The History of Working Women's Rights in the United States

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Kiyomi Appleton Gaines
Kiyomi Appleton Gaines316
SHRM-CP, Nonprofit Culture, Writer, Storyteller

Women have long worked in the United States. But let's get one thing straight from the jump: The obligation to work has long been disproportionately shouldered by immigrants and members of the working class, who, in order to support themselves and their families, were (and still are) regularly subjected to working in substandard and dangerous conditions. Wealthier women and women with a higher social status, on the other hand, stayed at home. 

But as working women struggled to achieve anything close to equality with men in similar positions—a battle that continues to this day—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 choose, and for equal pay

From Seneca Falls and the Shirtwaist Strike to the Equal Pay Act, #MeToo, and more, read on for a tour of some of the most significant movements, milestones, and legislation impacting working women in the United States.


Margaret Corbin became the first female soldier in the United States, serving 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 cannon 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, became 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. She discovered a comet, “Miss Mitchell's Comet”—and was awarded a gold medal by King Frederick the VI of Denmark for her discovery.


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, while there, drafted the Declaration of Sentiments on the recently ratified Declaration of Independence. The Declaration 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.

During the creation of the Declaration, there was some debate as to whether to include suffrage as one of the women’s rights. Prior to the Revolution, many of the colonies had allowed for women's participation in government—but 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.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton argued that having the vote was crucial to bringing about full equality. The resolution was only adopted after Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist and former slave, voiced his strong support. The Declaration was ultimately signed by 68 women and 32 men—including well-known signers like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and Frederick Douglass.


Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to be awarded a medical degree in the U.S. She was accepted to Geneva Medical College by a 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 officer in the U.S., joining the Chicago Police Department.


For the first time, women were formally allowed to practice law in the United States and hold the profession of lawyer.


On November 22, 1909, The Shirtwaist Strike, led by Clara Lemlich (and also known as the Uprising of the 20,000), 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. The Amendment, which was ratified in 1870 granted former slaves the right to vote, but not women—leading to a breach that 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.

Following the 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.


The first International Women's Day was observed on March 8th, 1911 (following its predecessor, National Women's Day, which 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 have a significant impact on women.


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


Loretta Prefectus Walsh was the first woman to enlist in the armed forces—in the Navy specifically—in any capacity other than nursing.


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


Two hundred members of the National Woman's Party stood outside the White House in protest of their continued disenfranchisement—the first group to ever picket the White House. In honor of their silent vigil—which was held six days a week from January 9, 1917 through June 1919—the group was called the “Silent Sentinels.” in honor of their silent vigil, which lasted for six days a week from January 9, 1917 until The protest ended June 4, 1919, when the Nineteenth Amendment was finally passed by both houses of Congress. Over the more than two years of protests, nearly 500 women would be arrested—with nearly 200 serving jail time.

On November 14, 1917, known as the Night of Terror, several of the women who had been arrested and imprisoned during the protests 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 to 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, specifically in relation 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 given the right to vote.


Genevieve Cline was the first woman appointed to serve as a federal judge, where presided over the U.S. Customs Court with a life appointment. Throughout her term of service, she defended women's equality in her rulings.


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


Francis Perkins became the first woman to be appointed to the U.S. Cabinet, serving as Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.


The Comstock Law of 1873 included forms of 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. Thanks to the efforts of birth control advocates, the case was eventually overturned, at that point ending prosecution of contraceptives being sent through the mail.

Sanger had a history fighting for women’s right to contraception. In 1916, she was arrested 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, at the time, 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, invalidating the Comstock law and saying it pertained to contraceptives as a violation of the right to “marital privacy.”


As able-bodied young men were drafted and sent overseas, the World War II era saw a surge of women entering the workforce, filling the manufacturing jobs that kept the United States—and the general war effort—operational. In 1942, the National War Labor Board argued for equal wages for women workers when that took on traditionally male jobs, though their efforts were not successful.

When the war ended, many women were pushed out of their positions—and the workforce as a whole—to create job opportunities for returning male veterans.


In 1948, 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, became the first woman to hold the title of 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.


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.


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.


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.


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

Signed on August 6, 1965, by President Lyndon Johnson, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 secured and protected the voting rights of women of color. Previously, although federal law had extended suffrage 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.


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, like lower-income or uninsured individuals. 

The bill, which was meant to promote healthy families by allowing individuals to decide the number and spacing of children, passed with strong bipartisan support. Title X grants funds to community health clinics to provide contraception, education, and counseling, and preventive care exams and screenings.


The Patsy Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act and Equal Rights Amendment 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. 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. (The Act was expanded under President Obama to include transgender rights—but those rights were again restricted under President Trump.)

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 then 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.


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—after facing harassment themselves. 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.


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


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


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


Congress designated March 1987 as Women's History Month—and since 1988, each year, Presidents have annually issued proclamations naming March National Women's History Month.


Child support laws require non-custodial parents to provide financial support for their child/children. Because custodial parents are often women, these laws make it easier for mothers 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 to avoid paying child support.


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

In addition, in 1993, Janet Reno became the first woman to be confirmed as United States Attorney General, nominated by President Clinton.


In response to rising awareness, The Violence Against Women Act was the first piece of legislation that sought to address crimes against women, including sexual assault, stalking, and domestic violence. Under the Act, for the first time, states were required to honor protection orders—even if they were issued in another state.

The Act was drafted by then-Senator Joe Biden—and, after four years of debate, and signed into law by President Clinton. The Act was reauthorized in 2013 and expanded to include gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals, Native Americans, and immigrants.


In the United States women earn, on average, 79 cents to every dollar that men earn. Equal Pay Day was first observed in 1996 to highlight the gender pay gap. The exact date Equal Pay Day is observed differs from year to year—as it represents the additional number of days over the previous year women had to work in order to make as much as their male equivalents. (In 2023, Equal Pay Day was observed on March 14.)


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


Signed by President Clinton as an amendment to the Child Support Recovery Act, the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act applies felony penalties to individuals who evade child support payments.


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


After finding out she had been paid significantly less than men with similar experience in similar positions—an apparent violation of the Equal Pay Act—Lilly Ledbetter filed a discrimination case. But her claim was denied, based on the premise that 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.

In response, 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.


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.

In addition, 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.

2017 also saw the rise of the #MeToo movement. Originated in 2006 by sexual assault survivor and activist Tarana Burke, the #MeToo movement gained traction in 2017 when, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted encouraging women that had experienced sexual harassment and/or assault to share their stories on social media using the hashtag #MeToo. The movement went viral, being used over 19 million times on Twitter alone.

The movement sparked widespread conversation around the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault—and, more importantly, how to stop it. It also reminded women that they are not alone and have nothing to be ashamed of—and, in the process, empowered many women to speak up.


Launched in 2018 in response to the #MeToo movement—and founded by a group of 300 celebrities—Time’s Up is a nonprofit organization that raised money to support women experience discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace. In addition to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund (TULDF), which provides legal and media support to women who have experienced discrimination or harassment, in 2020, the organization also launched the Time’s Up Impact Lab, a research initiative focused on how to prevent sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.


Kamala Harris is sworn in as the first woman—and first woman of color—Vice President in the United States. After her election, she declared, “While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last.”


In a majority ruling, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, declaring that abortion is not a Constitutional right—leading to an immediate outlaw of abortions in multiple states, taking away a women’s right to choose and severely limiting women’s access to abortion and reproductive care


In 2023, Congresswomen Ayanna Pressley (MA-07) and Cori Bush (MO-01)—in partnership with Representatives Becca Balint (VT-AL), Nanette Barragán (CA-44), Judy Chu (CA-28), Madeleine Dean (PA-04), Lois Frankel (FL-22), Steven Horsford (NV-04), Sydney Kamlager-Dove (CA-37), Barbara Lee (CA-13), Summer Lee (PA-12),  Jennifer McClellan (VA-04), Mark Pocan (WI-02), Delia Ramirez (IL-03), Jamie Raskin (MD-08), and Abigail Spanberger (VA-07)—launched the first-ever Congressional Caucus for the Equal Rights Amendment

According to the press release announcing the caucus, its aim is to “affirm the Equal Rights Amendment as the 28th amendment to the Constitution; raise awareness in Congress to establish constitutional gender equality as a national priority; partner with an inclusive intergenerational, multi-racial coalition of advocates, activists, scholars, organizers, and public figures; and center the people who stand to benefit the most from gender equality, including Black and brown women, LGBTQ+ people, people seeking abortion care, and other marginalized groups.”

Deanna deBara contributed to the current version of this article.