This timeline includes the major milestones that have advanced the economic, political, and personal rights of women in the United States. They range from key legislation and the founding of influential organizations to decisions from the Supreme Court that affect gender equality.
- Gaining the right to vote in 1920 was the most important milestone in advancing the position of women, according to about half of the 3,143 people polled for a 2020 Pew survey.
- Passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 were also cited as important by many adults surveyed.
- A majority of Americans said feminism has had a positive impact on the lives of White, Black, and Hispanic women. About a quarter (24%) say feminism has helped wealthy women a lot; just 10% say it’s been equally helpful to poor women.
The Married Women’s Property Act of 1848
This law, passed in New York State, allowed women to keep their real and personal property when they married. Sec. 1 stated, “The real and personal property of any female who may hereafter marry, and which she shall own at the time of marriage, and the rents, issues and profits thereof shall not be subject to the disposal of her husband, nor be liable for his debts, and shall continue her sole and separate property, as if she were a single female.” This law became the basis for laws passed in other states and helped inspire the Seneca Falls Convention of the same year.
Declaration of Sentiments
This document, modeled on the Declaration of Independence, outlined the rights that American women should be entitled to as citizens. Written mainly by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the declaration was signed by 68 women and 32 men, including abolitionist Frederick Douglass, at the Seneca Falls Convention. When the document was made public, the intense ridicule and criticism it received made many eventually withdraw their names.
The Wyoming state convention, in September 1889, approved the state constitution that included a provision giving female citizens voting rights. One year later Wyoming was admitted to the union, formally making it the first state to grant women the right to vote.
By the start of the 20th century, every state had passed Married Women's Property Acts, granting married women the rights to own property and keep the wages they earned as well as the right to sue or be sued.
The Girl Scouts of America USA is founded by Juliette Gordon Low.
Margaret Sanger wins her suit in New York to allow doctors to advise their married patients about birth control for health purposes. The birth control clinic that Sanger founded two years earlier in Brooklyn, along with others, later became Planned Parenthood in 1942.
The 19th Amendment to the Constitution is ratified, ensuring the right of women to vote in every state and for federal offices. Given that the fight for suffrage began in the 1800s, few of the original supporters lived to see the passage of the 19th Amendment. Over the long struggle, suffrage supporters met with fierce resistance, heckling, physical abuse, and jail. In 1917 the State of New York adopted women's suffrage. Following that, President Wilson changed his position to support the 19th amendment. The struggle to include Black and other minority women in voting rights is still ongoing because of discriminatory state voting practices.
The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (later known as the WAACs) is formed by the U.S. Army and recruits more than 35,000 women for an anticipated 1,000 positions. In 1978, an act of Congress disestablished the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps so that women could be assimilated more closely into the Army structure.
The Equal Pay Act is passed by Congress, making it illegal for employers to pay women lower wages than men for work requiring the same skill, effort, and responsibility. The act provides the cause of action for women to sue for damages.
The landmark Civil Rights Act is passed. Title VII prohibits discrimination in employment based on age, race, or gender. It goes beyond the Equal Pay Act in barring discrimination In hiring, firing, and promotions and prohibits other forms of discrimination, including that based on race, color, religion, and national origin.
In Griswold v. the State of Connecticut, the Supreme Court establishes the right of married couples to use contraception.
The National Organization for Women (NOW) is founded and eventually becomes the largest feminist advocacy group in the U.S.
The Supreme Court strikes down the state of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act and ends bans on interracial marriage in other states. The suit was brought by Mildred Loving, of African American and Native American descent, and her White husband, Richard Loving.
The first "no-fault" divorce law is adopted by California, allowing divorce by mutual consent.
The Education Amendments Act, Title IX, prohibits exclusion from participation or denied benefits on the basis of sex in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
The Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade makes abortion legal, which guaranteed a constitutional right to abortion. (On June 24 2022, in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization case, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade). In a separate ruling, Pittsburgh Press v. Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations, the Supreme Court rules that a ban on sex-segregated "help wanted" advertising does not violate a newspaper publisher's First Amendment rights, thus supporting this ban.
Housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, disability, age, and sex is prohibited by section 109 of the Housing and Community Development Act.
States cannot systematically exclude women from juries, the Supreme Court rules in Taylor v. Louisiana.
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act bans sex discrimination against pregnant women.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in Roberts v. United State Jaycees, bans sex discrimination in membership for formerly all-male groups such as the Jaycees, Kiwanis, and Rotary Clubs.
Sexual harassment and a "hostile environment" constitute sex discrimination that is actionable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the U.S. Supreme Court rules in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson.
The right of states to deny public funding for abortions and to prohibit public hospitals from performing abortions is affirmed by the Supreme Court. Further restrictions on abortion were imposed by the 2003 Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, the first law to ban a specific abortion procedure, upheld by the Supreme Court in 2007. However, in 2016, the Supreme Court struck down onerous abortion clinic regulations that were forcing women's clinics to close.
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a newborn, newly adopted or placed child, or a seriously ill child, spouse, or parent or for their own serious health condition without fear of losing their jobs. Amendments extended the protections to workers with families in the military.
The Violence Against Women Act funds services for victims of rape and domestic violence and allows women to seek civil rights remedies for gender-related crimes. Up for renewal every five years, in 2000 it created a legal assistance program for victims and addressed issues of dating violence and stalking. A bill to reauthorize the act in 2019 expired amid opposition from Senate conservatives. On March 17, 2021, H.R. 1620, the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization Act of 2021 passed the House and was sent to the Senate, where it awaits action by that chamber.
In Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court strikes down state laws that make gay sex a crime. The effect of this decision is the striking down of all remaining state sodomy laws, thereby affirming the legal rights of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people in America.
The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act extends the period during which a victim can file a pay discrimination complaint against an employer to 180 days after their last paycheck.
The Supreme Court rules that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage. The lawsuit, Obergefell v. Hodges, was brought by same-sex couples claiming that denying them the right to marry violated the 14th Amendment.
In January 2017, 105 women (78D, 27R), making up 21% of the Senate and 19.6% of the House, held seats in the United States Congress, a new record. As of January 2022, the count is 149 women in Congress, including 125 in the House and 24 in the Senate, making up 28.3% and 24% of their respective chambers.
The civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This ruling by the Supreme Court came in three cases of employees being fired because they were gay or transgender: Bostock v. Clayton County, Ga.,Altitude Express Inc. v. Zarda, and R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Kamala Harris becomes the first woman to serve as Vice President of the United States, and also the first Black and Asian American person in this high office. The Biden administration has chosen a record number of women, including eight women of color, for Cabinet and other high positions.
Dissatisfaction with the position of women in society has been growing. In a 2020 Pew Research Survey of 3,143 Americans, more expressed dissatisfaction with the state of gender equality than they did in a 2017 Pew survey on the subject. About half of Americans say gaining the right to vote in 1920 was the most important milestone in advancing the position of women. Some also cited the passage of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. A majority of Americans said feminism has had a positive impact on the lives of White, Black, and Hispanic women. About a quarter (24%) say feminism has helped wealthy women a lot; just 10% say it’s been equally helpful to poor women.
What Was the Most Important Historical Milestone in Gaining Gender Equality for Women in the U.S.?
According to about half (49%) of Americans polled by Pew Research in 2020, gaining the right to vote in 1920 was the most significant advancement of women's rights in the U.S. in history.
What Percent of Americans Favor Adding the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution?
Nearly eight-in-ten U.S. adults (78%) favor adding the ERA to the Constitution, according to a 2020 Pew Research survey. Despite this, nearly half (49%) of those polled believe that adding the ERA to the Constitution wouldn't make much difference when it comes to women's rights.
What are Some Examples of Ongoing Gender Inequality?
Among forms of gender inequality often highlighted are:
- The fact that women work longer hours than men, especially in the home.
- Outside the home, women earn less for the same type of work.
- Despite laws to the contrary, in practice women suffer from ownership inequality.
- Throughout the world education inequality is directed at women and girls.
- Worldwide, women also suffer from inequality when it comes to freedom of expression.