Throughout American history, gender, meaning notions of essential differences between women and men, has shaped how Americans have defined and engaged in productive activity. Work has been a key site where gendered inequalities have been produced, but work has also been a crucible for rights claims that have challenged those inequalities. Federal and state governments long played a central role in generating and upholding gendered policy. Workers and advocates have debated whether to advance laboring women’s cause by demanding equality with men or different treatment that accounted for women’s distinct responsibilities and disadvantages.
Beginning in the colonial period, constructions of dependence and independence derived from the heterosexual nuclear family underscored a gendered division of labor that assigned distinct tasks to the sexes, albeit varied by race and class. In the 19th century, gendered expectations shaped all workers’ experiences of the Industrial Revolution, slavery and its abolition, and the ideology of free labor. Early 20th-century reform movements sought to beat back the excesses of industrial capitalism by defining the sexes against each other, demanding protective labor laws for white women while framing work done by women of color and men as properly unregulated. Policymakers reinforced this framework in the 1930s as they built a welfare state that was rooted in gendered and racialized constructions of citizenship.
In the second half of the 20th century, labor rights claims that reasoned from the sexes’ distinctiveness increasingly gave way to assertions of sex equality, even as the meaning of that equality was contested. As the sex equality paradigm triumphed in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, seismic economic shifts and a conservative business climate narrowed the potential of sex equality laws to deliver substantive changes to workers.
The reproductive experiences of women and girls in the 20th-century United States followed historical patterns shaped by the politics of race and class. Laws and policies governing reproduction generally regarded white women as legitimate reproducers and potentially fit mothers and defined women of color as unfit for reproduction and motherhood; regulations provided for rewards and punishments accordingly. In addition, public policy and public rhetoric defined “population control” as the solution to a variety of social and political problems in the United States, including poverty, immigration, the “quality” of the population, environmental degradation, and “overpopulation.” Throughout the century, nonetheless, women, communities of color, and impoverished persons challenged official efforts, at times reducing or even eliminating barriers to reproductive freedom and community survival.
Between 1900 and 1930, decades marked by increasing urbanization, industrialization, and immigration, eugenic fears of “race suicide” (concerns that white women were not having enough babies) fueled a reproductive control regime that pressured middle-class white women to reproduce robustly. At the same time, the state enacted anti-immigrant laws, undermined the integrity of Native families, and protected various forms of racial segregation and white supremacy, all of which attacked the reproductive dignity of millions of women. Also in these decades, many African American women escaped the brutal and sexually predatory Jim Crow culture of the South, and middle-class white women gained greater sexual freedom and access to reproductive health care, including contraceptive services.
During the Great Depression, the government devised the Aid to Dependent Children program to provide destitute “worthy” white mothers with government aid while often denying such supports to women of color forced to subordinate their motherhood to agricultural and domestic labor. Following World War II, as the Civil Rights movement gathered form, focus, and adherents, and as African American and other women of color claimed their rights to motherhood and social provision, white policymakers railed against “welfare queens” and defined motherhood as a class privilege, suitable only for those who could afford to give their children “advantages.” The state, invoking the “population bomb,” fought to reduce the birth rates of poor women and women of color through sterilization and mandatory contraception, among other strategies. Between 1960 and 1980, white feminists employed the consumerist language of “choice” as part of the campaign for legalized abortion, even as Native, black, Latina, immigrant, and poor women struggled to secure the right to give birth to and raise their children with dignity and safety. The last decades of the 20th century saw severe cuts in social programs designed to aid low-income mothers and their children, cuts to funding for public education and housing, court decisions that dramatically reduced poor women’s access to reproductive health care including abortion, and the emergence of a powerful, often violent, anti-abortion movement. In response, in 1994 a group of women of color activists articulated the theory of reproductive justice, splicing together “social justice” and “reproductive rights.” The resulting Reproductive Justice movement, which would become increasingly influential in the 21st century, defined reproductive health, rights, and justice as human rights due to all persons and articulated what each individual requires to achieve these rights: the right not to have children, the right to have children, and the right to the social, economic, and environmental conditions necessary to raise children in healthy, peaceful, and sustainable households and communities.
Decided by the Supreme Court in 1973, Roe v. Wade legalized abortion across the United States. The 7-2 decision came at the end of a decades-long struggle to reform—and later repeal—abortion laws. Although all of the justices understood that Roe addressed a profoundly important question, none of them imagined that it would later become a flashpoint of American politics or shape those politics for decades to come.
Holding that the right to privacy covered a woman’s choice to terminate her pregnancy, Roe and its companion case, Doe v. Bolton, struck down many of the abortion regulations on the books. The lead-up to and aftermath of Roe tell a story not only of a single Supreme Court decision but also of the historical shifts that the decision shaped and reflected: the emergence of a movement for women’s liberation, the rise of grassroots conservatism, political party realignment, controversy about the welfare state, changes to the family structure, and the politicization of science. It is a messy and complicated story that evolved parallel to different ideas about the decision itself. In later decades, Roe arguably became the best-known opinion issued by the Supreme Court, a symbol of an ever-changing set of beliefs about family, health care, and the role of the judiciary in American democracy.
Rebecca J. Mead
Woman suffragists in the United States engaged in a sustained, difficult, and multigenerational struggle: seventy-two years elapsed between the Seneca Falls convention (1848) and the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment (1920). During these years, activists gained confidence, developed skills, mobilized resources, learned to maneuver through the political process, and built a social movement. This essay describes key turning points and addresses internal tensions as well as external obstacles in the U.S. woman suffrage movement. It identifies important strategic, tactical, and rhetorical approaches that supported women’s claims for the vote and influenced public opinion, and shows how the movement was deeply connected to contemporaneous social, economic, and political contexts.
Terri L. Snyder
Everywhere across European and Indigenous settlements in 17th- and 18th-century North America and the Caribbean, the law or legal practices shaped women’s status and conditioned their dependency, regardless of race, age, marital status, or place of birth. Historians have focused much of their attention on the legal status, powers, and experiences of women of European origin across the colonies and given great consideration to the law of domestic relations, the legal disabilities of coverture, and women’s experiences as plaintiffs and defendants, both civil and criminal, in colonial courts. Early American legalities, however, differed markedly for women of color—whether free, indentured, or enslaved, and whether Native or African in origin or descent—whose relationships to the legal regimes of early America were manifold and complex. In their status under the law, experiences at the bar, and, as a result, positions in household polities, women of color reckoned with a set of legalities that differed from those of their European counterparts. The diversity of women’s experiences of the law was shaped not only by race but also by region: Indigenous people had what one historian has labeled jurispractices, while Europeans brought and created a jurisprudence of race and status that shaped treatments of women of color across imperial spaces. A widely comparative analysis of women and the law reflects ways in which race shaped women’s status under and experiences of the law as well as the legalities of their marriages in pre-Revolutionary America.