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Article

Washington, DC  

Mary-Elizabeth B. Murphy

Since its founding as the nation’s capital in 1800, Washington, DC, has been typified by an atypical urban history—a city that was home to the federal government and a diverse population of local inhabitants. This local–federal dynamic has shaped nearly every aspect of its history. The central industry has always been the federal government, local governance has ebbed and flowed, and federal officials have exerted authority in moments of political strife. Washington is the only major US city devoted to administration rather than commerce, industry, or finance. At times, policies in the nation’s capital were envisioned as programs that could be implemented across the country, while at other moments, Washington fell behind other cities. As the nation’s capital, Washington has attracted a diverse group of residents, giving the city a distinctive, cosmopolitan presence. Washington began as a Southern city, and then shifted to become a Northern one, and by the mid-20th century, it became national and global. Since its founding, multiracial Washingtonians waged sweeping campaigns for social justice, often inspiring national movements but were tempered by the persistent lack of statehood, an ongoing struggle.

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The Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States  

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.

Article

Women and Alcohol in the United States during the 20th Century  

Meg D. O'Sullivan

Women in the United States have drunk, made, bought, sold, and organized both against and for the consumption of alcohol throughout the nation’s history. During the second half of the 20th century, however, women became increasingly visible as social drinkers and alcoholics. Specifically, the 1970s and 1980s marked women’s relationship to alcohol in interesting ways that both echoed moments from the past and ushered in new realities. Throughout these decades, women emerged as: (1) alcoholics who sought recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous or a lesser-known all-women’s sobriety program; (2) anti-alcohol activists who drew authority from their status as mothers; (3) potential criminals who harmed their progeny via fetal alcohol syndrome; and (4) recovery memoirists who claimed their addictions in unprecedented ways.

Article

Women and American Political Parties, 1972–2021  

Allida Black

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.

Article

Women and Domesticity in the 1950s  

Wendy Gamber

Two images dominated popular portrayals of American women in the 1950s. One was the fictional June Cleaver, the female lead character in the popular television program, “Leave It to Beaver,” which portrayed Cleaver as the stereotypical happy American housewife, the exemplar of postwar American domesticity. The other was Cleaver’s alleged real-life opposite, described in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) as miserable, bored, isolated, addicted to tranquilizers, and trapped in look-alike suburban tract houses, which Friedan termed “comfortable concentration camps.” Both stereotypes ignore significant proportions of the postwar female population, both offer simplistic and partial views of domesticity, but both reveal the depth of the influence that lay behind the idea of domesticity, real or fictional. Aided and abetted by psychology, social science theory, advertising, popular media, government policy, law, and discriminatory private sector practices, domesticity was both a myth and a powerful ideology that shaped the trajectories of women’s lives.

Article

Women and Medicine in Early America  

Rebecca Tannenbaum

Women from all cultural groups in British North America—European, African, and Indigenous American—played a central role in medicine in early America. They acted as midwives, healers, and apothecaries and drew on a variety of cultural traditions in doing so, even as they shared many beliefs about the workings of the human body. Healing gave women a route to authority and autonomy within their social groups. As the 18th century opened, women healers were able to enter the expanding world of capitalist commerce. Anglo-American women parlayed their knowledge of herbal medicine into successful businesses, and even enslaved midwives were sometimes able to be paid in cash for their skills. However, as academic medicine took more of an interest in topics such as childbirth, women practitioners faced increasingly bitter competition from professionalizing male physicians.

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Women and Politics in the Era of the American Revolution  

Sheila L. Skemp

Historians once assumed that, because women in the era of the American Revolution could not vote and showed very little interest in attaining the franchise, they were essentially apolitical beings. Scholars now recognize that women were actively engaged in the debates that accompanied the movement toward independence, and that after the war many sought a more expansive political role for themselves. Moreover, men welcomed women’s support for the war effort. If they saw women as especially fit for domestic duties, many continued to seek women’s political guidance and help even after the war ended. Granted, those women who wanted a more active and unmediated relationship to the body politic faced severe legal and ideological obstacles. The common law system of coverture gave married women no control over their bodies or to property, and thus accorded them no formal venue to express their political opinions. Religious convention had it that women, the “weaker sex,” were the authors of original sin. The ideology associated with “republicanism” argued that the attributes of independence, self-reliance, physical strength, and bravery were exclusively masculine virtues. Many observers characterized women as essentially selfish and frivolous creatures who hungered after luxuries and could not contain their carnal appetites. Nevertheless, some women carved out political roles for themselves. In the lead up to the war, many women played active, even essential roles in various non-consumption movements, promising to refrain from purchasing English goods, and attacking those merchants who refused to boycott prohibited goods. Some took to the streets, participating in riots that periodically disturbed the tranquility of colonial cities. A few published plays and poems proclaiming their patriotic views. Those women, who would become loyalists, were also active, never reluctant, to express their disapproval of the protest movement. During the war, many women demonstrated their loyalty to the patriot cause by shouldering the burdens of absent husbands. They managed farms and businesses. First in Philadelphia, and then in other cities, women went from door to door collecting money for the Continental Army. Some accompanied husbands to the battlefront, where they tended to the material needs of soldiers. A very few disguised themselves as men and joined the army, exposing as a lie the notion that only men had the capacity to sacrifice their lives for the good of the country. Loyalist women continued to express their political views, even though doing so brought them little more than physical suffering and emotional pain. African American women took advantage of wartime chaos to run away from their masters and forge new, independent lives for themselves. After the war, women marched in parades, lobbied and petitioned legislators, attended sessions of Congress, and participated in political rallies—lending their support to particular candidates or factions. Elite women published novels, poems, and plays. Some hosted salons where men and women gathered to discuss political issues. In New Jersey, single property-owning women voted. By the end of the century, however, proponents of women’s political rights lost ground, in part because new “scientific” notions of gender difference prepared the way for the concept of “separate spheres.” Politics became more organized, leaving little room for women to express their views “out of doors,” even as judges and legislators defined women as naturally dependent. Still, white, middle class women in particular took advantage of better educational opportunities, finding ways to influence the public sphere without demanding formal political rights. They read, wrote, and organized benevolent societies, laying the groundwork for the antebellum reform movements of the mid-19th century.

Article

Women and Religion in Colonial North America and the United States  

Catherine A. Brekus

Historically, women in colonial North America and the United States have been deeply influenced by their religious traditions. Even though world religions like Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam are based on scriptural traditions that portray women as subordinate to men, women have made up the majority of most religious groups in America. While some Americans have used religious arguments to limit women’s legal, political, and economic rights, others have drawn on scripture to defend women’s dignity and equality. Women’s religious beliefs have shaped every aspect of their lives, including their choices about how to structure their time, their attitudes toward sexuality and the body, and their understanding of suffering. Unlike early American Catholic women, who saw their highest religious calling as the sisterhood, most white colonial women identified their primary religious vocation as ministering to their families. In the 19th century, however, white Protestant women become increasingly involved in reform movements like temperance, abolitionism, and women’s suffrage, and African-American, Native American, Asian-American, and Latina women used religious arguments to challenge assumptions about white racial supremacy. In the 20th century, growing numbers of women from many different religious traditions have served as religious leaders, and in some cases they have also demanded ordination. Despite these dramatic changes in religious life, however, many religiously conservative women opposed the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s and early 1980s, and in the first decades of the 21st century they have continued to identify feminism and religion as antithetical.

Article

Women and Reproduction in the United States during the 19th Century  

Shannon K. Withycombe

Throughout the 19th century, American women experienced vast changes regarding possibilities for childbirth and for enhancing or restricting fertility control. At the beginning of the century, issues involving reproduction were discussed primarily in domestic, private settings among women’s networks that included family members, neighbors, or midwives. In the face of massive social and economic changes due to industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, many working-class women became separated from these traditional networks and knowledge and found themselves reliant upon emerging medical systems for care and advice during pregnancy and childbirth. At the same time, upper-class women sought out men in the emerging profession of obstetrics to deliver their babies in hopes of beating the frightening odds against maternal and infant health and even survival. Nineteenth-century reproduction was altered drastically with the printing and commercial boom of the middle of the century. Families could now access contraception and abortion methods and information, which was available earlier in the century albeit in a more private and limited manner, through newspapers, popular books, stores, and from door-to-door salesmen. As fertility control entered these public spaces, many policy makers became concerned about the impacts of such practices on the character and future of the nation. By the 1880s, contraception and abortion came under legal restrictions, just as women and their partners gained access to safer and more effective products than ever before. When the 19th century closed, legislatures and the medical profession raised obstacles that hindered the ability of most women to limit the size of their families as the national fertility rate reached an all-time low. Clearly, American families eagerly seized opportunities to exercise control over their reproductive destinies and their lives.

Article

Women and Sexual Assault in the United States, 1900–1940  

Mara Keire

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.

Article

Women and the US War in Vietnam  

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.

Article

Women and War in Early America  

Gina M. Martino

Early American women incited, fought in, and brokered peace in conflicts that ranged from regional to nearly continental in scale during the 17th and 18th centuries. It is true that in most early American societies, warfare was considered a masculine activity. Nevertheless, war making, particularly in periods of endemic war, required the active participation of men and women. In some Indigenous polities, women decided when to wage war and which enemy captives would live or die. Other Indigenous women commanded troops as leaders of their polities, forging and shattering alliances with their Indigenous and European peers. For European women attempting to colonize contested regions of the continent, military readiness was part of everyday life. Even if these women did not participate in the masculinized theater of the militia drill, they did know how to produce ammunition and fire a musket. Beginning in the 1770s, early American women would participate in a conflict that was at once a colonial war, a revolutionary war, and a civil war. The American Revolution did not distinguish between the home and the front or the frontier town and the peaceful hamlet. Women would be touched by a war that mobilized their production skills, intellects, and physical strength. That same war would also displace hundreds of thousands of women, many of whom would never return home. But as they had through the whole of early American history, women would continue to adapt, resist, and mobilize.

Article

Women, Gender, and Red Scares in the Modern United States  

Erica J. Ryan

The first Red Scare, after World War I, and the Red Scare that followed World War II, both impacted American women in remarkably similar ways. Many women found their lives hemmed in by antifeminism and the conservative gender ideology that underwrote anticommunist national identity in 1919, and then again in the late 1940s. This cultural nationalism tied traditional gender norms to the defense of American values and ideals, positioning the family as a bulwark against communism while making women’s performance of gender roles symbolic of national health or sickness. Within this gendered nationalism, the first Red Scare offered opportunities for conservative women to join the antiradical cause as protectors of the home. These same antiradicals maligned radical and progressive women for their feminism and their social activism. The second Red Scare played out in similar fashion. Anticommunism provided a safe platform for conservative women to engage in political activism in defense of the family, and in turn, they participated in broader efforts that attacked and weakened civil rights claims and the social justice efforts of women on the left. In each Red Scare the symbols and rhetoric of anticommunism prioritized women’s relationship to the family, positioning them either as bastions of American virtue or as fundamental threats to the social and political order. Gender proved critical to the construction of patriotism and national identity.

Article

Women, Gender, and the Economies of Colonial North America  

Ellen Hartigan-O'Connor

North American women were at the center of trade, exchange, economic production, and reproduction, from early encounters in the 16th century through the development of colonies, confederations, and nations by the end of the 18th century. They worked for the daily survival of their communities; they provided the material basis for economic and political expansion. There were no economies without them and no economy existed outside of a gender system that shaped and supported it. Connections of family, household, and community embedded the market economies in each region of North America. Gender acted through credit networks, control over others’ labor, and legal patterns of property ownership. Colonialism, by which Europeans sought to acquire land, extract resources, grow profitable crops, and create a base of consumers for European manufactured goods, transformed local and transatlantic economies. Women’s labor in agriculture, trade, and reproduction changed in the context of expanding international economies, created by the transatlantic slave trade, new financial tools for long-distance investment, and an increasing demand for tropical groceries (tea, coffee, and sugar) and dry goods. Women adjusted their work to earn the money or goods that allowed them to participate in these circuits of exchange. Captive women themselves became exchangeable goods. By the end of the 18th century, people living across North America and the Caribbean had adopted revised and blended ideas about gender and commerce. Some came to redefine the economy itself as a force operating independently of women’s daily subsistence, a symbolic realm that divided as much as connected people.

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Women, Gender, and World War II  

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.

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Women in Early American Economy  

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.

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Women in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements  

Christina Greene

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.

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Women, Militarized Domesticity, and Transnationality in the U.S. Occupation of Okinawa  

Mire Koikari

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.

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Women, Race, and the Law in Early America  

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.

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Women’s Movement and Women Workers, Post-1945  

Dennis Deslippe

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.