SSRIC Teaching Resources Depository
California Opinions on Women's Issues -- 1985-1995
Elizabeth N. Nelson and Edward E. Nelson, California State University, Fresno

Chapter 1
Historical Overview of Women in American Society

© The Authors, 1998; Last Modified 15 August 1998
The immigrants to North America brought with them the norms and values of their native countries, including ideas about the nature of human beings and the natural differences between males and females. Even those who came rejecting the governments or religions of their homelands assumed that such differences existed. The American colonists believed that males and females were essentially different with males superior to females. (For the history of women in the United States, see Chafe 1972 and 1991, Bullough 1973, Flexner 1971.) Religious customs based on the New Testament considered women to be the descendants of the original sinner Eve and incorporated them into church and social life only under the authority of husbands. Despite the assumptions of inferiority, ideas about womanhood included positive qualities such as moral virtue. This resulted in ambivalence and dualism which characterized women as both the more moral sex and as dangerous temptresses, both Eve and Mary, the holy virgin mother of Jesus and the source of original sin.

The legal assumptions of the colonies were based on English Common Law which provided no legal rights or responsibilities for women. Husband and wife were considered to be one, with the husband having the only legal existence. (Sometimes single women had more rights, but they were often under the authority of their fathers, and any legal rights unmarried women had were lost if they married.)

Colonial North America was a "new world", with so much to do just to survive that the work of all, man and woman, adult and child, was necessary. In this preindustrial economy, the family household was usually responsible for providing almost all of its own needs. Most families produced for themselves the goods and services they needed. Men were involved in all aspects of farming or business as well as the traditionally-male household tasks. The colonial home was a center of production, and the work of women was very important for the survival of the household. In addition to cooking, cleaning, and child care, women were responsible for spinning, weaving, and sewing, making soap, candles, clothing, shoes, and providing the basics of education and medical care. This meant that male and female family members were very dependent on one another. Some have even argued that women were more valued in America than in their European homelands since colonial women were relatively scarce and highly valued as the mothers of additional workers and future citizens.

The emergency nature of life in the New World meant that women were sometimes permitted or encouraged to become involved in traditionally-male activities as well as the usual work of women. American women operated family farms and businesses, becoming blacksmiths, printers, and innkeepers. For example, Abigail Adams spent at least ten years in Massachusetts managing the family estate while John was in Philadelphia with the Continental Congress. In long and frequent letters (reprinted in Rossi 1973:10-13), she described her work, complained about the cost and difficulty hiring reliable workers, and urged him, "Remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of Husbands." (Her well-reasoned suggestion seemed humorous to her husband who replied, "I cannot but laugh...," So, women had no legal rights in the new government which began The Declaration of Independence with the principle that "all men are created equal.")

An even stronger delineation between men's and women's lives developed during the nineteenth century. Industrialization separated the "work" done by men for pay or profit from the rest of life, especially from home life which was increasingly considered to be the proper sphere of women. Prospering families no longer needed the labor of women and girls for the actual production of food, clothing, and other necessities. Ideas of women's innate inferiority, passivity, and weakness were mixed with ideas of feminine purity and virtue. Although the cult of true womanhood became a dominant cultural theme, this image of femininity was a reality only for the most affluent. Farm, black, and immigrant families still required the productive activities of all members of the household just to survive.

Organized efforts to improve the legal position of women developed during the nineteenth century. Although married women had no legal existence, there were situations in which they needed to take care of their own affairs. (Often wealthy fathers without sons wanted to pass family property to grandsons, rather than to sons-in-law.) Some states passed Married Women's Property Acts which allowed wives to own and manage property they had inherited or which had been given to them.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Abolition Movement involved both men and women. For many women, an awareness of discrimination against women was awakened by their experiences in the attempts to end slavery. They became increasingly conscious of the prejudice and discrimination against women which paralleled discrimination against slaves in many ways. Numerous incidents became radicalizing experiences for the relatively affluent white women involved in the struggle to end slavery abolition. In 1840, for example, women who were members of the American delegation to the World Antislavery Conference in London were refused seats because of their sex.

For some, equal rights for women became the vital concern. A movement for the emancipation of women became the primary goal of a conference held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. This meeting resulted in a declaration of the rights of women paralleling the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal...." They became involved in speaking and writing on women's issues and organizing a movement for change in the status and roles of American women. (Kraditor 1971, O'Neill 1969, Flexner 1971, Decard 1979, and Freeman 1975 provide histories of the women's movement.)

However, the abolition of slavery was a more popular issue than equal rights for women, and women were encouraged to wait until rights for slaves were firmly established. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery, provided the former slaves with the "privileges and immunities" of citizenship including equal protection of the law, and extended the right to vote to men who had been slaves. (This was the first time the word "male" was specified in the U. S. Constitution.) Similar rights and responsibilities for women of all races were not forthcoming. By the late nineteenth century, the women's movement split into separate organizations differing in both principles and strategies.

New opportunities for women opened during the nineteenth century, but often only for exceptional women or in specifically-feminine forms. For example, when higher education became available for women, it was often for middle-class, white women with the aim of making them better wives and mothers. The argument for extending the vote to women often recommended literacy tests, so that the proper feminine virtues would be influential in government as well as at home.

As in the colonies, American women were frequently permitted a wider range of activity during periods of emergency. During the First World War, women took on jobs replacing the men who were overseas "making the world safe for democracy." Women on the frontier often had more rights and responsibilities than urban, Eastern women. For example, Wyoming granted women the right to vote in territorial elections in 1869, and Jeanette Rankin was elected to the House of Representatives from the state of Montana in 1916 before women had the right to vote in most states.

Finally, women won the vote in 1920. Many assumed that voting was all that would be necessary for women's equality. However, the 19th Amendment did not make it clear whether women also had the right to serve on juries, to hold public office, or to engage in the other activities involved in full participation in political life. An amendment to guarantee full legal rights and responsibilities to women was introduced to Congress in 1923. (The Equal Rights Amendment was introduced in every session of Congress until the early 1970s.)

During the Depression and the Second World War, there were few organized efforts to change women's status and roles. During the war, women again replaced men in the occupations vacated by soldiers, and again, this was considered to be a temporary, emergency response to the war rather than any real change in gender roles.

At the end of the War, the servicemen returned to jobs in business and industry, and women were expected to return to their homes and families. The period of time after the War was characterized by a strong emphasis on nuclear family life. Although it became known as the baby boom, it was more accurately a "family" boom. More Americans got married, at younger ages, and they had more children. The entire nation seemed ready to settle down to a "happily ever after" that included jobs for the men in the rapidly-expanding businesses and industry with homemaking and child rearing for women. (See Thornton and Freedman 1983.)

Individual men and women, as well as the experts who had become increasingly influential in American life, assumed that women were naturally specialized in home activities and men were specialized in business and politics. According to this view, the care of home and family met the psychological needs and abilities of individual women which provided a complement to the needs and abilities of men. The role combination of female homemaker and male breadwinner was assumed to be necessary for normal child development and the efficient functioning of nuclear families, and these families were assumed to be the crucial units in the efficient functioning of modern, industrial society.

Although the cultural values and norms continued to espouse the concentration of women in homes and families, more and more women were employed outside the home. Since women were living longer and having children earlier, child rearing occupied a smaller proportion of the life span. This was a period of prosperity. Bureaucracies expanded in business and industry. New medical, educational, and other service occupations developed. Workers were needed in traditionally-female jobs, but there were not enough single women to fill them. Both the increase in traditionally-female jobs and the availability of married women whose children were grown or in school contributed to the increase in the employment of American women. By 1960, almost 40% of American women were in the labor force, up from 18% in 1900 (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1975: 131).

During the social movements of the early 1960s, idealistic young Americans joined the Peace Corps, the Civil Rights Movement, and other movements on behalf of the disadvantaged people of the world. These movements included young women as well as men and assumed that American females were in a most favorable position. Soon, however, the women noticed that they were free and equal to march when marches and demonstrations were planned; to type, mimeograph, and even write speeches to be delivered by the male leaders; to cook and clean; and to provide free and frequent sex as part of the "sexual revolution." They began to realize that these activities were considered to be of little real importance. Groups of women decided that very serious social changes would be necessary before women could become full participants in American society. Some decided to spend their time and energy working on a "women's liberation movement," so they organized a wide variety of small groups concentrating on women's issues.

Although equal rights for women seemed ridiculous to some and the term "women's liberation" quickly developed negative connotations, the decade of the Sixties was characterized by a variety of events leading to the serious reconsideration of the status and roles of American women. In 1963, Betty Friedan's critique of the post-war family boom, The Feminine Mystique, became a best seller. The report by President Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women in 1963 was not taken very seriously, so women began forming groups which developed into the National Organization for Women, the National Women's Political Caucus, and other women's organizations. These women tended to be older and more middle-class than those involved in women's liberation. They were committed to orderly changes and organized effectively, working steadily to change laws and policies which placed women at a disadvantage in twentieth-century America. By then, a law passed in the early 1960s became very important. In 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was proposed to Congress, its opponents tried to defeat it by adding amendments. To the section outlawing discrimination in employment, they proposed adding the word "sex" to the list of characteristics that would be unlawful discriminators (that is, to add "sex" to "race, color, religion, and national origin"). Eventually, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed including sex discrimination. The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission did little with the many sex discrimination complaints it received. However, this meant that women's groups in the early 1970s could work to get the Title VII enforced and expanded rather than having to begin lobbying Congress for basic antisex-discrimination legislation. Although the federal Equal Rights Amendment was never ratified by enough states, surveys in the early eighties showed that fifty percent of the public favored it (Mayer 1992: 405-6).

The decade of the seventies included a variety of changes in the direction of more equal rights for women in political and economic roles. The Equal Rights Amendment finally passed Congress in 1972 and within two years was ratified by thirty of the required thirty-eight states. Antidiscrimination laws were enforced and expanded. Many women were able to enter schools, sports, and occupations formerly closed to them. Although the federal Equal Rights Amendment was never ratified by enough states, many states worked for equality under state laws with or without state Equal Rights Amendments. (See Stetson, 1991 for a discussion of many issues related to women's legal rights.)

Although important changes resulted from these activities, serious problems for American women remained during the 1980s. Poverty remained high among women who were elderly and among mothers who headed households. Without the federal Equal Rights Amendment, legal equality for women depended primarily on state laws. The enforcement of federal antidiscrimination laws was weakened between 1984 and 1988, and enforcement remained problematic. Many insurance companies charged different premiums based on sex alone rather than on criteria directly related to the type of insurance involved. Predominantly-female jobs continued to pay considerably less than male jobs requiring comparable levels of skill, effort, and responsibility. Women continued to have the major responsibility for families even as they were expected to be financially self-sufficient. Most jobs were not flexible enough to meet the family responsibilities of workers. The care of children and of the elderly continued to be done primarily by women, whether as family members or as paid employees. Quality child care remained expensive and difficult to obtain, and there was little financial or other support for the family-based care of the aging or disabled. Proposals for unpaid family leave for workers met serious opposition from government and business. Homemakers with little work experience risked becoming displaced homemakers in the event of a divorce, disability, or the death of the husband. Women with short or interrupted work histories because of family responsibilities usually ended up with low Social Security benefits and few, if any , job-related pension benefits. Although most women needed to work because of financial responsibilities, those who were homemakers were totally dependent on their husbands' retirement incomes. (The American Woman series by the Women's Research and Education Institute edited by Rix 1987, 1988, and 1990, by Ries and Stone 1992, and by Costello and Stone 1994 and provide detail on many of these issues.)

The 1992 election brought Bill Clinton to the Presidency and increased the number of women in political office. For example, 48 women were elected to the House of Representatives, and the Senate increased from two to six (with another woman elected later to total seven) . Women were ten percent of the United States Congress (Costello and Stone 1994:353). The appointment of Ruth Bader Ginzberg to the Supreme Court meant that two of the eleven justices were female.

Some of the issues that have been of particular concern to women were redefined as general, more inclusive issues, and often these were taken more seriously when presented as a benefit for everyone, for example, revisions in credit and in vesting in retirement pensions. More recently, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 provided unpaid leave with health benefits for workers with family emergencies. Many proposals to improve education and health care have been discussed, but it was difficult to provide the resources needed to implement changes with the sluggish economy of the early nineties. In some cases, reframing issues so they could be considered to be more general has had more damaging effects on women than on men. For example, "welfare reform" in 1996 limited benefits for Aid to Families with Dependent Children and Supplemental Security Income, programs have greater impact on poor people who are the caretakers of children (mostly women) and the elderly (the oldest and poorest are mostly women).

A final matter of interest is the case of the few traditionally-male institutions (military colleges supported by public funds) that recently have been required to admit women. The social structure and culture of the initiation rites are so extreme that, applied equally to women, they have different, even more demeaning consequences. It is clear that treating women the same way as the male initiates has more extreme meaning in a male-dominated society. Should the women just learn to take it ("take it like a man?"), is it still "just hazing," or is it inappropriate sexual harassment? A careful consideration of this issues stimulates a reexamination of the appropriateness of the extreme types of hazing that often have been considered to be character building for individual males and to enhance bonding in all-male, especially military, groups.


Bullough, Vern L. 1973. The Subordinate Sex. Urbana: University of Illinois.

Chafe, William Henry. 1972. The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic, and Political Roles, 1920-1970. New York: Oxford University.

_____. 1991. The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century. New York: Oxford University.

Costello, Cynthia and Anne J. Stone (eds.). 1994. The American Woman 1994-5: Where We Stand. New York: W. W. Norton.

Decard, Barbara Sinclair. 1979. The Women's Movement: Political, Socioeconomic and Psychological Issues. (2nd Ed.). New York: Harper and Row.

Flexner, Eleanor. 1971. Century of Struggle. New York: Atheneum.

Freeman, Jo. 1975. The Politics of Women's Liberation. New York: David McKay.

The Harris Survey. 1985. Release Numbers 67 and 72. Orlando, Florida: Tribune Media Services.

Kraditor, Aileen S. 1971. The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement: 1890-1920. New York: Anchor.

Mayer, William G. 1992. The Changing American Mind: How and Why American Public Opinion Changed Between 1960 and 1988. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan.

O'Neill, William L. 1969. Everyone Was Brave. Chicago: Quadrangle.

Ries, Paula and Anne J. Stone (eds.). 1992. The American Woman 1992-3: A Status Report. New York: W. W. Norton.

Rix, Sara E. (ed.). 1987. The American Woman 1987-8: A Report in Depth. New York: W. W. Norton.

_____. 1988. The American Woman 1988-89: A Status Report. New York: W. W. Norton.

_____. 1990. The American Woman 1990-91: A Status Report. New York: W. W. Norton.

Rossi, Alice S. 1973. The Feminist Papers: From Adams to de Beauvoir. Pacific Grove CA: Brooks/Cole.

Stetson, Dorothy McBride. 1991. Women's Rights in the U.S.A: Policy Debates. New York: Bantam

U. S. Bureau of the Census. 1975. Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970, Bicentennial Edition, Part I. Washington, D.C.: U. S. Government Printing Office.

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