The Movement


The Movement

The Timeline

“I once thought the women’s movement belonged more to my daughter than to me. But I have come to know that it belongs to women of all ages.”
—Lady Bird Johnson, former First Lady

The First Wave (The 1800s)

Three suffragettes holding signs and an American flag.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.”
—Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Sojourner Truth in a black dress and white shawl.

Status of Women: Then and Now

There have been countless achievements in the arena of U.S. women’s rights since the late 1970s.
Here are some things that have changed—and some that have not.

Percent of Congress members that are women
NOW: 13

Percent of U.S. state legislators that are women
THEN: 9.2
NOW: 22

Percent of Fortune 500 executives that are women
THEN: Less than five
NOW: 12

Number of female Supreme Court Justices
NOW: 2

College graduation gap between men and women
THEN: Five percent
NOW: Three percent

Percent of the labor force that are women
THEN: 38
NOW: 47

Pay gap between men and women
THEN: 58 cents to the dollar
NOW: 75 cents to the dollar

The median age of first marriage for women
THEN: 20
NOW: 25

Percent of Americans who would not vote for a woman president
THEN: 26
NOW: 5

We the People: Women and Men in the United States (pdf)

U.S. Census Bureau: Women’s History Month

Women’s Earnings as a Percentage of Men’s

The White House Project

Women at a the March for Women’s Lives 2005 holding signs, some of which read “Keep Abortion Legal”

“A girl should not expect special privileges because of her sex but neither should she adjust to prejudice and discrimination.”
—Betty Freidan

Although the 1977 National Women’s Conference was hailed as a significant victory for the U.S. women’s movement, the legacy of American women working for greater rights is as old as the country itself. The 1977 conference was preceded more than 100 years earlier by the 1848 women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Elizabeth Cady Stanton drafted the famous Declaration of Sentiments, which outlined the ways U.S. women were treated unjustly. Among the examples Stanton cited were: women were not allowed to vote, married women had no legal or property rights, most occupations and educational opportunities were closed to women and working women earned a fraction of what men earned.

The early U.S. women’s movement grew partly out of the anti-slavery movement of the 1800s, and was primarily centered on suffrage, or the right to vote. Passed in 1866, the 14th Amendment gave voting rights to all male citizens, regardless of race. It was also the first time in the Constitution that “citizens” and “voters” were explicitly defined as “male.” It was not until 1920 that women obtained the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment.

However, not all American women reaped these victories. As evidenced as early as 1851, when Sojourner Truth delivered a speech at a women’s rights convention asking that, as a former slave, “ain’t I a woman?” the U.S. women’s movement has consisted overwhelmingly of white, educated, middle-class women. No women of color attended the 1848 conference. Even the modern feminist movement has had few women of color in leadership positions, and has done little to fully address the racial power imbalances in America as an intersection with gender imbalances. As illustrated in the archival footage seen in SISTERS OF ’77, a movement claiming to fight for all American women often faced challenges—to include voices that were marginalized due to race, geography, religion and sexual preference.

The Second Wave (The 1960s and 1970s)

Commonly referred to as “the second wave,” the U.S. women’s rights movement that gained momentum in the 1960s and ‘70s was a product of the times. Fueled by the civil rights movement, as well as women’s mounting dissatisfaction with sexism within the anti-war and other progressive movements, this second wave of activism focused on changing public consciousness, as well as changing public policy.

On a larger scale, the era’s successes included the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of sex, race, religion and national origin and resulted in the creation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; Title IX in the 1972 Education Codes, which mandated equal access to higher education and athletics; and Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the U.S. Legislative changes during the second wave resulted in greater financial freedom for women—such as the right for married women to obtain credit cards in their own name—as well as increased reproductive and educational rights.

Organizations such as the National Organization for Women (NOW), which was formed in 1966, helped to bring women’s rights to the national forefront. But in order for the movement to fully succeed, changes also had to take place on local and personal levels. On college campuses and in other smaller communities, women formed liberation organizations to address their roles and status within American society. Grassroots projects included the establishment of women’s newspapers; women-run clinics and child care centers; abortion services; rape crisis hotlines and battered women’s shelters. Frustrated by attempts to overcome racism in primarily white women’s organizations, women of color formed a variety of advocacy groups that addressed both racism and sexism in the U.S., including the National Black Women’s Health Project, the Organization of Pan Asian American Women and the North American Indian Women’s Association.

The Third Wave (2005 and Beyond)

Much has changed for American women since 1977. Thirty years ago, the notion of women as men’s equals was still controversial, and women were still expected, as lawyer Jane Hickie says in SISTERS OF ’77, “to keep quiet, stay home, take care of those babies, and our husbands.” In 1977, there were 20 women in Congress, compared to 74 in 2004, although women in political leadership positions have remained overwhelmingly white. As author Betty Freidan explains, “The image of women in American society, then, and in some parts of the world still, was women as wives, as mothers, as sex objects, housewives, but not as people participating in society.”

Yet while the accomplishments of the women’s movement have been monumental, women’s rights still remain at stake. While many young women in 2005 are hesitant to use the label “feminist” due to the term’s misconceptions and backlash, they reap the benefits of the U.S. women’s movement every day—social, political and legal freedoms that have become so ingrained in American society that many find it hard to believe that there was a time that they did not exist. Common concerns within the U.S. women’s movement today, or the “third wave,” include reproductive rights, especially in a time of accelerated efforts to decrease access to abortion services and birth control; the “mommy track,” which forces many younger women to struggle over career and family and look for ways to accommodate family responsibilities within in the workforce; sexual harassment; pornography; women in the military and in religious leadership positions; and human and women’s rights on a global scale. Work on improving past victories continues to be necessary: in 2003, the U.S. ranked 60th in the world, out of 180 countries, in women’s representation in national legislatures.

In the past 150 years, the work of the U.S. women’s movement has irrevocably transformed the circumstances of not only American women, but also all Americans—a process and transformation that remains ongoing. As Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal says, “We in the United States think everything is a ball game that you win or you lose. Change is not that. It's a process, and there are a lot of battles, a lot of skirmishes… You’ve got to just be in there for the long haul.”

Photo credits:

Suffragettes: Library of Congress

Sojourner Truth: Library of Congress

March for Women’s Lives 2005: Courtesy of the Global Fund for Women

View a timeline of the American women’s movement >>

Find out about the National Women’s Conference >>

Learn about the ERA >>


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