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Women's Rights and Women's Equality, 1848-1970s Content Session Material

Theme: Social Changes and Social Reform
Topic: Women's Rights and Women's Equality, 1848-1970s
Date: May 24, 2004
Scholar: Gayle Fischer, Associate Professor, Department of History, Salem State College

Overview | Required Reading | Reading Questions

Materials selected and syllabus created by Gayle Fischer, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Department of History, Salem State College (


In 1848 a group of men and women met at Seneca Falls, New York to address the status of women. Throughout the century and a half since this event, many other groups have gathered, formed and agitated for improvement in the lives of over one half of the American population. Responding to both overt and subtle inequalities as well as both long-standing problems and new concerns, women (and men, at times) have raised concerns about such disparate issues as job discrimination, organized religion's view of women, abortion rights, gender stereotyping, women's suffrage, sexual liberation, and protective legislation for mothers. In this session we will focus on three periods of women's rights activism: the 1840s and 50s, the years leading up to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, and the emergence of second wave feminism in the 1960s and 70s. For each, we will explore the social, political and cultural contexts of the activism, the goals and strategies of those pushing for change, and the successes and failures of a various groups and tactics.

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Required Reading

Selections from the following:

Cott, Nancy F. ed. No Small Courage: A History of Women in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

"Captives, Rebels, and Witches," 86-98;
"An Era of Challenge," 131-148
"Prayer and Charity," 173-178;
"Women in Public," 214-223;
"The Politics of Resistance," 223-232;
"The Year of the Revolution," 232-236;
Chapter 5, 237- 251;
Chapter 6, 303-315, 339-352;
Chapter 7, 357-364, 385-412;
Chapter 8, 418- 425, 442-446, 465-472;
Chapter 10, ALL

Flexner, Eleanor and Ellen Fitzpatrick. Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States. Enlarged Edition.Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996. (Note: originally published in 1959, and revised in 1975. Eleanor Flexner was sole author of original edition and revised edition)

"Preface, 1975" (Preface to the revised edition);
"The Seneca Falls Convention, 1848," 66-72 ;
"The Emergence of the Suffrage Movement," 136-148;
"The Unification of the Suffrage Movement," 208- 217;
"New Life in the Federal Amendment, 1914-1916," 255-268;
"A Hard Won Victory, 1918-1920," 300-317;

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Reading Questions

1. Historians debate whether or not we can discuss women's activities before the passage of the nineteenth amendment granting women the right to vote as "political" work since women did not have an official, legal voice in the government. Were women political actors before 1920? Explain. In what ways were women able to shape the political agenda before 1920?

2. Why did advocates for women's right to vote change their arguments after 1890? Why did women win the right to vote in 1920?

3. Running as it does across seventy-five years (minimally) of American history, the woman suffrage movement has been transformed by --and had an impact on -- major changes in American history. Outline a history of the woman suffrage movement that emphasizes these shifting, large historical contexts: in particular, antebellum abolition and reform; Reconstruction; turn of the century industrialization, immigration and class relations; and the Progressive period.

4. To what extent were there identifiably feminine concepts of citizenship and nation in the pre- and post-suffrage political activism of women?

5. Most historians agree that the "second wave" of the feminist movement began in the 1960s. What happened before then to set the stage for this development? To what extent was the movement shaped by these earlier events? By developments in the 1960s and thereafter?

6. Do the terms "first-wave" and "second-wave" feminism describe significant differences in feminist political thought and programs in the suffrage era and the 1970s?

7. Do women "do" politics differently from men?

8. What did late 19th and early 20th century women activists mean by "home" and how did they understand its political significance?

9. Were the strategies and tactics adopted by the militant suffragists productive in advancing "the cause" (votes for women) in the United States?

10. To what extent and in what ways did the ideal of motherhood influence women's struggle for the vote and arguments for equal rights as citizens? How was it understood and explained?

11. What efforts were made by the organized women's movements to include working-class women before the 1920s and how successful were they?

12. How much interracial cooperation occurred among women in reform movements of the early twentieth century? What issues brought them together? What issues divided them? How did their goals differ?

13. Why did women join the antisuffrage movement?

14. How did the motivations and priorities of middle-class African-American club women (1900-1920) in such organizations as the national Association of Colored Women differ from those of their white counterparts?

15. What differences are there between feminist aims that specify equality and independence and those that specify liberation? What implications do these differences have for political strategy and action?

16. What was achieved by so-called second-wave feminism and what have been the consequences for women at the end of the twentieth century?

17. Why did a women's liberation movement emerge in the United States in the late 1960s and 1970s? What did "liberation" mean?

18. The Civil Rights Movement was in full flower by the mid-1950s, but more than a decade passed before the Women's Movement emerged. Why the long delay? Why did the women's movement emerge when it did?

19. What appeal did New Right politics hold for women in the late 1970s and 1980s? Why did such women oppose the Equal Rights Amendment?

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