Women Delivering: Equity Achievements

Pam Sornson, JD

Pam Sornson, JD

April 16, 2023

Since 1848, women have been fighting for full equality with their male counterparts, and the barriers they’ve overcome have been momentous. In the United States, women have achieved significant status as leaders, role models, and visionaries, and, in many instances, their voices and opinions carry the gravitas they deserve. The successes achieved to date, while not completing the entire mandate of full equality, now ensure that all females enjoy a plethora of protections, supports, and opportunities not imaginable by their distant ancestors.

 

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An Obvious Place to Start: Becoming A ‘Person’

Fundamentally, the battle to become a fully emancipated and individualized person comes down to the identification of legal status as conferred and enforced by law. The law grants people the capacity to hold title to property, make decisions and contracts, and live independently of others’ influences. Men, apparently, are inherently ‘persons’ and ‘people;’ there has been no effort to deny them as a class from the benefits those statuses convey.

Women, however, have been fighting to attain protections and rights similar to men’s since before the American Revolution. For colonial women in the 1700s, recognized legal status was conferred based on marital status, and married female colonists were definitely at a deficit. The early settlers followed British common law, which, in 1769, defined wives as aspects of their husband’s person: “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in the law. The very being and legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated into that of her husband under whose wing and protection she performs everything.” Women’s identification as ‘persons,’ as ‘members’ in a group of ‘people,’ and as ‘electors’ changed slightly in 1789, when the new Constitution interpreted those words to include them; the new recognition did nothing to alter their subjugated reality, however.

Note, too, that not all ‘women’ were classified as ‘persons.’

Black women remained the ‘property’ of their owners, which negated their opportunity to defend themselves against their master’s brutalities. (That ‘ownership’ role was abolished in 1865 with the passage of the 13th Amendment, but subsequently, there was little actual change in how Black women were treated.)

Asian women were almost non-existent in the country through to the 1930s, with two federal laws (1924’s Immigration Act of 1924 and 1882’s Chinese Exclusion Act) explicitly barring both Asian men and women from entering the country.

The exclusion from the rights and protections conferred by law on men was also applied to Indigenous women and females from other cultures.

Curiously, single colonial women fared better. While they couldn’t obtain a license or college degree, they could form contracts, buy and sell real estate, and accumulate and own ‘personalty,’ which is any ‘thing’ that is movable. These opportunities arose by tradition in the colonies, where single women contributed significantly to the building and development of those early communities, but they weren’t actually ‘rights,’ as those are only invested through the passage of law.

The ‘person’ label did not provide women with autonomy or equality, either. Over time, each individual state developed its own standard for the rights offered to the women within its jurisdiction.

By 1777, even before the country was established, all existing states (colonies) had passed laws prohibiting women from voting.

In 1839, Mississippi allowed its married female residents to hold title to real property in their own name, but only if they had their husband’s permission.

In 1873, an Illinois rule excluding women from practicing law was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1875, the federal high court also supported Missouri’s position that women didn’t have the right to vote because they (as a group) constituted a ‘special class of non-voting citizens.’

Consequently, by the late 19th Century, with no unifying national standard in place, women in the ‘United States’ were subjected to a multitude of differing rules and regulations based on where they lived, not on their fundamental status as human females. Not surprisingly, the confusion and inherent unfairness of the situation ignited the (still ongoing) drive to validate women as equal to men in general and equally valuable contributors to society. Only when this respect is universally accepted will women obtain and retain control over all aspects of their lives.

 

Validation and Control

Through the decades, campaign successes that established limited forms of validation for women as valued members of the community brought with them significant benefits. In addition to the right to own property (real and personal), women (married and single) also won the rights to form contracts, open businesses, participate in government, and speak out about things that mattered to them. Near ceaseless advocacy and political agitation beginning in the mid-1800s and continuing through to today have garnered many – but not all – successes, facilitating the American woman’s ability to do all those things and more.

Notably, one of the most significant gains for women was winning the right to work and earn as much as a man for doing the same labor, although those advances were hard fought and took years to accomplish. There was some forward movement in the late 19th Century (in 1879, the U.S. Congress overruled the Supreme Court and empowered a woman to practice in front of that body) and the early 20th Century (in 1938, minimum wages were made equal between women and men). However, real headway wasn’t made until the 1960s:

In 1963, the Equal Pay Act ordered that all workers be paid ‘equitably’ regardless of sex, race, color, religion, or other qualifiers. (Full enforcement of that Act remains elusive.)

In 1964, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibited employers from discriminating against people who weren’t Christian white men.

In 1965, restrictive laws curtailing women’s work hours were repealed, allowing women to take jobs previously held only by men.

In 1969, a federal court agreed that women with the physical capacity to do the same work as men should be hired to do that.

After that, Congress passed a plethora of laws that granted to women many (but not all) of the employment and work-related rights that men had.

 

For 175 years, America’s women have struggled to gain full equality within their society, and society has suffered for lack of those resources. The successes they’ve achieved and the processes they followed to attain them are indicators that, as a group, women will only rest in this endeavor once they’ve reached full and complete equality with men as valued and contributing members of society.

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