As a growing number of states pass laws banning abortion, it’s worth remembering that Roe v. Wade was decided less than 50 years ago. Like so many other milestones in the fight for equality, legal abortion is a relatively recent occurrence, meaning your mother and grandmother grew up in a world with far fewer legal protections than exist today.
This month marks just a century since the Senate passed the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote (which they’d rejected twice before). It would take another year to ratify, but the suffrage movement had finally prevailed after nearly 50 years of organizing, protesting, and educating the general public on the importance of equal rights to vote in a democracy.
Over the next 100 years, women’s rights have been expanded–however, not to the point where they have complete constitutional equality. In 1923, the Equal Rights Amendment (aka the ERA) was introduced in Congress to give women all the other rights in the Constitution such as property, employment, and education.
It wouldn’t even be sent to states for ratification until 1972, where it fell three states short. Four years later, the Supreme Court declared that “women were covered by the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and ultimately that distinctions by sex had to be justified by an important state interest,” according to a report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The campaign to ratify continues today.
Of course, legislation doesn’t prevent discrimination. Many women (and underrepresented minorities of all genders) have and continue to face barriers. For instance, many African Americans were unable to vote for years in some places, because registering meant passing a literacy test or paying a polling tax. In 1964, the 24th Amendment prohibited the use of poll taxes. The Voting Rights Act, signed into law by President Johnson in 1965, suspended literacy and other tests.
There is at least one instance of women getting to do something men could not. Prior to 1976, an Oklahoma state law ruled that women between the ages of 18 and 20 were allowed to drink beer while men of the same age were not. So that’s . . . something.
Yet despite these slow and hard-won gains, the fight for equality continues. With that in mind, here is a brief history, adapted from a National Women’s History Alliance report, of what’s been gained in the U.S. across roughly three generations of women.
In your grandmother’s generation:
1938: The Fair Labor Standards Act establishes minimum wage without regard to sex.
1947: The U.S. Supreme Court says women are equally qualified with men to serve on juries but are granted an exemption and may serve or not, as women choose.
1963: The Equal Pay Act is passed by Congress, promising equitable wages for the same work, regardless of the race, color, religion, national origin, or sex of the worker.
In your mother’s generation:
1964: Title VII of the Civil Rights Act passes including a prohibition against employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex.
1965: The U.S. Supreme Court overturns one of the last state laws prohibiting the prescription or use of contraceptives by married couples.
1968: Executive Order 11246 prohibits sex discrimination by government contractors and requires affirmative action plans for hiring women.
1971: The U.S. Supreme Court outlaws the practice of private employers refusing to hire women with preschool-age children.
1972: The Supreme Court rules that the right to privacy encompasses an unmarried person’s right to use contraceptives.
1973: The U.S. Supreme Court bans sex-segregated “help wanted” advertising as a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as amended.
1973: The U.S. Supreme Court made a ruling on Roe v. Wade, protecting person’s right to terminate an early pregnancy.
1974: Housing discrimination on the basis of sex and credit discrimination against women are outlawed by Congress.
1978: The Pregnancy Discrimination Act bans employment discrimination against pregnant women.
In your generation:
1984: The U.S. Supreme Court rules that law firms may not discriminate on the basis of sex in promoting lawyers to partnership positions.
1986: The U.S. Supreme Court held that a hostile or abusive work environment can prove discrimination based on sex.
1987: The U.S. Supreme Court rules that it is permissible to take sex and race into account in employment decisions, even where there is no proven history of discrimination but when evidence of a manifest imbalance exists in the number of women or minorities holding the position in question.
1993: The U.S. Supreme Court rules that the victim did not need to show that she suffered physical or serious psychological injury as a result of sexual harassment.
1998: The U.S. Supreme Court rules that employers are liable for sexual harassment even in instances when a supervisor’s threats are not carried out. But the employer can defend itself by showing that it took steps to prevent or promptly correct any sexually harassing behavior and the employee did not take advantage of available opportunities to stop the behavior or complain of the behavior.
2009: The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act allows victims, usually women, of pay discrimination to file a complaint with the government against their employer within 180 days of their last paycheck.
2013: The ban against women in military combat positions is removed and the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act extends coverage to women of Native American tribal lands who are attacked by non-tribal residents, as well as lesbians and immigrants.
The fact that these rulings have come ad hoc throughout the past 100 years means that there is still a ways to go before women reach full constitutional equality. That goes hand in hand with the wage gap, which some estimates suggest will take 40 years to close the gap between the average man and woman (and longer if you consider race).
But this isn’t surprising. The U.S. is far behind the rest of the world offering paid parental leave–there is currently no federal legislation–which would benefit all genders. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another century to get us there.