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Women's movements are group efforts, chiefly by women, that seek to improve women's lives or the lives of others. Probably the best-known women's movements are those that have engaged in political efforts to change the roles and status of women in society. Such political movements by women on their own behalf are often referred to as feminist movements. Women's groups also have worked to help others, primarily through religious and charitable activities. Whether political, religious, or charitable, women's movements have sought to achieve greater social, economic, and political involvement for women.

Throughout history, women have usually had fewer rights and a lower social status than men. The traditional role of wife and mother dominated, and most women's lives centered around their households. Women's movements first developed during the 1800's in the United States and Europe and then spread to other parts of the world. The first women's movements arose largely in response to the coming of modern urban and industrial society. The industrial age brought about great economic and political changes, creating upheaval in women's traditional roles and causing women to question their status and situation. This first wave of women's movements concentrated primarily on gaining voting rights for women.

A second wave of women's movements emerged during the 1960's, another period of great political and social change in many areas of the world. These contemporary women's movements have sought greater equality for women in the family, in the workplace, and in political life.

Women's movements have enabled large groups of women to question and determine their rights and responsibilities. The specific goals and methods of these movements have varied from one time and place to another, depending on local customs regarding the treatment of women, on national political values, and on economic conditions. But in almost every case, women's movements have won greater freedom for women to act as self-sufficient individuals, rather than as dependent wives or daughters.

Women's status through the ages

Origins of women's traditional roles. Throughout history, most societies have held women in an inferior status compared to that of men. This situation was often justified as being the natural result of biological differences between the sexes. In many societies, for example, people believed women to be naturally more emotional and less decisive than men. Women were also held to be less intelligent and less creative by nature. But research shows that women and men have the same range of emotional, intellectual, and creative characteristics. Many sociologists and anthropologists maintain that various cultures have taught girls to behave according to negative stereotypes (images) of femininity, thus keeping alive the idea that women are naturally inferior.

There are, of course, certain physical differences between the sexes. From earliest times, the fact that women were the childbearers helped establish a division of tasks between women and men. In every society, only women bear children and nurse infants, leading to a tradition of women assuming most of the responsibility for child care. Men, by contrast, have been free to work at greater distances from their families. In early societies, this division of labor did not necessarily suggest inequality. But in more developed societies, a division of labor between women who worked mainly in the home and men who worked outside the home could give men economic superiority. A woman who stayed home came to depend on someone else--usually a man--to earn money for the necessities of life.

Women also differ physically from men in being, on average, smaller and less powerfully muscled. These physical differences helped define certain physically demanding or dangerous jobs as "men's work."

Eventually, the division of tasks that originally had been determined by physical differences became a matter of tradition. Consequently, even after machinery canceled out the advantage of male strength and after birth control gave women the means to regulate their childbearing, women continued to face barriers to entering many occupations.

The remainder of this section traces the status of women through history. It focuses on Western societies, because it is in these societies that women's movements first arose and have had their greatest impact to date.

In ancient societies, the lives of most women centered around their households. For example, in the Greek city-state of Athens from about 500 to 300 B.C., women raised children and managed the spinning, weaving, and cooking in the household. Wealthy women supervised slaves in these tasks, but they also did some of the work themselves. Respectable Athenian women seldom left their homes. Only men could purchase goods or engage in soldiering, lawmaking, and public speaking. The societies of ancient Egypt and of the Greek citystate of Sparta provided a rare contrast. Both Egyptian and Spartan women could own property and engage in business.

In ancient Rome, as in Athens, women's primary role was to manage household affairs. Women could not hold public office. Men dominated as head of the household. But the Romans developed a system of government based on the authority and leadership of a noble class that included not only statesmen and military leaders, but also the matrons (married women) of leading Roman families. For example, the Roman matron Cornelia, who lived during the 100's B.C., achieved fame and respect for her managerial skill, patriotism, and good works. In time, such upper-class women gained greater control over their property and over marriage decisions. However, even these women could not vote or hold public office.

During the Middle Ages, which began in the A.D. 400's and lasted about a thousand years, women's lives continued much as before. Like the Roman matrons, medieval noblewomen managed large households and supervised servants, oversaw gardens, attended to clothing and furnishings, and entertained guests. Many other women worked as cooks and servants, or worked in the pastures and fields of large estates.

However, two new roles for women did appear during the Middle Ages--the nun and the woman active in trade, either as an artisan or as a merchant. Convents flourished during the early Middle Ages. They offered primarily upper-class women an alternative to marriage and provided education, spiritual development, and control over extensive land. Beginning in the 1200's, women found increasing opportunities for independence as artisans and merchants in the medieval cities of England, France, Germany, and other western European lands.

From the Renaissance to the 1800's, fundamental changes in religious and political outlook took root, as leading thinkers began to emphasize the rights of the individual. The Renaissance was a period of great cultural and intellectual activity that spread throughout Europe from the 1300's to about 1600. The most significant intellectual movement of the Renaissance was humanism, which stressed the importance of human beings and their nature and place in the universe. Some humanists questioned certain traditional ideas about women, and favored better education and a more responsible family role for women.

The Reformation, the religious movement of the 1500's that gave rise to Protestantism, also encouraged a reassessment of women's roles. Protestant leaders permitted ministers to marry and began to picture marriage as a mutual relationship of spiritually equal partners. Husbands had less control over the lives of their wives. Protestants also began to view marriage and divorce as matters of individual choice rather than as the fulfillment of obligations to such authorities as parents and the church.

The Age of Reason--another period of great intellectual activity--swept Europe in the 1600's and 1700's. During this era, educated women participated in intellectual and political debates. In Paris, gatherings called salons promoted conversation and discussion among learned men and women. The salons widened these women's view of society and their possible roles in it.

Women's roles as workers also expanded during the Age of Reason. In western Europe and the American Colonies, women worked as innkeepers, landowners, midwives, printers, servants, teachers, and textile workers. But rural occupations continued to employ the largest group of female, and male, workers. Rural women toiled as laborers on large farms and in their own small gardens and cottages. Both urban and rural women engaged in knitting, sewing, and other home industries that made crucial contributions to household income.

The rise of women's movements

Forces of change. Several developments during the late 1700's and early 1800's set the stage for the rise of women's movements. The thinkers of the Age of Reason questioned established political and religious authority and stressed the importance of reason, equality, and liberty. The new intellectual atmosphere helped justify women's rights to full citizenship. On the eve of the French Revolution (1789-1799), the Marquis de Condorcet, a French philosopher, spoke in favor of women's right to vote. The British author Mary Wollstonecraft argued for women's rationality and equality with men in her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

In the American Colonies, the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), fought in the name of liberty and equality, raised the hopes of some women. Women supported the war with their sewing and farming, and by boycotting British goods and engaging in other forms of protest. Although neither the American nor the French revolutions increased women's rights, these conflicts gave new prominence to the idea of equality.

The spread of industrialization during the 1800's also affected women. The Industrial Revolution moved men's, women's, and children's work out of the home and into factories (see INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION). Factory jobs offered working-class women an opportunity to earn wages. But if a woman was married, her husband legally controlled her earnings.

Industrialization had a different effect on middle-class women in small towns and cities. With the separation of work and home, these women lost a sense of useful involvement in productive work. They became regarded as "ladies" whose place was in the home, while their husbands provided the family income. Many of these women turned to such pursuits as needlework and craftwork--and to religious and charitable activities, as well.

The beginnings of women's movements. Before women's movements emerged, women began to form many kinds of groups based on common interests. After the French Revolution, for example, various women's political clubs took shape in both France and Great Britain. In the United States, women formed temperance societies, which campaigned to abolish alcoholic beverages, and missionary societies, which supported the spread of Christianity.

In the United States and Britain, two major types of women's movements gradually developed: (1) "social," or "domestic," women's movements and (2) "equal rights" feminist groups. Women's social movements carried out religious, charitable, and social activities. Equal rights feminists primarily worked to remove educational and political barriers to women and to change women's roles.

Before the Civil War (1861-1865), many American women's movements were of the social type. These included societies to promote temperance, to aid poor women and orphans, and to send missionaries to the Indians or to foreign lands. Women formed similar religious and charitable associations in Britain before 1860 and in other Western countries during the late 1800's.

Fewer groups were centered on gaining equal rights for women. But such groups had a clear goal to improve women's situation through such reforms as better education for girls, support for women's property rights, and voting rights for women.

Women's educational opportunities gradually expanded throughout the 1800's. In 1821, American teacher Emma Willard founded the Troy Female Seminary (now the Emma Willard School) in Troy, N.Y. Willard's school was one of the first institutions to offer girls a high-school education. In 1833, Oberlin Collegiate Institute (now Oberlin College) opened as the first coeducational college in the United States. By 1900, some major European and American universities were accepting women for advanced study and professional training.

Women's efforts to secure legal rights, particularly property rights, also brought reform. In the United States, many states enacted property laws during the 1840's and 1850's. Such laws allowed married women to make contracts, to own property, to control their own earnings, and to have joint custody of their children. For example, in 1848 a New York law gave married women the right to retain control of their own real estate and personal property. The new laws especially aided widowed, deserted, and mistreated wives. Similar legislation passed in Britain and other Western countries during the middle and late 1800's.

In 1848, social reformers Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the first women's rights convention in the United States in Seneca Falls, N.Y. The convention adopted a Declaration of Sentiments, which called for women to receive "all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States." National women's rights conventions met almost every year from 1850 until the onset of the Civil War in 1861. The delegates discussed the rights of women regarding divorce, guardianship of children, property control, voting, and other concerns.

Many of the equal rights feminists were also leaders in the movement to abolish slavery. During the Civil War, most women reformers devoted their efforts to supporting war activities.

The right to vote. The issue of suffrage (the right to vote) became increasingly important to women during the 1800's. In the United States, the cause of woman suffrage was championed by two key organizations: the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). Stanton and women's rights leader Susan B. Anthony led the NWSA, founded in 1869. The more radical organization of the two, the NWSA demanded equal education, equal employment opportunities, and voting rights for women immediately. Women's rights leader Lucy Stone, her husband, Henry Blackwell, and other reformers formed the AWSA, also in 1869. The more moderate AWSA supported gradual advances, such as limited suffrage for women in local elections.

In 1890, the two organizations joined to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Suffragists (supporters of woman suffrage) held conventions, waged state-by-state campaigns, and distributed literature to win support for their cause. New methods of campaigning used by British women suffragists--especially parades and outdoor speeches--spurred the drive for suffrage. Support from both social and equal rights women's movements proved necessary to the final suffrage victory. Women's social movements--temperance organizations, missionary societies, and progressive reformers--realized that they needed the vote to reach their goals. Equal rights feminists appealed to women laborers and to professional and college-educated women, all of whom had an interest in securing political power and more responsible and better-paying jobs. In 1920, the United States adopted the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting American women the right to vote.

Suffrage movements also arose in other Western countries during the 1800's and early 1900's. In 1893, New Zealand became the first nation to grant women full voting rights. Australia gave women the right to vote in federal elections in 1902. Swedish women with property could vote in city elections in 1862. Sweden granted women full suffrage in 1921. In Britain, the suffrage movement began in the 1860's, though women did not win full voting rights until 1928.

Birth control also emerged as a woman's issue during the early 1900's. At that time, the distribution of birth control information was illegal in the United States. A number of social reformers supported birth control as a way to relieve poverty. Margaret Sanger, a trained nurse, led the birth control movement in the United States. By the 1920's, her work had helped make it possible for doctors to give out birth control information legally.

Decline after 1920. By 1920, the first wave of women's movements had peaked in the United States. With suffrage finally granted, many women assumed that the need for women's movements had disappeared. As a result, a period of relative inactivity followed. The NAWSA became the League of Women Voters and worked to educate women voters about current political issues. A few women, such as Frances Perkins, who served as secretary of labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, were appointed to high public office.

In some countries, including Belgium, France, and Italy, the struggle for woman suffrage continued into the 1940's. But they, too, experienced little feminist activity after women gained the right to vote.

During World War II (1939-1945), several million American women took factory production jobs to aid the war effort. But after the war ended, these women were urged to leave the work force to make room for the returning servicemen. Society encouraged women to become full-time housewives. Devotion to home and family and the rejection of a career emerged as the ideal image for women. This view of womanhood, described by American author Betty Friedan in her book The Feminine Mystique (1963), all but replaced any organized struggle for women's rights until the 1960's.

Contemporary women's movements

In Western societies, a new wave of women's movements emerged during the 1960's. Civil rights protests in the United States, student protests around the world, and women's rebellion against the middle-class housewife's role contributed to this second wave of women's movements. It began with women's examination of their personal lives and developed into a program for social and political change. Women's groups discovered discrimination in the workplace, where women received less pay and fewer promotions than men. They also uncovered barriers to women seeking political office and to female students striving for high academic achievement.

Women's organizations. Two types of women's groups appeared in the United States during the 1960's. One type consisted of the small, informal women's liberation groups, which were first formed by female students active in the civil rights movement and in radical political organizations. These groups tended to be leaderless and focused on members' personal experiences. They emphasized self-awareness and open discussion to combat discrimination and to establish greater equality between men and women in marriage, child-rearing, education, and employment.

Large, formal organizations developed alongside the small women's liberation groups. These organizations, known as women's rights groups, campaigned for the passage and strict enforcement of equal rights laws. President John F. Kennedy's Commission on the Status of Women, founded in 1961, discovered a number of legal barriers to women's equality. It reported on laws that barred women from jury service, excluded women from certain occupations, and, in general, kept women from enjoying their full rights as citizens. In 1966, a number of feminist leaders formed the National Organization for Women (NOW) to fight sexual discrimination.

Other women's rights organizations also appeared. The Women's Equity Action League, founded in 1968, monitored educational programs to detect inequalities in faculty pay and promotion. The organization also drew attention to what was called the "chilly classroom climate," an environment that discouraged discussion and participation by female students. The National Women's Political Caucus, formed in 1971, focused on finding and supporting women candidates for political office. Concerned Women for America, founded in 1979, stresses the preservation of traditional American values.

Other Western nations experienced a similar revival of women's movements. In Canada, for example, both women's liberation groups and women's rights organizations formed in the 1960's. The National Action Committee on the Status of Women, founded in 1972, is the largest women's organization in Canada.

Legal gains. The second wave of women's movements brought about many important legal gains for women. In the United States, several laws passed during the 1960's and 1970's aimed at providing equal rights for women. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 requires equal pay for men and women doing the same work. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits job discrimination on the basis of sex as well as on the basis of color, race, national origin, and religion. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 bans discrimination on the basis of sex by schools and colleges receiving federal funds. This law applies to discrimination in all areas of school activity, including admissions, athletics, and educational programs. The Equal Credit Opportunity Act took effect in 1975. It prohibits banks, stores, and other organizations from discriminating on the basis of sex or marital status in making loans or granting credit.

Court rulings have also expanded women's legal rights in the United States. Undoubtedly the most controversial such ruling was the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which established women's unrestricted right to abortion during the first three months of pregnancy. NOW and a number of other women's groups have consistently opposed attempts at limiting women's legal access to abortion. Other women, however, favor tighter restrictions on the availability of abortion.

Not all efforts to broaden women's rights have been successful. In 1972, Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and sent it to the states for ratification. The proposed amendment read: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex." Supporters of the ERA argued that the amendment would provide specific constitutional guarantees of equal treatment under the law, regardless of sex. Opponents, which included political activist Phyllis Schlafly and many other women, argued that passage of the ERA would require women to serve in the military and would deprive them of the right to financial support from their husbands. The amendment failed to become part of the Constitution because only 35 of the necessary 38 states had approved it by the 1982 deadline.

Since the 1970's, women's groups in the United States have increasingly pushed for the enactment of social welfare legislation. Such laws provide benefits through family and community programs. Women need such programs if they are to have equal employment opportunities. Social welfare bills may concern preschool child care; before- and after-school programs for children; and parental leave from work for pregnancy, childbirth, or the care of sick family members. France, Sweden, and other European countries have instituted a number of such social welfare programs. In 1993, the U.S. Congress passed a law that requires companies with 50 or more employees to offer at least 12 weeks of unpaid leave to employees with a sick family member, a newborn infant, or a recently adopted child.

In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics. Many countries that underwent Communist revolutions or take-overs granted women equal rights and benefits in one stroke, often long before women in Western societies obtained such rights. In 1918, for example, the Soviet Union instituted maternity leave, government-funded child care, equal pay for equal work, equal education, and the right to hold any political office. Women gained similar rights in East Germany (now part of Germany) in 1949.

Beginning in the late 1980's, the Communists lost control of the governments of the Soviet Union and many Eastern European nations. In 1991, most of the Soviet republics declared their independence, and the Soviet Union was dissolved. Many women became concerned because economic reforms by the new Eastern European governments and former Soviet republics often included cuts in such programs as government-funded child care. In addition, unemployment caused by the economic reforms has affected more women than men in these countries.

Despite the gains made under Communism, women who do have jobs face a "double burden" as employment and household responsibilities have continued to fall heavily on women. Women's employment appears to have had less effect on men's roles in the formerly Communist countries than in Western nations. Husbands rarely help with shopping, cooking, and other household tasks. Also, women fill few important political offices at the national level. In business and commerce, few top managers are women. For these reasons, some women are working to generate Western-style women's movements in these countries.

In developing nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, few organized women's movements have emerged. In addition, vast cultural differences make it difficult to determine the direction women's movements may take in such nations. For instance, Muslim women in the Middle East and northern Africa come from a tradition where men's and women's activities have been strictly segregated and women have lived largely in seclusion. Women in eastern and western Africa, on the other hand, have a long history of social independence as food producers and traders.

Yet despite cultural differences, women in developing countries share some common concerns. Many women in these nations question whether modern economic development benefits them. During the 1970's and 1980's, several reports on the effects of economic development described women's loss of involvement in food production. Western experts often gave men the money and machinery to improve agricultural production, though women were traditionally the farmers. Men used the scarce resources to buy expensive equipment to produce and transport cash crops. As a result, women directed their efforts away from growing food for family use and the local market. Instead, they grew carnations, strawberries, and other cash crops that would bring in more money. Food shortages resulted.

Women working in industry also faced problems. Foreign-owned factories employed women in such industries as food processing, electronics, and textiles. But the women received low pay and little job security. In addition, they endured poor working conditions and heavy demands for high productivity and obedience.

The United Nations sponsored several conferences to examine women's living conditions around the world during its Decade for Women (1975-1985). At these conferences, women from the developing world expressed concern about food shortages, the poverty of women and children, and other issues. They have continued to stress the need for greater consideration of women's lives when working for economic development.

Impact of women's movements

Contemporary women's movements have had an impact on several levels of society in such Western countries as Canada, Sweden, and the United States. Women's groups have changed many people's views about male and female roles. These changes have affected the workplace, the family, and the way women live their lives. Through the vote, women's groups have influenced election results and government. They have also influenced legislation. Information about the legislative impact of women's movements appears in the section Contemporary women's movements.

On women's lives. The most notable single change in women's lives may be their growing participation in the paid labor force. In the United States, the percentage of employed women rose from 28 percent in 1940 to 57 percent in 1989. The contemporary women's movement contributed to an increasing acceptance of careers for all women, including mothers with young children. The proportion of married women with children under 18 and a job rose dramatically, from 18 percent in 1950 to 66 percent in 1988.

However, long-standing differences between the sexes in job opportunities and in earnings showed little sign of disappearing, even in such progressive nations as Sweden. The majority of women's work opportunities still fell within a narrow range of occupations, such as nursing, teaching, retail sales, and secretarial work. Largely because of lower pay in these "women's" jobs, women working full-time and the year around continued to earn less than men. In the United States, such women earned about 70 percent of what men earned in 1988. Furthermore, women throughout the world continued to face the "double burden" of being primary homemaker while working outside the home.

On attitudes and values. Certain broad cultural changes have taken place that reflect new attitudes toward the roles of men and women. They also point to a growing equality between the sexes. Textbook publishers have adopted guidelines to eliminate language that uses male forms to represent everyone. For example, fireman becomes firefighter, and policeman becomes police officer. Women as well as men serve as anchors for television news shows. Several women have held the highest political office in their country, including Margaret Thatcher of Britain, Golda Meir of Israel, and Corazon Aquino of the Philippines. In the United States, the number of women in law and medicine rose dramatically. In high schools and colleges, women's studies courses in history, literature, and sociology have brought new attention to women's lives.

Changing attitudes about the roles of women and men have also affected the way people conduct their everyday lives. For example, many men now take a more active role in parenting. More husbands now join their wives in natural childbirth classes. Some men have taken parental leave from work or chosen to work part-time when they become new fathers.

Notable differences in outlook still exist between the sexes, however. In the early 1980's, U.S. elections revealed for the first time a "gender gap," where women followed a different voting pattern than men. Women's votes showed greater support for candidates favoring social programs and domestic spending, while more men voted for candidates favoring defense spending. A similar voting pattern has emerged in other countries, including Britain, Canada, and Sweden.

The final outcome of these changing attitudes and values has yet to be seen. But it appears likely that the blurring of distinctions between women's and men's roles and the trend toward greater equality of the sexes will continue.

Contributor: Janet Zollinger Giele, Ph.D., Prof. of Sociology, Heller Graduate School, Brandeis Univ.


Why did women's movements experience a decline after 1920?

What is the chief concern of women in developing nations?

How did the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association differ?

What was the role of women in ancient Athens?

How does social welfare legislation benefit women?

What two types of women's groups emerged in the United States during the 1960's?

How did the Industrial Revolution affect middle-class women?

What is the "double burden" that most women carry?

How do the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Education Amendments of 1972 affect women?

How has the "gender gap" affected voting patterns?

Additional resources

Ash, Maureen. The Story of the Women's Movement. Childrens Pr., 1989. Younger readers.

Brill, Alida, ed. A Rising Public Voice: Women in Politics Worldwide. Feminist Pr., 1995.

Buechler, Steven M. Women's Movements in the United States. Rutgers, 1990.

Cullen-DuPont, Kathryn. The Encyclopedia of Women's History in America. Facts on File, 1995.

Greenspan, Karen. The Timetables of Women's History. Simon & Schuster, 1994.

Humm, Maggie. The Dictionary of Feminist Theory. 2nd ed. Ohio State Univ. Pr., 1995.

Nelson, Barbara J., and Chowdhury, Najma, eds. Women and Politics Worldwide. Yale, 1994.

FEBRUARY, 27, 2003



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