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Despite representing half of the human population, until very recently women were not afforded the same rights and freedoms as men. Furthermore, in much of the world today women remain marginalized, disenfranchised, and disempowered, and even women in the United States continue to face undue discrimination, whether in the workplace, at home, or in popular culture. However, this should not be taken as a disregarding of the hard-fought accomplishments of women since 1865, because over the course of intervening years, women have managed to gain a number of important rights and advantages. In particular, after spending the nineteenth century largely isolated within the domestic sphere, over the course of the twentieth century women won the right to vote, the right to equal pay and housing, and freedom over their own bodies in the form of birth control. By examining the history of these important developments, one is able to appreciate not only the major steps that have been taken to end women's isolation, but also just how far there is to go in the future.
Before highlighting some of the important historical developments that presented new opportunities for women in society, it is necessary to provide some information regarding the relatively limited options for women in the nineteenth century. At least in the West, and particularly the United States and Great Britain, women in the nineteenth century were expected to conform to a strict set of behavioral and occupational standards that confined them to the domestic sphere. Over time the idealized woman holding to these standards came to be called "the Angel in the house" after a poem of the same name, and the notion of a domestic angel dominated women's life options over the course of the latter portion of the nineteenth century. Considering the implications of this idealized image of the nineteenth-century woman will offer some insight into the root causes of women's isolation, as well as what was required to overcome it.
That this image of the idealized woman was called an "angel" is not a coincidence, because religion played an important role in restricting women's options, much as it continues to do to this day (Krueger, 2000, p. 178). Though some scholars have attempted to argue that religion (specifically Christianity) provided "the resourcefulness of Victorian women in the face of a uniquely powerful patriarchal discourse," in reality that patriarchy was supported and perpetuated by the very same religion, so anything Christianity might have offered women was still constrained within the framework of an oppressive and dangerous religious ideology that viewed women as inherently subservient to men (Krueger, 2000, p. 178). This is why the only options for women outside of cooking, cleaning, and birthing children were missionary or philanthropic in nature; essentially, women were allowed occupations that either did not infringe upon the economic dominance of men by taking a job that would otherwise be occupied by a man, or else were considered inherently feminine, subservient occupations in the first place (Krueger, 2000, p. 179). These restrictive options for women persisted well into the twentieth century, but at the same time that women were largely relegated to the home or religious occupations, a slow-but-steady drive towards greater rights and freedoms was underway, and by 1920, women had gained the right to vote.
Women were agitating for the right to vote since before the founding of the United States, but the project only began to reach critical mass after the Civil War. Demonstrating just how fully women's options were circumscribed by religion, the movement for women's suffrage was born out early temperance groups, who advocated restricting people's ability to buy or consume alcohol in order to institute a system of religiously-informed social dominance (Adams, 2003, p. 8). However, during the Civil War women were forced to take up many of the roles previously held by men, and afterward, these various social groups began to work much more earnestly toward securing the right to vote (this is not to discount the efforts prior to 1865, but rather to acknowledge that these efforts pale in comparison to the relative groundswell of support following the war) (Adams, 2003, p. 8). The need for women's suffrage was highlighted by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton's opposition to the 14th Amendment, because while the amendment granted citizenship to male African-Americans, women were still not considered full citizens, and thus were not included in the amendment (Adams, 2003, p. 9). From here, Anthony and Stanton continued to organize and fight for women's suffrage, and although they both died before it became a reality, by 1920 the United States saw the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted full citizenship and voting rights to women (Adams, 2003, p. 11).
Gaining the right to vote was only the beginning, because although it meant that women were finally considered full citizens, the social restrictions which isolated them and limited their opportunities did not disappear with the passage of the 19th Amendment. In fact, it would take over forty more years for women to even begin receiving the same kind of treatment as men in the public sphere, because although they could vote, they still faced overwhelming discrimination in the workplace, discrimination that made it difficult to escape the confines of the domestic sphere. Following the passage of the 19th Amendment, the next key historical development that expanded women's opportunities was the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, among other things, prohibited employment and wage discrimination based on sex. These were also important because for perhaps the first time, the government recognized that women constituted a minority group (in terms of power, if not numbers) that had been historically discriminated against (Hattam, 2004, p. 60). Although gender discrimination did not end with the passage of the Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Act, these bills nevertheless marked an important turning point in women's history because they represented some of the first official, public recognition of the special difficulties facing women, especially in regards to the workplace.
The 1960s also saw a historical shift in favor of women arguably more important than the aforementioned bills: the widespread availability of oral contraceptives. One of the most obvious and pernicious factors prohibiting women from achieving parity with men, either politically, economically, or socially, was the fact that women had fairly little control over their body when it came to pregnancy. In fact, for much of human history, their options were to abstain completely or run the risk of becoming pregnant, but over the course of the 1960s, as the so-called "Pill" became more available, women were able to finally gain control over their own bodies and sexuality; as such, "their sex was more free, their educational plans more achievable, their wage-earning more stable, their domestic labor reduced" (Gordon, 2002, p. 288). In short, women were finally able to live like men had been for years, without the fear that having sex might afflict them with a condition that not only would prohibit them from working or studying, but also might have serious and possibly fatal health consequences. Although very recently there has been a number of attempts by religious fanatics in the government to restrict women's access to contraceptives, women's ability to make their own decisions regarding their sexuality and fertility has been one of the most important historical developments granting more and better opportunities for women in society.
Following the dramatic social and political upheavals of the 1960s, women have gradually gained greater and greater equality in terms of political representation and employment, but modern society still demonstrates vast inequality. Things have gotten better, but they are nowhere near acceptable. For example, although the Equal Pay Act demands equal pay for equal work, women still make roughly eighty cents for every dollar a man makes, and although this is up from the sixty-three cents they made in 1985, it is still unacceptable (Chen & Kleiner, 1998, p. 13). There are a number of reasons for this continued disparity, and discussing them here will highlight some of the ways in which women continue to be isolated and restricted even after the important historical developments discussed above.
Firstly, it is oftentimes difficult for women to discover when they are being discriminated against via their wages, because frequently companies and employers do not publicize what they pay their employees, but rather keep the actual salary information strictly between the employer and the individual employee. This practice also makes it harder to prove discrimination and thus receive reparations from an employer, because a woman has to prove that the discrimination not only was intentional, but that it was strictly based on the fact that she was a woman. Finally, until very recently, the statute of limitations for reporting wage discrimination did not begin when a woman discovered she was being discriminated against, but rather whenever the discrimination began, so oftentimes a woman would discover wage discrimination only to realize that she had…[continue]
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