Equal Rights victories since 1919

by M. Diane Bairstow

Every month we are following the ratification of the 19th Amendment and considering women’s issues then and now. The suffragettes were half way to victory when California and Maine signed on in November, bringing the total to 19 states. Seventeen states were still needed.

Since the passage of the 19th Amendment, women have won many significant victories in their fight for equality. Yet, with the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the ‘70s, women still don’t have equal protection under the constitution. The ERA amendment would have changed the language of the constitution to read “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

There is still energy behind reviving this amendment. In January of this year, supporters hoped the Virginia legislature would be the 38th state (the number needed now) to ratify it, but it died in committee with all the “no” votes cast by men.

Nevertheless, below are 10 victories women have achieved throughout the last century.

1. 1922: The right to marry anyone (almost) and keep her citizenship

The 1907 “Expatriation Act” stated that if an American woman married a foreigner, she would lose her citizenship and take on the citizenship of her husband. In some other countries, a woman did not automatically become a citizen by marriage, creating the possibility that a woman would have no country at all. In 1922, the Cable Act repealed some parts of the Expatriation Act. However, she would still lose her citizenship if she married a man “ineligible for citizenship,” namely an Asian. The Cable Act was subsequently amended in 1930, 1931 and 1934.

2. 1968: Employers could no longer distinguish between “male” and female” jobs

The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) revised sex discrimination guidelines, stopping the practice of publishing “help wanted” ads that used “male” and “female” column headings.

3. 1970: Equal pay for equal work

A U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in Schultz v. Wheaton Glass Co. that an employer must pay women for jobs that were “substantially equal” even if they are not “identical” to jobs done by men, thus preventing employers from changing the “title” of a job in order to pay a woman less.

4. 1973: Abortions became legal

The Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade allowed women to safely and legally obtain abortions, a right that is under siege in 2019.

5. 1974: A women gained the right to have her own credit card

The Equal Credit Opportunity Act allowed women to obtain a credit card in her own name without needing to get her husband’s signature.

6. 1978: The right to become pregnant and maintain a job

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act made it illegal for employers to fire a woman if she became pregnant. It also made it illegal for an employer to deny a woman a job, or a promotion, on the grounds that she was, or could become, pregnant.

7. 1985: A woman could obtain a divorce on “Irreconcilable Differences”

In 1969, California was the first state to allow “no fault” divorces. By 1985 all states, except New York, allowed women to file for divorce without forcing them to prove that their husbands had mistreated, abandoned, abused or been unfaithful to them.

8. 1986: Women could seek damages for sexual harassment in the workplace

The Supreme Court decision in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson determined that repeated sexual advances or references in the workplace created a hostile work environment and that an employer was absolutely liable for sexual harassment by supervisory personnel, whether or not the employer knew or should have known about it.

9. 1993: Marital rape became illegal in all 50 states

In 1976, Nebraska became the first state to criminalize marital rape. It wasn’t until 1993 that all states had eliminated the “spousal exemption” for rape. Today, it is still not punishable to the same degree as extra-marital rape in 26 states.

10. 2013: Women were allowed to fight on the front lines

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women serving in combat roles. The change was to be gradual, but by 2016 each branch of the military was required to allow women the right to serve in combat.