Women’s Rights refers to the ongoing movement in the U.S. to improve gender equity through legislation, activism, public service, political participation, and more. The United States was founded as a patriarchy, restricting women from owning property, voting, or enjoying the rights of citizenship. The women’s rights movement uses activism, policy advocacy, and non-profit organization to improve gender equality, whereas the opponents of this movement may argue that gender equality already exists, or that women are biologically unequal to men and therefore deserving of secondary status. This controversial topic continues to shape public life in America today, and remains a pertinent subject for persuasive essays.
In the simplest terms, the women’s rights controversy pits advocates for greater social, economic, and legal gender equality against the individuals, institutions, and practices that either consciously or unconsciously support the continuation of American patriarchy. The United States Constitution was ratified in 1789 by a group known today as the Founding Fathers. Based on the name, it should come as little surprise that this group was composed entirely of men.
The Constitution, likewise, referred only to the rights of men. Most legal and economic conditions thereafter reflected this Constitutional patriarchy. Arguably, the “Founding Mothers” are those who first took part in efforts in the mid-19th Century to extend the protections of the Constitution to include women as well as men. These pioneers in the women’s rights movement—early forerunners to the modern feminist movement, and active participants in the abolitionist movement to end slavery—helped shape a controversy that is defined, on one side, by a push for gender equality and, on the other, by a protection of the status quo.
This frames the controversial topic today:
The goal of this discussion is to examine the various perspectives shaping the public debate topic over women’s rights, and to provide you with a look at some of the figures past and present who have influenced this discussion. The figures selected may not always be household names, but are instead selected to provide a nuanced look at the public discourse on this controversial topic, and in some cases, even to provide you with a list of individuals to contact as part of your research.
The history of women’s rights in the United States must begin with recognition that the United States was formed as a patriarchy—a nation and society where all cultural, political, and economic power was vested in men. During the Colonial period, American settlers carried the United Kingdom’s gender inequality across the Atlantic with them, and passed it on to the next several generations.
It was thus that, in 1769, the Colonies formally adopted the English property system which indicated that women are neither entitled to own property nor keep their earnings from work. By 1777, with the emergence of individual states, each began passing laws restricting the right of women to vote.
Women played an active support role in American victory during the Revolutionary War, and in doing so, helped to bring change to the social structure of marriage. Marital relations become somewhat more connected to love and companionship, and less directly driven by the concept of patriarchal ownership of one’s spouse. Still, women enjoyed little to no influence over social, political, and economic affairs. That would begin to change in the early part of the next century.
Women entered the 19th century with none of the rights enjoyed by their male counterparts in the fledgling United States. However, the mid-1800s saw the beginnings of a movement, particularly as groups of women began organizing around the fight for the abolition of slavery. As early as the 1830s, several decades ahead of the Civil War, a number of women took a prominent part in speaking out or writing in opposition to the continuity of slavery.
An early effort began, through the combined efforts of freed Black women who had been slaves and white, wealthy women with the means and time, to organize action against slavery. Black leaders like Maria W. Steward, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman provided example and inspiration for white activists including Abby Kelley Foster, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony, who became highly visible in the anti-slavery movement before earning their association with the women’s liberation movement.
In 1837 Mary Lyon founded the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary—the first college for women, and one of the future Seven Sisters schools. Wesleyan College was next, in 1939. That same year, the state of Mississippi became the first to allow women, with their husband’s permission, to hold property. Women were slowly gaining access to opportunities for advancement, but an event in 1840 highlighted how far women had yet to climb.
Two prominent activists—Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott—met at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London that year, and were denied seats due to their gender. This moment catalyzed a movement toward a convention specifically surrounding the movement for women’s liberation.
In 1848, the Seneca Falls, New York conference brought a group of 300, mostly women and some men, together to sign the Declaration of Sentiments calling for an end to gender discrimination. The Declaration was designed as a complement to the American Declaration of Independence, and called for greater economic equality, educational access, improved standing in religious communities, and the right to vote. The push for the last of these rights—known as women’s suffrage—would become a centerpiece of the women’s liberation movement.
Moreover, Seneca Falls would itself gain recognition as the landmark moment in the organization of women’s liberation, giving way to increased visibility for the cause and growing activism around the demands cited in the Declaration of Sentiments. Increasingly, the organized movement for female liberation became closely tied to the organized push for the abolition of slavery. Many early feminists were directly invested in the battle to end African slavery. And yet...
With the Civil War ended and American slaves emancipated, the 14th Amendment was passed in 1866. This Constitutional Amendment granted all “citizens” the right to vote. However, the Constitution had been written in language ambiguous enough that could be argued to apply only to men. This gave states the freedom to decide whether women should or should not be entitled to vote. Some states supported suffrage. Wyoming, for instance, in 1869, became the first state to pass a women’s suffrage law (though it wouldn’t be until 1890 that women in Wyoming could vote in all elections).
In 1872, Susan B. Anthony would become the first activist to test the ambiguous language of the 14th Amendment. She was arrested and charged with “unlawful voting” for casting a ballot for Ulysses S. Grant’s reelection. Numerous other female activists were turned away at the polls that year.
Though the women’s suffrage movement would become the centerpiece of a decades-long struggle, women did increasingly gain access to property rights and greater legal recognition during this time. For instance, in 1887, Susanna Medora Salter was elected the mayor of Argonia, Kansas. She is the first woman to be elected to the office of mayor in the U.S.
Further, by 1900, every state had passed legislation granting that married women could own property and keep their own wages. The next two decades marked a period of intense confrontation, with the women’s suffrage movement merging its effort with the “Temperance” movement. The latter of these was the push among religious women’s groups for the prohibition of alcohol. Women’s groups engaged in political organization and street protest, both of which were met at times with violent mobs who opposed both prohibition and women’s liberation.
Incidentally, the 18th Amendment banning the sale or consumption of alcohol only slightly predated the 19th Amendment granting women the universal right to vote. Both were passed into law in 1920. With the latter, women would permanently be granted the right to vote (whereas prohibition was only temporary), and destined for repeal in 1933 with the ratification of the 21st Amendment.
Women earned the right to vote in 1920. Therefore, the period thereafter marked the beginning of the public push for rights in numerous other areas of public life. In particular, as the modern feminist movement gained momentum, women’s groups increasingly confronted the issue of reproductive rights. Abortion and contraception were both generally prohibited throughout the United States at this time. However, as the push for women’s liberation gathered steam, the view also gained traction that abortion was fundamentally a matter of personal choice and privacy, and that government laws banning abortion were an infringement on those rights.
In 1921, nurse, educator, and activist Margaret Sanger formed The American Birth Control League, which advocated for the opening of birth control clinics, and helped raise consciousness about the need for women to control their own fertility and reproductive decisions. In 1942, the league was renamed the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, a nonprofit organization that now includes more than 600 clinics throughout the United States focused on reproductive healthcare.
The mid-20th century saw growing support for women’s reproductive rights among various cross-sections of the American public. As greater mainstream support emerged for decriminalization of abortion, an array of landmark court decisions and state-level legislative changes began to alter the legal landscape.
Most notably, in 1973, the decision in Roe v. Wade found that “This right of privacy, whether it be founded in the Fourteenth Amendment’s concept of personal liberty and restrictions upon state action, as we feel it is, or... in the Ninth Amendment’s reservation of rights to the people, is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.”
The 1960s and 1970s were a period of dramatic change in American public life, with progressive ideologies and protests revealing a growing generation gap. Members of the younger cohort took an increasingly vocal and unified stance on the need for greater gender equality. A number of landmark legislative acts accelerated the push toward gender equality, including:
These legislative changes have all been to the direction of extending economic opportunity, access, and Constitutional protections to women at the same levels enjoyed by men. Today, however, modern feminists would argue that wage equity remains elusive. According to Payscale, “In 2020, women make only $0.81 for every dollar a man makes.”
Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential figures in defining the women’s rights controversy in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. Notably, without controlling for gender, the list of those who have exacted the greatest influence is nonetheless composed entirely of women. Moreover, the women who top this list are predominantly those who have been active, visible, and noteworthy for their role in the women’s suffrage and liberation movements, as well as a few women who have had a notable impact from roles of public leadership:
|3||Susan B. Anthony|
|5||Simone de Beauvoir|
Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential books on the topic of women’s rights in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. Literature has played an important part in impacting the public discourse and shaping our thinking on women’s rights, with landmark texts radically challenging existing orthodoxies about gender roles and gendered relationships. In most cases, these texts have achieved influence by illuminating and opposing long-standing patriarchal social constructs:
|1||The Feminine Mystique|
|2||The Concise History of Woman Suffrage|
|3||The Woman’s Bible|
|4||The Second Sex|
|5||A Vindication of the Rights of Woman|
|6||The Subjection of Women|
|7||In Defense of Women|
|8||Woman in the Nineteenth Century|
|9||The Good Women of China|
|10||The Female Eunuch|
Today, the women’s rights movement is engaged on multiple fronts. To an extent, the movement is dedicated to defending and expanding upon the legislative gains of the 20th Century, especially as they concern the constant push and pull over reproductive rights.
To learn more, jump to our look at The Abortion Controversy.
Whereas the movement of the 20th Century centered around adapting the Constitution to apply in equal terms to women and men, the movement of the 21st Century might better be described as a push to illuminate and dismantle cultural and institutional inequalities. This is evidenced in areas such as the push to expose and address violence, sexual assault, and sexual harassment against women in various spaces, including at home, in the healthcare system, at the workplace, and more.
The #MeToo movement, in particular, has cast a glaring spotlight on the abuses against women in seemingly public spaces, often by powerful men including music producers, Hollywood actors, media personalities, corporate executives, and politicians. At the heart of the movement are women who have come forward with their stories of abuse, and the increased willingness of the collective society to hold men accountable for their alleged actions.
In many ways, this movement provides a useful framing for the broader debate over women’s liberation in the U.S. today. Even as the #MeToo movement has created a new level of accountability for abusers, it has sparked a backlash against what its critics call “cancel culture.” While some of the accused have been “cancelled” for their alleged abuses through the loss of jobs, prestige, and income, few have been formally charged with any crimes. Those who are critical of “cancel culture” would argue that the absence of such charges should render the accused innocent until proven guilty, and that the propensity of #MeToo advocates to punish individuals without such due process is evidence of a movement which has gone too far.
In many ways, this highlights the perspective among critics, that the feminist movement is a radical attack on existing institutions. Critics of women’s liberation, as well as critics of the #MeToo movement, might be inclined to argue that the current Constitutional standards grant gender equality, and that the push for further cultural and institutional equality is unfounded, and potentially even punitive of men.
It is noteworthy, however, that even in the present day, we have witnessed women marking first-of-their-kind achievements, including:
Today, advocates for women’s rights would argue that the quest for real equity continues on numerous social, political, sexual, and economic fronts, whereas opponents would argue that women are either undeserving of this equality based on the biological differences between the sexes, or that women have already achieved sufficient equality, and that any further push for women’s rights would be at the expense of male rights.
Our goal in presenting subjects that generate controversy is to provide you with a sense of some of the figures both past and present who have driven debate, produced widely-recognized works of research, literature or art, proliferated their ideas widely, or who are identified directly and publicly with some aspect of this debate. By identifying the researchers, activists, journalists, educators, academics, and other individuals connected with this debate—and by taking a closer look at their work and contributions—we can get a clear but nuanced look at the subject matter. Rather than framing the issue as one side versus the other, we bring various dimensions of the issue into discussion with one another. This will likely include dimensions of the debate that resonate with you, some dimensions that you find repulsive, and some dimensions that might simply reveal a perspective you hadn’t previously considered.
On the subject of women’s rights, this requires us to include central terminology in our search including “women’s rights,” “feminism,” and “suffragette.” The natural points of opposition for each of these terms, at least from a historical perspective, are the contrarian “anti-suffragist” and “anti-feminist” positions. Also of consequence to this controversy are a number of organizations which have had an impact either on the advancement of, or resistance to, women’s rights, including the “League of Women Voters” and the “Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League.”
Our InfluenceRanking engine gives us the power to scan the academic and public landscape surrounding women’s rights, using key terminology to identify consequential influencers. As with any topic that generates public debate and disagreement, this is a subject of great depth and breadth. We do not claim to probe either to the bottom of this depth or the borders of this breadth. Instead, we offer you one way to enter into this debate, to identify key players, and through their contributions to the debate, to develop a fuller understanding of the issue and perhaps even a better sense of where you stand.
For a closer look at how our InfluenceRankings work, check out our methodology.
The primary key term in our discussion, “women’s rights” refers to the global push for gender equality. Women’s rights is a phrase coined in the context of institutional patriarchy, where social, political, and economic conditions favor a male-dominated hierarchy. From within this context, “women’s rights” generally refers to the goal of expanding rights toward a state of gender equality. Influencers included in the search results here include activists, political office-holders, and civil rights attorneys.
“American suffragette” refers to those who advocated for and demonstrated with the aim of gaining women the right to vote in the United States. From the time that Wyoming became the first state ratifying the right of women to vote in 1869, until the passage of the 19th Amendment granting women nationwide the right to vote in 1920, women’s suffrage gained tremendous momentum and sometimes faced violent pushback. The influencers occupying this keyword search were notable figures in the movement that gave rise to modern feminism, and their efforts were largely concentrated within the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.
As women gained the right to vote, the focus of the women’s liberation movement gradually evolved into a multi-front effort to free women from the cultural constructs of patriarchy. This was the initiation of a more concerted effort to define the modern feminine identity separate from the constructs of marriage, motherhood, and male ownership. The modern feminist movement would be spearheaded by female academics, economists, and sociologists who presented an increasingly expansive and independent identity of the modern woman.
Like the term above, “American Feminist,” feminism refers to the groundbreaking work of female academics and thought-leaders dedicated to advancing the rights of women on multiple cultural fronts. This describes both the initiation of the movement during the protest era of the 1960s and 1970s, and the movement as it continues to evolve today around emergent challenges.
An organization formed in 1920 to help defend and expand the newly gained right of women to vote, the League of Women Voters would grow to become an important advocate of voter registration and an array of progressive policy positions in American politics.
As women pushed for the right to vote in the late 19th and early 20th Century, they were met with aggressive institutional resistance. This resistance was formed by both men and women who shared the view that political participation diverged from the proper role of women in society. The anti-suffragist movement produced literature and staged protests decrying the push to grant women voting rights, often taking the position that this change would undermine the moral fabric of the American patriarchy.
An extension of the terminology above, the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League was formed by women who believed women should not be given the right to vote. This position, as the influencers included here demonstrate, was held by members of the aristocratic class who perceived the gender hierarchy as an appropriate extension of historical monarchies.
The phrase “anti-feminist” is not connected to any specific movement, but refers more generally to a perspective held by those throughout both history and in the present day who take a contrasting position to the movement for women’s rights. Influencers in this area include activists and media personalities, often aligned with conservative or right-leaning ideologies, who argue either that women are not entitled to equality, or that they have achieved equality and are therefore not entitled to any further advances in the feminist political agenda.
If you would like to study this topic in more depth, check out these key organizations...
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Interested in diving into another one of our controversial topics? Check out The 25 Most Controversial Topics Today!