Seneca Falls Convention begins

Year
1848
Month Day
July 19

At the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, a woman’s rights convention—the first ever held in the United States—convenes with almost 200 women in attendance. The convention was organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two abolitionists who met at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. As women, Mott and Stanton were barred from the convention floor, and the common indignation that this aroused in both of them was the impetus for their founding of the women’s rights movement in the United States.

READ MORE: The Women’s Suffrage Movement Started with a Tea Party

In 1848, at Stanton’s home near Seneca Falls, the two women, working with Martha Wright, Mary Ann McClintock, and Jane Hunt, sent out a call for a women’s conference to be held at Seneca Falls. The announcement, published in the Seneca County Courier on July 14, read, “A Convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women will be held in the Wesleyan Chapel, at Seneca Falls, on Wednesday and Thursday, the 19th and 20th of July current; commencing at 10 o’clock A.M. During the first day the meeting will be exclusively for women, who are earnestly invited to attend. The public generally are invited to be present on the second day, when Lucretia Mott, of Philadelphia, and other ladies and gentlemen, will address the Convention.”

On July 19, 200 women convened at the Wesleyan Chapel, and Stanton read the “Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances,” a treatise that she had drafted over the previous few days. Stanton’s declaration was modeled closely on the Declaration of Independence, and its preamble featured the proclamation, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…” The Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances then detailed the injustices inflicted upon women in the United States and called upon U.S. women to organize and petition for their rights.

READ MORE: Women Who Fought for the Vote 

On the second day of the convention, men were invited to intend–and some 40 did, including the famous African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. That day, the Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances was adopted and signed by the assembly. The convention also passed 12 resolutions–11 unanimously–which called for specific equal rights for women. The ninth resolution, which declared “it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise,” was the only one to meet opposition. After a lengthy debate, in which Douglass sided with Stanton in arguing the importance of female enfranchisement, the resolution was passed. For proclaiming a women’s right to vote, the Seneca Falls Convention was subjected to public ridicule, and some backers of women’s rights withdrew their support. However, the resolution marked the beginning of the women’s suffrage movement in America.

The Seneca Falls Convention was followed two weeks later by an even larger meeting in Rochester, N.Y. Thereafter, national woman’s rights conventions were held annually, providing an important focus for the growing women’s suffrage movement. After years of struggle, the 19th Amendment was adopted in 1920, granting American women the constitutionally protected right to vote.

READ MORE: Women’s History Milestones: A Timeline 

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Supreme Court defends women’s voting rights


Year
1922
Month Day
February 27

In Washington, D.C., the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, providing for female suffrage, is unanimously declared constitutional by the eight members of the U.S. Supreme Court. The 19th Amendment, which stated that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex,” was the product of over seven decades of meetings, petitions, and protests by women suffragists and their supporters.

In 1916, the Democratic and Republican parties endorsed female enfranchisement, and on June 4, 1919, the 19th Amendment was passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification. On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, achieving the required three-fourths majority of state ratification, and on August 26 the 19th Amendment officially took effect.

READ MORE: Women Who Fought for the Vote

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FDA approves “the pill”

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves the world’s first commercially produced birth-control bill–Enovid-10, made by the G.D. Searle Company of Chicago, Illinois.

Development of “the pill,” as it became popularly known, was initially commissioned by birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger and funded by heiress Katherine McCormick. Sanger, who opened the first birth-control clinic in the United States in 1916, hoped to encourage the development of a more practical and effective alternative to contraceptives that were in use at the time.

In the early 1950s, Gregory Pincus, a biochemist at the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology, and John Rock, a gynecologist at Harvard Medical School, began work on a birth-control pill. Clinical tests of the pill, which used synthetic progesterone and estrogen to repress ovulation in women, were initiated in 1954. On May 9, 1960, the FDA approved the pill, granting greater reproductive freedom to American women.

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Equal Rights Amendment passed by Congress


Year
1972
Month Day
March 22

On March 22, 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment is passed by the U.S. Senate and sent to the states for ratification.

First proposed by the National Woman’s political party in 1923, the Equal Rights Amendment was to provide for the legal equality of the sexes and prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. More than four decades later, the revival of feminism in the late 1960s spurred its introduction into Congress. Under the leadership of U.S. Representative Bella Abzug of New York and feminists Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, it won the requisite two-thirds vote from the U.S. House of Representatives in October 1971. In March 1972, it was approved by the U.S. Senate and sent to the states.

Hawaii was the first state to ratify what would have been the 27th Amendment, followed by some 30 other states within a year. However, during the mid-1970s, a conservative backlash against feminism eroded support for the Equal Rights Amendment, which ultimately failed to achieve ratification by the a requisite 38, or three-fourths, of the states.

Because of the rejection of the Equal Rights Amendment, sexual equality, with the notable exception of when it pertains to the right to vote, is not protected by the U.S. Constitution. However, in the late 20th century, the federal government and all states have passed considerable legislation protecting the legal rights of women. The Equal Rights Amendment, in its most recently proposed form, reads, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.”

READ MORE: How Phyllis Schlafly Derailed the Equal Rights Amendment

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Abortion rights advocates march on Washington

Year
1992
Month Day
April 05

A march and rally in support of abortion rights for women draws several hundred thousand people to demonstrations in Washington, D.C. One of the largest protest marches on the nation’s capital, the pro-choice rally came as the U.S. Supreme Court was about to consider the constitutionality of a Pennsylvania state law that limited access to abortions. Many abortion rights advocates feared that the high court, with its conservative majority, might endorse the Pennsylvania law or even overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that made abortion legal.

In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruled that women, as part of their constitutional right to privacy, could terminate a pregnancy during the first two trimesters. Only during the last trimester, when the fetus can survive outside the womb, would states be permitted to regulate abortion in a healthy pregnancy. The historic and controversial ruling, essentially reversing a century of anti-abortion legislation in America, was the result of a call by many American women for control over their own reproductive processes.

Although defended by the Supreme Court on several occasions, the legalization of abortion became a divisive and intensely emotional public issue. The debate intensified during the 1980s, and both anti- and pro-choice organizations strengthened their membership and political influence. By 1992, 12 years of Republican rule in the White House had weakened abortion rights, and the Supreme Court threatened to overturn the 1973 ruling. In April 1992, a massive pro-choice rally was held in Washington, and soon after, the high court refused to endorse Pennsylvania’s new restrictions and left the Roe v. Wade decision intact.

In January 1993, Democrat Bill Clinton was inaugurated as president and within days of taking office overturned several key pieces of anti-abortion executive legislation that had been signed by his Republican predecessors, Ronald Reagan and George H. Bush. In the 1990s, some extreme opponents of abortion rights turned to violent methods in their campaign to make abortion illegal again.

On April 25, 2005, more than a million abortion-rights activists again hit the Mall in Washington as part of the March for Women’s Lives. They protested what they saw as attempts by President George W. Bush’s administration to chip away at women’s reproductive rights, as well as the U.S. ban on aid to abortion clinics abroad.

With the resignation of frequent swing vote Sandra Day O’Connor from the Supreme Court in 2005, who had helped block efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade, abortion-rights advocates have worried that the landmark ruling might be in jeopardy. 

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Ireland allows sale of contraceptives


Year
1985
Month Day
February 20

In a highly controversial vote on February 20, 1985, the Irish government defies the powerful Catholic Church and approves the sale of contraceptives.

Up until 1979, Irish law prohibited the importation and sale of contraceptives. In a 1973 case, McGee v. The Attorney General, the Irish Supreme Court found that a constitutional right to marital privacy covered the use of contraceptives. Pressured by strong conservative forces in Irish society, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, the government was slow to change the law to reflect the court’s decision, and a number of proposed bills failed before reaching the books.

In 1979, the Irish health minister, Charles Haughey, introduced a bill limiting the legal provision of contraceptives to “bona fide family planning purposes.” Signed into law in November 1980, the Health (Family Planning) Act ensured that contraceptives could be sold by a registered pharmacist to customers with a valid medical prescription. Still, many people saw the law as too strict. Over the next several years, a movement began to make contraceptives more easily available, causing bitter divisions inside and outside of the Dail, Ireland’s main house of Parliament.

As the government debated the changes, Catholic Church leaders railed against them, warning that increased access to contraceptives would encourage the moral decay of Ireland, leading to more illegitimate children and increased rates of abortion and venereal disease. On the eve of the vote in early 1985, the Dublin archbishop claimed the legislation would send Ireland down a “slippery slope of moral degradation.” Some politicians were even threatened with violence if they voted for the legislation.

On February 20, 1985, a coalition of the Fine Gael and Labour parties led by Dr. Garret FitzGerald defeated the opposition of the conservative Fianna Fail party by an 83-80 vote. The new legislation made non-medical contraceptives (condoms and spermicides) available without prescriptions to people over 18 at pharmacies; it also allowed for the distribution of these contraceptives at doctors’ offices, hospitals and family planning clinics. Though it was still illegal to advertise contraceptives and use of the birth control pill remained restricted, the vote marked a major turning point in Irish history—the first-ever defeat of the Catholic Church in a head-to-head battle with the government on social legislation.

READ MORE: Ireland grants a divorce for the first time in the country’s history

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