Culture

The Politics of Women’s History

Every March, the United States celebrates Women’s History Month. This tradition of honoring our grandmothers and mothers, female activists, and trailblazers began in 1981, when Congress established “Women’s History Week,” which became a month-long event by 1987. 

The progress that has been made to combat systemic gender inequality is largely thanks to the fight for adequate legislation. Most Americans would identify the Nineteenth Amendment, which declared, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,” as the most successful piece of legislation for women’s equality. Yet, in 1920, when the amendment was first passed, only white women were truly granted suffrage. As we have advanced into an era of intersectional feminism, it is important to remember that gender equality means nothing if we do not include our LGBTQ+ and disabled sisters and women of color. It took many other acts, executive orders, and court decisions to make women’s rights for ALL women a reality. Beyond the Nineteenth Amendment, here are some major political milestones in American women’s history, from FDR to Biden, that everyone should know.

Legislative

In 1963, Congress passed the Equal Pay Act, promising all Americans equal pay for equal work. This promise included all races, religions, and genders, providing an important precursor to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Civil Rights Era ultimately gave women of color the opportunities already enjoyed by their white counterparts.

In 1972, feminists fought for Title IX, prohibiting gender discrimination in education. As a consequence, young girls and women were legally protected from bias and prejudice in schools—an essential component of a child’s upbringing.

In 1978, Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, banning discrimination against pregnant women and considering a pregnancy a form of “temporary disability.” The act came after numerous lawsuits, some of which even reached the Supreme Court

In 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act, which funded services for preventing gender-related crimes such as domestic violence. Today, 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence, proving the VAWA needs to be updated and enforced. On March 17, 2021, the House of Representatives renewed the VAWA, citing the need for more protection due to the increase in domestic violence during the pandemic.

Judicial

The 1965 case of Griswold v. Connecticut struck down a Connecticut law banning birth control, which ultimately influenced the emphasis on privacy in Roe v. Wade. Prior to this case, states had control over birth control processes and could legalize or ban any of them. The Supreme Court decided that supplying birth control was protected under the Fourteenth Amendment. 

Roe v. Wade, the monumental 1973 Supreme Court case, declared that anti-abortion laws interfered with the right to privacy. Ultimately, the right to privacy became an ambiguous legal defense, as Roe v. Wade continues to draw fire from conservative pro-life activists who don’t believe the protection of choice is a viable argument defending abortion. The case was a tremendous win for feminists and organizations like Planned Parenthood throughout the U.S.

Executive

Although it is harder for the commander-in-chief to create laws and impossible for them to give court decisions, we can look at how the executive branch has welcomed gender diversity since the 1930s. Feminism from the early 20th century forward became a fight for equal representation, as seen in the influx of women leaders appointed and elected. Seeing women in the most powerful positions in the U.S. government not only inspires the leaders of tomorrow but ensures there are multiple perspectives in policy.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed the first female cabinet member, Frances Perkins, as the Secretary of Labor in 1933. Perkins worked side by side with Roosevelt to enact New Deal legislation, such as a minimum wage and a maximum work week, and helped draft the Social Security Act.

Shirley Chisolm was the first woman and African American to seek nomination for president for a major political party, entering the Democratic presidential primaries in 1972. She was also the first Black woman in Congress. As a member of Congress, she pushed for racial and gender equality and was outspoken against the Vietnam War.

Patricia Roberts Harris became the first Black woman in the cabinet under Jimmy Carter in 1977 as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. She spent her whole life fighting for Civil Rights and gender equality. 

Deb Haaland, confirmed on March 15, 2021, became the first Native American to lead a cabinet agency. She is the current Secretary of the Interior under the Biden Administration, bringing Indigenous representation to the White House. 

And of course, Vice President Kamala Harris broke numerous barriers as the first woman as well as the first Black and South Asian person to assume the role of Vice President. Before becoming the VP, Harris fought in the U.S. Senate for marriage equality and the protection of affordable healthcare.

Another way we can analyze the executive branch is by reviewing the promises of our current president. In his campaign, Biden’s agenda regarding women included:

  • Diverse political appointees, including VP, cabinet members, and Supreme Court justices if given the opportunity. Representation is vital for gender equality. So far, Biden’s cabinet confirmations have included numerous women, especially women of color. 
  • Reintroduction of the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing equal rights for all. The E.R.A. would promise equality for all minorities, regardless of gender, race, sexuality, etc. 
  • An end to the wage gap between men and women as well as streamlining the process to form a labor union.
  • Ending discrimination and harrassment in the workplace, especially in domestic labor, through the National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights.
  • Investment in women-owned businesses and improvement of the Small Business Administration.
  • Reforms to make childcare, healthcare, and education more accessible and affordable.
  • Federal funding for Planned Parenthood and an end to the Gag Rule. The Gag Rule, or the “Mexico City Policy,” made it harder for American money to support foreign nonprofits that promoted abortion or birth control. Striking a resemblance to the Griswold v. Connecticut court case, Biden’s executive order on January 28, 2021, to rescind the Gag Rule gave people a greater opportunity to access birth control methods.
  • Strengthening the Violence Against Women Act. The VAWA currently offers protection for women facing domestic violence, but strengthening it would lower the staggering domestic violence statistics. 

Regardless of our past, it is important for America to keep pushing forward in the fight for equality. The next four years will require not only Biden’s ideas and promises but also the legislative process and decisions in the Supreme Court. Moreover, gender equality won’t work without federalism—our local institutions are just as necessary as the federal government. Examining the legislation going through our states, like Texas Republican pushes for restrictive abortion laws, will provide a more holistic view of women’s rights today. Currently, the United States doesn’t even rank in the U.S. News top 10 “Best Countries for Women.” Scandinavian countries typically lead in gender equality and progress, and in order for the U.S. to improve its position, we must enact more systemic change and lead the world in opportunities and growth for women.

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