Kiyomi Appleton Gaines
SHRM-CP, Nonprofit Culture, Writer, Storyteller

From its early history, women, especially those who were recent immigrants or members of the working class, have worked in the United States. It was a strange form of privilege that obligated women of more marginalized populations to work to support themselves and their families and bound wealthier women to their homes. Women have often worked in substandard and dangerous conditions and throughout U.S. history have struggled to achieve anything close to equality with men in the same positions and higher status roles.

Though there's often been a disconnect between women of different backgrounds around various issues impacting us all, at several points through U.S. history, women of all backgrounds have come together to fight for equal treatment under the law: for the right to vote, to work, to manage our affairs, to have children when and if we chose, and for equal pay. The Equal Rights Act has still never been ratified by the needed three-fourths majority of states, and so women still do not have a constitutionally protected right to equality. However, this could be the year, as advocates work their way through the legislatures of the last few states holding out on ratificaton.

From Seneca Falls and the Shirtwaist Strike through the Equal Pay Act to #MeToo and #TimesUp, read on for a women's history timeline chronicling some of the most significant movements, moments, and legislation in the United States affecting working women.


Margaret Corbin became the first female soldier in the United States and served in the American Revolution. Afraid to let her husband leave and serve on his own, she was allowed to accompany him and nurse the wounded. When her husband, an artilleryman, fell in battle, she took up his post and fought in his stead, reloading and firing the canon until she was too injured herself to continue on. She impressed her fellow soldiers and went on to receive a military pension for her service.


Hannah Adams, a distant cousin of John Adams, was the first American woman to work professionally as a writer.


Maria Mitchell was the first woman to work as an astronomer in the United States and discovered a comet, “Miss Mitchell's Comet." She was awarded a gold medal by King Frederick the VI of Denmark for her discovery.


Seneca Falls: Declaration of Sentiments

In July of 1848, over 300 men and women, many from the abolitionist movement, gathered together in Seneca Falls, New York for a Women's Rights Convention and drafted the Declaration of Sentiments, on the recently ratified Declaration of Independence. It contained several statements concerning the rights and protections of women, including the fundamental equality of men and women in intellectual and spiritual ability and a woman's right to vote, access all forms of work open to men, and not be subject to social standards of behavior from which men were exempt. The Declaration represented a benchmark and standard for the equal protections and rights of women under the law.

Prior to the Revolution, many of the colonies had allowed for women's participation in government, and the years that followed the signing of the Declaration of Independence saw states, one by one, revoke women's suffrage, beginning with New York in 1777 and ending with New Jersey in 1807.

There was some debate as to whether to include suffrage in this declaration of women's rights. Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued that having the vote was crucial to bringing about full equality, and the resolution was only adopted after Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist and former slave, voiced his strong support. Well-known signers included Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and Frederick Douglass, among 68 women and 32 men.


Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to be awarded a medical degree in the U.S. She was accepted to Geneva Medical College by unanimous vote of the all-male student body.


Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to run for president as the Equal Rights party candidate, with Frederick Douglass as her running mate. They ran on a women's suffrage and equal-rights platform.


Marie Owens became the first female police office in the U.S., joining the Chicago Police Department.


The profession of lawyer was opened to women.


The Shirtwaist Strike

On November 22, 1909, The Shirtwaist Strike, also known as the Uprising of the 20,000, led by Clara Lemlich, succeeded in gaining seamstresses greater protections in New York.

Although it wasn't until the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911 that much attention was paid to the plight of immigrant and working class seamstresses, the strike, which lasted from November to February, represented a significant stride forward for working women, when their demands for higher wages, shorter hours, and equal treatment to male union members were met. Lemlich, like many of the early advocates for women's rights, saw women's suffrage as crucial to the improvement of working women's lives.

A few years later, the movement split over the Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, which granted former slaves, but not women, the right to vote, and the breach lasted for 21 years. Ward, Howe, Douglass, himself a former slave, and others saw the passage of the amendment as a step forward for all people. Others, including Anthony and Stanton, felt the law did not go far enough and that it should apply to universal suffrage or not be passed at all.


The first International Women's Day was observed on March 8th. It's precursor, “National Women's Day,” was observed on February 28, 1909 at the suggestion of Theresa Malkiel, supporter and fundraiser for The Shirtwaist Strike. Each year, International Women's Day highlights issues that are important to and significantly affect women.

Women’s Suffrage

Following passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, women from the women's rights movement made frequent attempts to vote throughout the 1870s and filed suit when they were denied. State by state, women were winning the right to vote, beginning with Wyoming in 1869.


Women won the vote in Montana in 1914, and in 1916, Jeannette Rankin became the first woman hold a federal office and serve in the House of Representatives.


Loretta Prefectus Walsh was the first woman to enlist in the Navy or any of the armed forces in any capacity other than nurse.


August 3, 1918, Opha May Johnson became the first of over 300 women to enlist in the Marine Corps that day, in order to serve during World War I, primarily in clerical positions.


Two hundred members of the National Woman's Party stood outside the White House in protest of their continued disenfrachisement, the first group to ever picket the White House. They were called the Silent Sentinels in honor of their silent vigil, which lasted for six days a week from January 9, 1917 until June 4, 1919, when the Nineteenth Amendment was finally passed by both houses of Congress. Nearly 500 women would be arrested, and nearly 200 served jail time in that year and a half.

On November 14, 1917, known as the Night of Terror, several of the women who had been arrested during their protests and put in prison were beaten and tortured by their guards on the orders of the warden. A Washington D.C. Court of Appeals later found their arrests to be unconstitutional.

Crediting women for their contributions to the war effort during World War I, in January 1918, President Woodrow Wilson, relenting his former position, announced his support of women's suffrage. By November of that year, most of the House of Representatives were pro-suffrage. In the summer of 1919, the Tennessee legislature was filled with roses as a very close vote the ratify the Nineteenth Amendment came to a close. Red roses represented the anti-suffrage side, and yellow were for the advocates of women's rights. Finally on August 18, 1920, women won the right to vote in the United States.


Annette Abbott Adams was appointed the first female Assistant Attorney General of the United States.


The first Equal Rights Amendment was introduced to Congress in 1921. Throughout its history, middle-class women were often supportive of the Equal Rights Amendment, while working class women, such as Clara Lemlich, opposed it on grounds that working women required special protections that men did not with regard to work conditions and hours. The Amendment did not pass.


One June 24, 1924, with the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act, Native American women were allowed to vote for the first time.


Genevieve Cline was the first woman appointed to serve as a federal judge. She presided over the U.S. Customs Court for a life appointment. She defended women's equality to men in her rulings throughout her term of service.


By special election, Hattie Wyatt Caraway was appointed to the U.S. Senate to replace to her husband, Thaddeus, when he died in 1931 during his term. She then went on to run for and win re-election for a full term, and was the first woman to be elected to serve a full term as U.S. Senator.


Francis Perkins was the first woman to be appointed to the U.S. Cabinet. She served as Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.


The Comstock Law and Birth Control

The Comstock Law of 1873 included forms pregnancy prevention under “obscene materials” and made it illegal to send them by the U.S. Postal Service. Margaret Sanger was prosecuted under this law in 1914 for her book, Family Limitation, and in 1936 for distributing information about family planning and contraceptives to poor and working class women in New York. The case was eventually overturned through the efforts birth control advocates, essentially ending prosecution of contraceptives being sent through the mail.

Sanger was arrested in 1916 for providing contraception through the birth control clinic she opened with her sister Ethel Byrne, the first of its kind, which was solely staffed by women doctors and social workers. She believed equality depended on women being able to control and decide when they had children. She also wanted to reduce the number of illegal “back-alley” abortions, from which over 1,000 women died annually.

In 1918 the New York Court of Appeals ruled that doctors could be exempt from the Comstock Law and provide information on birth control to their patients as long as there was a medical reason for doing so.

Beginning in 1929 Sanger began advocating to fully legalize birth control, and in 1936 a federal appeals court ruled that the federal government could not interfere with doctors providing contraception to their patients. In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to deny citizens information about birth control, and invalidated the Comstock law, saying it pertained to contraceptives as a violation of the right to “marital privacy.”


The War Years

World War II saw a surge of women entering the workforce as able-bodied young men were drafted and sent overseas. Women filled the manufacturing jobs that kept the United States and the war effort operational. In 1942, the National War Labor Board argued for equal wages for these women workers when they took on traditionally male jobs, though they were not successful. The end of the war saw many women pushed out of the workforce again through the 1950s to make room for returning male veterans.


Esther McGowin Blake became the first woman to enlist in the Air Force. She began working for the Air Force in 1944, when her sons joined the Army Air Forces, and enlisted on July 8, 1948, as soon as women were authorized to do so.


Georgia Neese Clark, nominated by President Truman, was the first woman to be Treasurer of the United States.


The race restrictions imposed by the 1790 Naturalization Law were repealed, allowing first-generation Japanese American women citizenship and voting rights.


Child Health Act

By 1967 through the Child Health Act the federal government began distributing information about family planning and birth control, effectively nullifying the Comstock Law as it pertained to birth control.


Equal Pay Act

The Equal Pay Act was an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established a 40-hour workweek, and limited the kinds of work and number of hours children could work. President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act on June 10, 1963, stating that women must be paid the same amount as men for the same job. The act eliminated help-wanted ads that listed different wages for men and women, and established equal wage and overtime requirements for women.


Civil Rights Act of 1964

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 guaranteed women legal protection from discriminatory hiring practices. For the first time, “male-only” job notices became illegal.


Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

The President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, which later became The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was established by executive order, signed into law President Kennedy on March 6, 1963. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was founded on July 2, 1965. The Commission was created to oversee discrimination cases and administer and enforce the laws against workplace discrimination.

Voting Rights Act

Signed on August 6, 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 protected and secured the voting rights of women of color. Previously, although by federal law suffrage had been extended to all, many local laws prohibited or prevented African Americans and other minorities from voting. In the mid-1960s, all American women were finally fully able to participate in their own governance.


Title X, Family Planning Program

Signed into law by President Nixon, the Family Planning Program, a part of the Public Health Service Act, provided federal grant funds for family-planning services and related preventive health services. Title X was intended to provide services to those who might not otherwise have access to them, such as lower-income or uninsured individuals. The bill passed with strong bipartisan support and was meant to promote healthy families by allowing individuals to decide the number and spacing of children. Title X grants funds to community health clinics to provide contraception, education, and counseling, and preventive care exams and screenings.


Title IX, The Patsy Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act

This Act was passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972 and was intended as an addition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include students enrolled at schools receiving federal funding. The Act was expanded under President Obama to include transgender rights, but it was restricted again under President Trump. Though not specifically addressing women's employment rights, this act did guarantee the rights of girls to access equal academic and athletic pursuits as boys, thereby opening up more options for interest and expertise to develop from an earlier age.

Equal Rights Amendment

The Equal Rights Amendment, which states, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex,” sought to end legal distinction between men and women, and was passed by the Senate on March 22, 1972, and sent to the states for ratification.

Despite wide bipartisan support, political backlash, most visibly led by Phyllis Schlafly, who claimed that passage would lead to women being drafted in wartime and threaten alimony and child custody in divorce cases, prevented the required three-fourths majority of states from ratifying the amendment. As such, equality of the sexes, with the exception of voting rights, is not guaranteed under the Constitution.


Roe v. Wade

In a majority ruling, the Supreme Court determined that abortion was a fundamental right, included in a woman's right to privacy, and that the government's legal interest must balance a woman's health and the “potentiality of life.”The Court stated that the life and health of the mother should be paramount.


The term “sexual harassment” was coined by a group of women at Cornell University in response to such harassment. Carmita Wood had left her job due to unwanted touching and advances from a male supervisor and filed for unemployment benefits. The University denied her claim, saying she had willingly left her position. She and other colleagues worked to raise awareness of the issue, and by 1977, three courts had ruled that a woman could sue her employer for sexual harassment. The Supreme Court upheld these rulings in 1986.


Pregnancy Discrimination Act

The Pregnancy Discrimination act amends Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Women have the protected right to work while pregnant or nursing and may request to temporarily modify their workload to accommodate their needs.


In 1978 Women's History Week was observed for the first time in California, in a week-long celebration around International Women's Day. On learning of it's success, other communities began to observe the week around March 8th as well. In 1980 President Carter issued a proclamation declaring the week of March 8th to be Women's History Week.


Sandra Day O'Connor was the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court. She was appointed by President Reagan, who had pledged during his 1980 Presidential campaign to appoint the first woman Justice.


Congress designated March 1987 as Women's History Month, and since 1988 presidents have annually issues proclamations naming March as National Women's History Month.


Child Support Recovery Act

Child support laws assist with providing for a child or children by a non-custodial parent. These laws make it easier for women who are custodial parents to seek and maintain employment, and provide for their families. Most child support legislation in the United States is state dependent; however, in 1992, President George H. Bush signed the Child Support Recovery Act, which made it a crime to cross state lines in order to avoid paying child support.


Family and Medical Leave Act

The Family and Medical Leave Act provides individuals with the right to unpaid leave for up to 12 weeks—without risk to their employment—for pregnancy, the birth, adoption, or placement of a child, personal illness or caring for a sick family member, or family military leave. It was intended expressly to “balance the to the demands of the workplace with the needs of families.”

In this year, Janet Reno became the first woman to be confirmed as United States Attorney General, nominated by President Clinton.


Violence Against Women Act

In response to rising awareness of the significant public health issue posed to the entire community by what had previously been deemed a “private” matter, The Violence Against Women Act was the first piece of legislation that sought to address crimes against women, including sexual assault and stalking in addition to domestic violence. For the first time, each state was required to honor protection orders issued in any other state. The Act was drafted by then-Senator Joe Biden and signed into law by President Clinton at the end of four years of debate. The Act was reauthorized in 2013 and expanded to include gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals, Native Americans, and immigrants.


Equal Pay Day was first observed in 1996 to highlight the gender pay gap. The exact day differs from year to year, as it represents the additional number of days a woman has to work in order to make as much as man in the previous year. In the United State women earn, on average, 79-cents to every dollar that men earn. This year Equal Pay Day will be on April 10th.


Madeleine Albright was the first woman to serve as Secretary of State, appointed by President Clinton.


Deadbeat Parent's Punishment Act

Signed by President Clinton as an amendment to the Child Support Recovery Act, this act applies felony penalties to individuals who evade child support payments of certain amounts and duration.


Nancy Pelosi became the first woman to serve as Speaker of the House and lead a major party in Congress. When the Democrats lost House control in the 2010 elections, she became House Minority Leader.


Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act

Lilly Ledbetter found she had been paid significantly less than men with similar experience in similar positions in apparent violation of the Equal Pay Act. She filed a discrimination case, but her claim was denied because it had not been filed within 180 days of her first paycheck with the company, though she hadn't been aware of the discrimination at that time.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signed by President Obama as his first piece of legislation, loosened restrictions on the timelines within which a discrimination suit might be filed, such that the timeline resets with each discriminatory act, and the suit may be filed as long as any single act of discrimination has occurred within 180 days.


Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act

Under this amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers are required to provide break time and a clean, secure place for nursing mothers to express milk.


Female contraception was added to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) as a preventative care service to be provided without a copay.


Janet Yellen became the first woman to be confirmed as Chair of the Federal Reserve, nominated by President Obama.


All military combat roles previously limited to men were opened to women. In 2017 the first three women infantry Marines completed their training at Camp LeJeune.

Hillary Clinton became the first woman to win the presidential nomination of a major party; she also went on to be the first woman to win the popular vote.


The Trump Administration added an exception to the ACA for “religious beliefs” or “moral convictions,” allowing insurers and employers to not cover contraception. This exception was temporarily stayed by two federal judges, but remains an important issue to watch.


#MeToo and #TimesUp