5 Facts About Women’s History That Will Keep You Fighting

Women’s History Month is a time to celebrate women’s rights and advancement — and to remember why it’s important to continue our steps towards equality.

Ellen Chesler is an author, activist and academic who wrote “Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America” and co-edited “Where Human Rights Begin: Health, Sexuality and Women in the New Millennium.” She’s working on a book about women’s rights, and we knew she’d be the perf person to tell us the nitty-gritty and often unknown facts about women’s history. Get ready to be blown away — and to see why we need to keep on fighting the good fight for women’s rights.

+ The Right to Vote

Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1899
The late, great Susan B. Anthony
It took more than 70 years of hard work before women were granted the right to vote in America. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two leaders of the movement for women’s voting rights, did not live to see the day it happened.

After the Civil War, the Fifteenth Amendment gave African American men the right to vote, but it specifically excluded African-American women. “The first time women are even mentioned in our Constitution is to exclude women,” Chesler explained. “Women gained suffrage in many states, and during the Woodrow Wilson administration they got enough votes to pass the Nineteenth Amendment. What this required was a fundamental rethinking of the status of women as citizens. Until women received the vote in their own right, they were seen as ‘covered’ by their spouses or their brothers or their fathers.”

+ Women in Politics

Hillary Clinton, earlier this year.
“America ranks 83rd in the world in terms of the percentage of women we have in our national parliament,” she said. “It took until the 1990s for there to be any substantial representation of women in the Senate. There have been only 44 women Senators in the whole history of the country. The first served for a single day in 1922, appointed to fill her husband’s seat. Now we have 20 women in the Senate, but that still keeps us very far down in comparative rankings with other countries. Eighty-two countries in the world are higher! The U.S. House of Representatives has 79 members who are women: 18% in total. Nearly 300 have served since the country’s beginning. There’s still a big leadership gap that we need to improve upon until we get to the 50% mark.”

+ The Right to Birth Control

Supreme Court - Washington, DC           

The head of Planned Parenthood, Cecile B. Richards, earlier this year.

Did you know not long ago you could go to jail for birth control? “It took more than 50 years to legalize birth control in America,” she said. “Margaret Sanger went to jail in 1916 for opening up a clinic and giving out a kind of primitive diaphragm and jelly. She was arrested with her sister and thrown into jail. In 1966 the Supreme Court granted a Constitutional right of married women only to use contraception.” It took seven more years until doctors could legally give unmarried women birth control.

+ Violence Against Women

V-DAY’s One Billion Rising Violence Against Women

One Billion Rising, 2013

“Violence against women in the United States and around the world remains epidemic in proportions,” Chesler said. “In 1912, the Supreme Court refused to hear a case brought by a battered woman. They said they didn’t want to interfere with the ‘peace of the household.’ It took many years for state and local governments to address the problem of domestic violence seriously. It wasn’t until the 1970s that networks of shelters for battered women were established in progressive states.

“It took the federal government another twenty years — through the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 — to address the problem.” While the Violence Against Woman Act gives shelters more funds and has helped women’s situation, it’s not the perfect answer. “A little known fact: The Violence Against Women Act still does not give women any civil rights to seek damages. Women should be able to go to the government and seek damages if the government hasn’t done anything to protect them from being victimized.”

+ International Women’s Rights

women in office

So how about women’s rights around the globe? “The question of human rights at an international and global level was first discussed in a modern context with the founding of the United Nations,” Chesler explained. “Eighteen women among a sea of men gathered at the first organizing meeting of the United Nations in London in 1946 with the U.S. delegation led by Eleanor Roosevelt. Those women insisted that the human rights conversation very specifically address the issue of women’s rights. This was a landmark claim.”

She continued, “In 1979, the U.N. realized the reality of that vision in one of its five majors pillars of human rights implementation, which is called CEDAW [Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women]. That document has been signed by 186 member states of the U.N. The most extraordinary thing is that the United States remains one of four countries in the entire world that has never ratified CEDAW — in the unlikely company of Yemen, Sudan and Iran — hardly great company.”

Photos: (Getty)

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