The Fight for Women's Rights in the Past and Present

Understanding How the Treatment of Women Has Changed Over Time

Balance Scale with man and woman
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The meaning of "women's rights" has varied through time and across cultures. Today, there is still a lack of consensus about what constitutes women's rights. Some would argue a woman's ability to control family size is a fundamental women's right. Others would argue women's rights fall under workplace equality or the chance to serve in the military in the same ways that men do. Many would argue that all of the above should be deemed women's rights.

The term typically refers to whether women are treated as men's equals, but sometimes it specifically refers to special circumstances that affect women, such as job protection when they take time off for maternity leave, though men in the U.S. are increasingly taking paternity leave. While men and women may both be victims of social ills and violence related to human trafficking and rape, protection against these crimes is often described as beneficial to women's rights.

The implementation of various laws and policies over the years paints a historical picture of the benefits that were considered to be "women's rights" at one time. Societies in the ancient, classical, and medieval worlds show how women's rights, even if not referred to by that term, differed from culture to culture.

United Nations Convention on Rights of Women

The 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, signed by many United Nations member states, asserts that women's rights belong to the "political, economic, social, cultural, civil" realms. According to the convention text, which became an international treaty in 1981:

"Any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field."

The declaration specifically addresses eliminating prejudice in public education, giving women full political rights to vote and run for public office, as well as marriage and divorce rights that equal men's. The document also called for the elimination of child marriage and sex trafficking while also mentioning equality for women in the criminal justice system and in the workplace.

The NOW Statement of Purpose

In 1966, the National Organization for Women (NOW) formed and wrote a statement of purpose that summarizes key women's rights issues of that time. The rights outlined were based on the idea of equality as an opportunity for women to "develop their fullest human potentials" and to put women into the "mainstream of American political, economic and social life." The women's rights issues identified included those in these areas of employment and economics, education, family, political participation, and racial justice.

The 1855 Marriage Protest

In their 1855 marriage ceremony, women's rights advocates Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell refused to honor laws that interfered with the rights of married women in particular. They advocated for wives to be able to legally exist outside of a husband's control, to inherit and own real estate, and have the right to their own wages. Stone and Blackwell also campaigned for wives to be able to choose their own names and place of residence and to sign contracts. They demanded that married mothers be granted custody of their children and be able to sue in court as well.

Seneca Falls Women's Rights Convention

In 1848, the first known women's rights convention in the world took place in Seneca Falls, New York. There, organizers of the convention declared that "men and women are created equal." As such, the feminists gathered demanded that women immediately be given the rights and privileges due to them as U.S. citizens.

In their "Declaration of Sentiments," the Seneca Falls participants insisted that women should be able to vote, have property rights, including the right to the income they earned, and to pursue higher education and a variety of professions, such as theology, medicine, and law.

Women's Rights in the 1700s

In the 1700s, influential women also spoke out about women's rights from time to time. Abigail Adams, the wife of U.S. founding father and second President John Adams, asked her husband to "remember the ladies" in a letter in which she discussed disparities in women's and men's education.

Hannah Moore, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Judith Sargent Murray focused especially on women's right to an adequate education. They used their writing to advocate for women having influence over social, religious, moral, and political decisions. In "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" (1791–1792), Wollstonecraft called for women to be educated, have equality in marriage, and have control over family size.

In 1791 during the French Revolution, Olympe de Gouges wrote and published the "Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen." In this document, she called for women to have free speech, including the right to name the father of their children and equality for out-of-wedlock children, a demand that suggested that women had the same right as men to have sexual relationships outside of marriage.

Treatment of Women in the Ancient World

In the ancient, classical, and medieval world, women's rights differed somewhat from culture to culture. In some cases, women were essentially regarded as slaves or children under the authority of their husbands or fathers. Women were largely confined to the home and lacked the right to come and go as they pleased. They also had been deprived of the right to choose or refuse marriage partners or end a marriage. Whether women could dress as they liked was an issue during this time as well.

A number of these concerns and others continued to be problems for women in the centuries that followed. They included a lack of custodial rights over children, especially after a divorce; the inability of women to own property, run businesses, and control their own wages, income, and wealth. Women in the ancient, classical, and medieval world also faced employment discrimination, barriers to education, a lack of voting rights, and the inability to represent themselves in lawsuits and court actions.

In the centuries since, women have advocated for these rights and more, but the struggle for equality hasn't ended. Women still face employment discrimination and barriers to healthcare, while single mothers are at great risk of falling into poverty.