For African Americans, the Great Depression and the New Deal (1929–1940) marked a transformative era and laid the groundwork for the postwar black freedom struggle in the United States. The outbreak of the Great Depression in 1929 caused widespread suffering and despair in black communities across the country as women and men faced staggering rates of unemployment and poverty. Once Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), a Democrat, was inaugurated as president in 1933, he launched a “New Deal” of ambitious government programs to lift the United States out of the economic crisis. Most African Americans were skeptical about benefiting from the New Deal, and racial discrimination remained rampant. However, a cohort of black advisors and activists critiqued these government programs for excluding African Americans and enacted some reforms. At the grassroots level, black workers pressed for expanded employment opportunities and joined new labor unions to fight for economic rights. As the New Deal progressed a sea change swept over black politics. Many black voters switched their allegiance from the Republican to the Democratic Party, waged more militant campaigns for racial justice, and joined interracial and leftist coalitions. African Americans also challenged entrenched cultural stereotypes through photography, theater, and oral histories to illuminate the realities of black life in the United States. By 1940, African Americans now wielded an arsenal of protest tactics and were marching on a path toward full citizenship rights, which remains an always evolving process.
Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy
The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), designed to enshrine in the Constitution of the United States a guarantee of equal rights to women and men, has had a long and volatile history. When first introduced in Congress in 1923, three years after ratification of the woman suffrage amendment to the US Constitution, the ERA faced fierce opposition from the majority of former suffragists. These progressive women activists opposed the ERA because it threatened hard-won protective labor legislation for wage-earning women. A half century later, however, the amendment enjoyed such broad support that it was passed by the requisite two-thirds of Congress and, in 1972, sent to the states for ratification. Unexpectedly, virulent opposition emerged during the ratification process, not among progressive women this time but among conservatives, whose savvy organizing prevented ratification by a 1982 deadline. Many scholars contend that despite the failure of ratification, equal rights thinking so triumphed in the courts and legislatures by the 1990s that a “de facto ERA” was in place. Some feminists, distrustful of reversible court decisions and repealable legislation, continued to agitate for the ERA; others voiced doubt that ERA would achieve substantive equality for women. Because support for an ERA noticeably revived in the 2010s, this history remains very much in progress.
Marjorie J. Spruill
The late 20th century saw gender roles transformed as the so-called Second Wave of American feminism that began in the 1960s gained support. By the early 1970s public opinion increasingly favored the movement and politicians in both major political parties supported it. In 1972 Congress overwhelmingly approved the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and sent it to the states. Many quickly ratified, prompting women committed to traditional gender roles to organize. However, by 1975 ERA opponents led by veteran Republican activist Phyllis Schlafly, founder of Stop ERA, had slowed the ratification process, although federal support for feminism continued. Congresswoman Bella Abzug (D-NY), inspired by the United Nations’ International Women’s Year (IWY) program, introduced a bill approved by Congress that mandated state and national IWY conferences at which women would produce recommendations to guide the federal government on policy regarding women. Federal funding of these conferences (held in 1977), and the fact that feminists were appointed to organize them, led to an escalation in tensions between feminist and conservative women, and the conferences proved to be profoundly polarizing events. Feminists elected most of the delegates to the culminating IWY event, the National Women’s Conference held in Houston, Texas, and the “National Plan of Action” adopted there endorsed a wide range of feminist goals including the ERA, abortion rights, and gay rights. But the IWY conferences presented conservatives with a golden opportunity to mobilize, and anti-ERA, pro-life, and anti-gay groups banded together as never before. By the end of 1977, these groups, supported by conservative Catholics, Mormons, and evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants, had come together to form a “Pro-Family Movement” that became a powerful force in American politics. By 1980 they had persuaded the Republican Party to drop its support for women’s rights. Afterward, as Democrats continued to support feminist goals and the GOP presented itself as the defender of “family values,” national politics became more deeply polarized and bitterly partisan.
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.
Adrian Chastain Weimer
Founded in the late 1640s, Quakerism reached America in the 1650s and quickly took root due to the determined work of itinerant missionaries over the next several decades. Quakers, or members of the Society of Friends, faced different legal and social challenges in each colony. Many English men and women viewed Friends with hostility because they refused to bear arms in a colony’s defense or take loyalty oaths. Others were drawn to Quakers’ egalitarian message of universal access to the light of Christ in each human being. After George Fox’s visit to the West Indies and the mainland colonies in 1671–1672, Quaker missionaries followed his lead in trying to include enslaved Africans and native Americans in their meetings. Itinerant Friends were drawn to colonies with the most severe laws, seeking a public platform from which to display, through suffering, a joyful witness to the truth of the Quaker message. English Quakers then quickly ushered accounts of their sufferings into print. Organized and supported by English Quakers such as Margaret Fell, the Quaker “invasion” of itinerant missionaries put pressure on colonial judicial systems to define the acceptable boundaries for dissent. Nascent communities of Friends from Barbados to New England struggled with the tension between Quaker ideals and the economic and social hierarchies of colonial societies.
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.
As we begin the second century of women’s suffrage, American women increasingly outvote men. Six women ran for president in 2020. A woman is vice president of the United States, the Speaker of the House is female, and there are record numbers of women in Congress. Women are leading strategists for both major parties. Yet the Republican and Democratic parties continue to approach the women’s vote and the issues that drive them to the polls in fundamentally opposite ways. This division carries over into the House of Representatives and the Senate, where 89 of 102 congresswomen and 17 of 25 women senators are Democrats. This was not always the case. A bipartisan similarity dominated the parties’ approach toward women until the mid-1970s, when intraparty divisions over abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, pay equity, and childcare, followed by debates over global warming, gun violence, healthcare, immigration, LGBTQ rights, and war, ripped that commodity apart in ways that would define women’s votes and party identity for the next five decades. Women and their parties responded to these challenges in different ways. Women organized their own social movements; challenged their party’s infrastructure; created their own political action committees, research centers, and candidate training schools; formed their own coalitions; drafted their own candidates; and ran for office. Political parties took notice and slowly adjusted their rules—though in different ways and with different intent—and in the process solidified the party gender gap.