drafted by Alice Paul in 1923, the amendment reads: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." The amendment died in 1982 when it failed to achieve ratification by a minimum of 38 states.
In Eisenstadt v. Baird the Supreme Court rules that the right to privacy includes an unmarried person's right to use contraceptives.
Title IX of the Education Amendment bans sex discrimination in schools. It states: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance."
As a result of Title IX, the enrollment of women in athletics programs and professional schools increases dramatically.
As a result of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court establishes a woman's right to safe and legal abortion, overriding the anti-abortion laws of many states.
The Equal Credit Opportunity Act prohibits discrimination in consumer credit practices on the basis of sex, race, marital status, religion, national origin, age, or receipt of public assistance. For the first time, women are allowed to apply for and open a credit card in their own names.
In Corning Glass Works v. Brennan, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that employers cannot justify paying women lower wages because that is what they traditionally received under the "going market rate." A wage differential occurring "simply because men would not work at the low rates paid women" is deemed unacceptable.
The first marital rape law is enacted in Nebraska, making it illegal for a husband to rape his wife.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act bans employment discrimination against pregnant women. Under the Act, a woman cannot be fired or denied a job or a promotion because she is or may become pregnant, nor can she be forced to take a pregnancy leave if she is willing and able to work.
Sandra Day O’Connor becomes the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court. Subsequent appointments would include Ruth Bader Ginsberg (1993), Sonja Sotomayor (2009), Elena Kagan (2010), Amy Coney Barrett (2020), and Ketanji Brown Jackson (2022).
Sally Ride becomes the first American woman in space.
Congress member Geraldine Ferraro runs as Walter Mondale’s vice presidential candidate. She is the first woman to run for this office for a major political party.
Ellen Malcolm founds EMILY’s list (Early Money Is Like Yeast), a political action committee supporting pro-choice Democratic women running for national political office. The organization makes a significant impact on the increasing number of women elected to Congress.
Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, the Supreme Court finds that sexual harassment is a form of illegal job discrimination.
In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Supreme Court reaffirms the validity of a woman's right to abortion under Roe v. Wade. The case successfully challenges Pennsylvania's 1989 Abortion Control Act, which sought to reinstate restrictions previously ruled unconstitutional.
Janet Reno is sworn in as the first female Attorney General of the United States.
The Violence Against Women Act tightens federal penalties for sex offenders, funds services for victims of rape and domestic violence, and provides for special training of police officers.
In United States v. Virginia, the Supreme Court rules that the all-male Virginia Military School has to admit women in order to continue to receive public funding. It holds that creating a separate, all-female school will not suffice.
Madeleine Albright is sworn in as the first female US Secretary of State.
The Supreme Court rules in Kolstad v. American Dental Association that a woman can sue for punitive damages for sex discrimination if the anti-discrimination law was violated with malice or indifference to the law, even if that conduct was not especially severe.
In Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs, the Supreme Court rules that states can be sued in federal court for violations of the Family Leave Medical Act.
In Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education, the Supreme Court rules that Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on sex, also inherently prohibits disciplining someone for complaining about sex-based discrimination. It further holds that this is the case even when the person complaining is not among those being discriminated against.
The Supreme Court upholds the ban on the "partial-birth" abortion procedure. The ruling, 5–4, which upholds the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, a federal law passed in 2003, is the first to ban a specific type of abortion procedure.
Writing in the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said, "The act expresses respect for the dignity of human life." Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who dissents, called the decision "alarming" and said it is "so at odds with our jurisprudence" that it "should not have staying power."
Nancy Pelosi is sworn in as the first female Speaker of the House.
President Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which allows victims of pay discrimination to file a complaint with the government against their employer within 180 days of their last paycheck.
Previously, victims (most often women) were only allowed 180 days from the date of the first unfair paycheck. This Act is named after a former employee of Goodyear who alleged that she was paid 15–40% less than her male counterparts, which was later found to be accurate.
In January of 2013, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the ban on women serving in combat roles would be lifted. The move reversed the 1994 rule that prohibited women from serving in combat.
The 1994 Violence Against Women Act was also reauthorized this year, with enhanced judicial and law enforcement tools for combatting violence against women and providing support for victims. It also extended coverage to young victims, immigrants, Indian women, and victims of trafficking.
Women are now allowed to serve in any job in the armed services, provided they meet gender-neutral performance standards.
Hillary Clinton, after winning a majority of Democratic state primaries, becomes the first female presidential candidate for a major political party. She was defeated by Donald Trump on November 8.
In a 5–3 decision on June 27, 2016, the Supreme Court overturned a Texas law imposed on abortion clinics. The law required doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and clinics to meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers, and had resulted in the closure of nearly half of the state’s abortion clinics.
In response to numerous factors—continued attempts by lawmakers to restrict access to abortions, persistent employment disparities, and contentious comments made by President Trump in a leaked video, among others—feminist activists from around the country organized a Women's March to advocate for women's rights.
Despite some ideological conflicts between event organizers over inclusion and diversity, the nationwide protest begins with enormous success. Upwards of 3 million people turn out, marking one of the largest and most peaceful protests in U.S. history.
Kamala Harris is sworn in as the first female vice president of the United States, as well as the first vice president of Black and Indian heritage.
By the end of 2021, many state legislatures succeed in vastly restricting access to abortions in most if not all cases of pregnancy, overcoming challenges in federal court. This represents one of the largest swells in opposition to legal abortion since the Roe v. Wade decision was issued.
The Supreme Court overturns the Roe v. Wade decision, returning abortion regulation to the states.
What are the Important Dates for Women’s Rights?
Civil rights, including women’s rights, is an ongoing struggle, whose roots go back to before the founding of the United States, and continue to this day. From the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, to the first women to achieve national offices in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the struggle is not over.
How well do you know your women’s history? Test yourself with our Women’s History Quiz!
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