By Shari Levine
If you are female, you may not:
- Play sports in school (only boys can play on teams)
- Go to college
- Vote in an election
- Become a lawyer or a doctor
- Serve as a church minister
- Hold an elective office in the government
- Have access to birth control (it doesn't exist)
- Make a choice about having an abortion (it's illegal)
If you are married and female you may not:
- Own a home in your own name
- Sign a contract
- Own the money you make by working (your husband gets it)
- Own the money in your bank account (your husband owns it)
There was a time when girls lived by these rules and men believed that women didn't deserve to have equal rights. But luckily there have been strong women who, in the past 150 years, have fought the system (a.k.a. "the man") and changed the way women live in America today.
Without the women's movement, we would still have to live by the rules listed above. The movement has changed laws that kept women out of powerful positions in the government, society, and the workplace, giving us choices that our great-grandmothers couldn't dream of.
When you look back into women's history there are leaders that stand out as true "American Idols." Learning about their lives can help you understand how far women have come, what it took to get here, and inspire you to keep up momentum and perhaps even join the "third wave."*
Elizabeth Cady Stanton - Women's right to vote
Elizabeth Cady Stanton grew up in New York. Her father was a lawyer and a judge and she desperately wanted to make him happy. She learned how to ride horses and mastered the Greek language but he still wished she was a boy. Elizabeth married Henry Stanton and had seven kids in eight years (there was no birth control even if she wanted it). In 1848 she met with a group of friends who were equally disgusted with the way women were treated in America. Together they wrote the Declaration of Sentiments which listed the many ways women were treated unfairly. Elizabeth and her friends spent the rest of their lives as activists - traveling the country to get support for their cause. It took 72 years for women to win the right to vote. This is known as the first wave of feminism.
Alice Paul - Equal Rights Amendment
Alice Paul was born in New Jersey and after college she became an activist. For weeks she picketed outside the white house to convince President Woodrow Wilson of women's right to vote. For this she was arrested and put in jail where she went on a hunger strike in protest. After the vote was won in 1920, Alice wrote the Equal Rights Amendment for the United States Constitution which requires that women and men have equal rights in America. It took fifty years for congress to pass the amendment and then it was sent to the states for ratification. The ERA has been ratified by 35 states but three mores states must follow before it can amend the constitution. The fight for equal rights continues to this day.
Margaret Sanger - Reproductive rights
Margaret Sanger was a public health nurse. She believed that a woman had the right to control her own body especially when it came to reproduction and sexuality. Margaret educated women about birth control methods and supported women's rights to have choices. She opened the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York. Nine days after the clinic opened police raided it, arrested Margaret, and put her in jail. After she was released, Margaret fought hard for women's right to information, birth control and choice, and eventually started the American Birth Control League which later became Planned Parenthood. Margaret was 87 years old when the Supreme Court decided to make birth control legal for married couples in 1965. She died a few months after.
Betty Friedan - National Organization of Women
Betty Friedan was a leader during the second wave of feminism in the 1960's and 1970's. She wrote a bestselling book called The Feminine Mystique which described the way women felt about their limited options in both work and life. Betty and other women created the National Organization of Women (NOW) to fight for women's rights in the workplace. Back in the 1960's, help-wanted ads in newspapers were separated into jobs for women and jobs for men. The National Organization for Women went to the supreme court to make it possible for a woman to hold any job that she is qualified for.
*The third wave
Women continue to push important feminist issues into the public eye. Today's feminists are fighting for improved health and child care, passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and a better balance in work/family life, among others. As Gloria Steinem once said, "The point is less what we choose than that we have the power to make a choice."