In the United States, the history of sexual assault in the first half of the 20th century involves multiple contradictions between the ordinary, almost invisible accounts of women of all colors who were raped by fathers, husbands, neighbors, boarders, bosses, hired hands, and other known individuals versus the sensational myths that involved rapacious black men, sly white slavers, libertine elites, and virginal white female victims. Much of the debate about sexual assault revolved around the “unwritten law” that justified “honorable” white men avenging the “defilement” of their women. Both North and South, white people defended lynching and the murder of presumed rapists as “honor killings.” In courtrooms, defense attorneys linked the unwritten law to insanity pleas, arguing that after hearing women tell about their assault, husbands and fathers experienced an irresistible compulsion to avenge the rape of their women. Over time, however, notorious court cases from New York to San Francisco, Indianapolis and Honolulu, to Scottsboro, Alabama, shifted the discourse away from the unwritten law and extralegal “justice” to a more complicated script that demonized unreliable women and absolved imperfect men. National coverage of these cases, made possible by wire services and the Hearst newspaper empire, spurred heated debates concerning the proper roles of men and women. Blockbuster movies like The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind and Book of the Month Club selections such as John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Richard Wright’s Native Son joined the sensationalized media coverage of high-profile court cases to create new national stereotypes about sexual violence and its causes and culprits. During the 1930s, journalists, novelists, playwrights, and moviemakers increasingly emphasized the culpability of women who, according to this narrative, made themselves vulnerable to assault by stepping outside of their appropriate sphere and tempting men into harming them.
Jessica M. Frazier
Women on all sides of the US war in Vietnam pushed for an end to the conflict. At a time of renewed feminist fervor, women stepped outside conventional gender roles by publicly speaking out, traveling to a war zone, and entering the male-dominated realm of foreign affairs. Even so, some claimed to stand squarely within the boundaries of womanhood as they undertook such unusual activities. Some American women argued that, as mothers or sisters of soldiers and draft-age men, they held special insight into the war. They spoke of their duty to their families, communities, and nation to act in untraditional, but nevertheless feminine, ways. But women did not act uniformly. Some joined the military as nurses or service personnel to help in the war effort, while others protested the war and served as draft counselors. By the end of the war, some anti-war protestors developed feminist critiques of US involvement in Vietnam that pointed to the war as a symptom of an unjust society that prioritized military dominance over social welfare. As in wars past, the US war in Vietnam created upheavals in gender roles, and as nurses, mothers, lovers, officers, entertainers, and activists, women created new spaces in a changing society.
Melissa A. McEuen
The Second World War changed the United States for women, and women in turn transformed their nation. Over three hundred fifty thousand women volunteered for military service, while twenty times as many stepped into civilian jobs, including positions previously closed to them. More than seven million women who had not been wage earners before the war joined eleven million women already in the American work force. Between 1941 and 1945, an untold number moved away from their hometowns to take advantage of wartime opportunities, but many more remained in place, organizing home front initiatives to conserve resources, to build morale, to raise funds, and to fill jobs left by men who entered military service.
The U.S. government, together with the nation’s private sector, instructed women on many fronts and carefully scrutinized their responses to the wartime emergency. The foremost message to women—that their activities and sacrifices would be needed only “for the duration” of the war—was both a promise and an order, suggesting that the war and the opportunities it created would end simultaneously. Social mores were tested by the demands of war, allowing women to benefit from the shifts and make alterations of their own. Yet dominant gender norms provided ways to maintain social order amidst fast-paced change, and when some women challenged these norms, they faced harsh criticism. Race, class, sexuality, age, religion, education, and region of birth, among other factors, combined to limit opportunities for some women while expanding them for others.
However temporary and unprecedented the wartime crisis, American women would find that their individual and collective experiences from 1941 to 1945 prevented them from stepping back into a prewar social and economic structure. By stretching and reshaping gender norms and roles, World War II and the women who lived it laid solid foundations for the various civil rights movements that would sweep the United States and grip the American imagination in the second half of the 20th century.
Jane T. Merritt
From the planter societies and subsistence settlements of the 17th century to the global markets of the late 18th century, white, black, and Indian women participated extensively in the early American economy. As the colonial world gave way to an independent nation and household economies yielded to cross-Atlantic commercial networks, women played an important role as consumers and producers. Was there, however, a growing gendered divide in the American economy by the turn of the 19th century? Were there more restrictions on women’s business activities, property ownership, work lives, consumer demands, or productive skills? Possibly, we ask the wrong questions when exploring women’s history. By posing questions that compare the past with present conditions, we miss the more nuanced and shifting patterns that made up the variety of women’s lives. Whether rural or urban, rich or poor, free or enslaved, women’s legal and marital status dictated some basic parameters of how they operated within the early American economy. But despite these boundaries, or perhaps because of them, women created new strategies to meet the economic needs of households, families, and themselves. As entrepreneurs they brought in lodgers or operated small businesses that generated extra income. As producers they finagled the materials necessary to create items for home use and to sell at market. As consumers, women, whether free or enslaved, demanded goods from merchants and negotiated prices that fit their budgets. As laborers, these same women translated myriad skills into wages or exchanged labor for goods. In all these capacities, women calculated, accumulated, and survived in the early American economy.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X are the names that come to mind for most Americans if asked about the civil rights or Black Power movements. Others may point to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, both of whom backed pathbreaking civil rights legislation. However, recent scholarship suggests that neither black male leaders nor white male presidents were always the most important figures in the modern struggle for black freedom. Presidents took their cues not simply from male luminaries in civil rights organizations. Rather, their legislative initiatives were largely in response to grassroots protests in which women, especially black women, were key participants. African American women played major roles in local and national organizing efforts and frequently were the majority in local chapters of groups as dissimilar as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Black Panther Party. Even familiar names like Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King have become little more than sanitized national icons, while their decades-long efforts to secure racial, economic, and gender justice remain relatively unknown. Aside from activists and scholars, even fewer of us know much, if anything, about the female allies of the black freedom struggle, including white southerners as well as other women of color. A closer look at the women who made enormous contributions to both the modern civil rights and Black Power movements sheds new light on these struggles, including the historic national victories we think we fully understand, such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In short, examining women’s participation in the “long civil rights movement,” which historians increasingly date to the New Deal and World War II, calls for a redefinition of more conventional notions of leadership, protest, and politics.
After World War II, Okinawa was placed under U.S. military rule and administratively separated from mainland Japan. This occupation lasted from 1945 to 1972, and in these decades Okinawa became the “Keystone of the Pacific,” a leading strategic site in U.S. military expansionism in Asia and the Pacific. U.S. rule during this Cold War period was characterized by violence and coercion, resulting in an especially staggering scale of sexual violence against Okinawan women by U.S. military personnel. At the same time, the occupation also facilitated numerous cultural encounters between the occupiers and the occupied, leading to a flourishing cross-cultural grassroots exchange. A movement to establish American-style domestic science (i.e., home economics) in the occupied territory became a particularly important feature of this exchange, one that mobilized an assortment of women—home economists, military wives, club women, university students, homemakers—from the United States, Okinawa, and mainland Japan. The postwar domestic science movement turned Okinawa into a vibrant theater of Cold War cultural performance where women of diverse backgrounds collaborated to promote modern homemaking and build friendship across racial and national divides. As these women took their commitment to domesticity and multiculturalism into the larger terrain of the Pacific, they articulated the complex intertwining that occurred among women, domesticity, the military, and empire.
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.
Working women and their issues played a central role in the women’s movement in the decades following World War II. Feminists lobbied, litigated, and engaged in direct action for workplace fairness. Working women, especially those in unions, joined feminist organizations and established their own organizations as well. There were fault lines within the women’s movement over the issues, strategies, and level of commitment to the causes of working women. In the first two decades after 1945, the unionists and liberal reformers who constituted the so-called Women’s Bureau Coalition (named after the U.S. Women’s Bureau) opposed the mostly affluent and conservative members of the National Woman’s Party for their support of the Equal Rights Amendment, supporting instead protective laws and policies that treated women differently from men in the workplace. With the arrival of second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, “labor feminists” clashed with the middle-class professional women at the helm of newly formed feminist organizations. As support for gender equality transformed employment practices, some labor feminists sought to retain (or extend to men) selected protective measures introduced in the early 20th century to shield women workers from the worst aspects of wage labor. In the face of harsh economic conditions in the 1970s, labor feminists again opposed other feminists for their efforts to modify the union practice of “last hired, first fired” as a way of retaining affirmative-action hiring gains.
In recent decades feminists have focused on equity measures such as comparable worth and pregnancy leave as means of addressing the unique challenges women face. In addition they have expanded their concern to lesbian and transgender workers, and, increasingly, to the needs of immigrant workers who make up an increasingly percentage of the working population.
Faye E. Dudden
The U.S. women’s rights movement first emerged in the 1830s, when the ideological impact of the Revolution and the Second Great Awakening combined with a rising middle class and increasing education to enable small numbers of women, encouraged by a few sympathetic men, to formulate a critique of women’s oppression in early 19th-century America. Most were white, and their access to an expanding print culture and middle class status enabled them to hire domestic servants; they had the time and resources to assess and begin to reject the roles prescribed by cultural domesticity and legal coverture, or the traditional authority of husbands. A critical mass of these rebellious women first emerged among those who had already enlisted in the radical struggle to end slavery. When abolitionists Sarah and Angelina Grimke faced efforts to silence them because they were women, they saw parallels between their own situation and that of the slaves. The Grimkes began to argue that all women and men were created by God as “equal moral beings” and entitled to the same rights. The ideology of the women’s movement soon broadened to encompass secular arguments, claiming women’s part in a political order ostensibly based on individual rights and consent of the governed. At Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, and at subsequent women’s rights conventions, the participants articulated a wide range of grievances that extended beyond politics into social and family life. Almost all the leading activists in the early women’s movement, including Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were trained in “the school of antislavery,” where they learned to withstand public or familial disapproval and acquired practical skills like petitioning and public speaking. The women’s rights activists’ efforts were complicated by questions about which goals to pursue first and by overlap with other reform efforts, including temperance and moral reform as well as abolition and black rights. Women and men related to the movement in a range of ways—activists were surrounded by a penumbra of non-activist contributors and an interested public, and much grassroots activity probably went unrecorded. After the Civil War destroyed slavery, Reconstruction-era politicians had to define citizenship and rights, especially the right to vote. Realizing this opened a rare window of political opportunity, the women’s movement leaders focused on suffrage, but their desperate efforts uncovered ugly racism in their ranks, and they betrayed former black allies. Disagreeing over whether to support the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed the vote to black men only, the women’s movement fell into two rival suffrage organizations: Stanton and Anthony’s National Woman Suffrage Association, which did not support the 15th Amendment, faced off against the American Woman Suffrage Association, led by Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell. Stymied in their political moves, the suffragists then found their judicial strategy, the “New Departure,” checkmated by a conservative Supreme Court. By 1877, the moment of radical opportunity had passed, and though the women’s suffrage movement could count a few marginal successes in the West, it had stalled and was increasingly overshadowed by more conservative forms of women’s activism like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.