Women’s Rights Movement’s Historical Background


For a long time, women have carried the brunt of gender discrimination and other forms of marginalization that have continued to date though there have been efforts to curb the situation through advocacy for gender equality. Women have been targeted systematically in various parts of the society, especially at the workplace where the discrimination has been more pronounced as depicted by scenarios of sexual harassment, pay disparities and other forms of marginalization. However, gender shifts were not always positive for women in the United States as the history of feminist movement from 1877 to the present-day shows. The reasons to that are racial, sexual, and work stereotypes about women. Gender stereotypes are the cause of controversial changes in equality and the impetus for many challenges for women in American society.

Shifts in Gender Roles in America

The humanization of society is closely connected to overcoming imbalances and unequal opportunities for self-actualization among different population groups. In the 1880s, academic interdisciplinary women’s studies, ideologically grounded in liberal feminism, uncovered and critiqued one of the most basic forms of discrimination, gender inequality. Women have continued to fight for emancipation and today, the struggle has almost paid off as seen in the significant gains made especially in recognition of women as productive, intelligent and independent members of the society.

Despite their vulnerability, women have become empowered and can now fight for equal opportunities as their male colleagues though challenges still abound on social acceptability. In a highly patriarchal society, women have been emancipated to break societal stereotypes that relegated their roles and responsibilities as secondary and inferior to those done by men. Initially, women’s place in the society was left in the kitchen and to attend to young ones besides childbearing and were never expected to share their views in the presence of men. Cultural persuasions contributed significantly to the limitations and abuse against women thus greatly subduing their influence on social, economic, and political affairs that affected the community limiting their capacity to participate in any topical issue that directly impacted the people. Throughout the twentieth-century gender roles have shifted multiple times, and as a response to that, women’s rights movement challenged the gender stereotypes.

For example, in order to achieve the goals of the New Deal, the government needed more people, who could take up leadership positions in order to champion the changes. Roosevelt appointed several former progressives, including women, who lined up behind him as top government officials. Eleanor Roosevelt, the first lady, acted as a role model for many aspiring women and advocated for the representation of women in governmental structures. This was a significant step to equality and the first major change in policy toward women.

Secondly, the beginning of the twentieth century, as well as the Great Depression, emphasized the important role that women played in American society as they took more social roles and often provided for their families alongside men. The Great Depression showed huge unemployment rates among women. Family life had also been affected, as the divorce rates, birthrate, and marriages had decreased due to high poverty rates and the fact that couples could not afford to plan ahead. Although female New Dealers was a shift that helped to increase the employment among women, the working conditions and workplace gender discrimination were not eliminated. The New Deal brought some revolutionary changes in the way American women were viewed. For instance, Roosevelt followed his wife’s advice and appointed Frances Perkins as the first woman to head a cabinet agency. However, it is considered a half a loaf solution, as, for ordinary women, poor working conditions and gender discrimination were only reinforced.

After World War II and throughout the 50s, society began to reinforce the idea that women should aspire to be housewives and their main social responsibilities are childbearing, keeping the house clean, and pleasing their husbands. Women criticized the traditional roles, however, the resurgence of feminism in 1960’s was yet to happen in its full volume due to the influences of the greatest modification — Civil Rights Movement and Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan.

Almost all individuals are familiar with the stereotypical image of a 1950s housewife. The phenomenon proved to be persistent and reflected the rejection of the essential role of women in the workforce. Although women have become highly motivated to find a decent job since the 1930s, even the Works Progress Administration used to hire only 60 percent of eligible women. The ordinary women carried the weight of poor working conditions and gender discrimination on their shoulders. Hence, when Civil Rights Movement began, women took the opportunity to be heard.

In 1963, Betty Friedan wrote her book Feminine Mystique, which became a core document of a second wave of feminism that stimulates transformations. Friedan did the research on the level of happiness among her former college classmates who became housewives. The lack of opportunities to work outside the home eliminated the numerous benefits that women used to have while working during crises. The idea that the despair that women experienced was not individual, but a societal problem became a main motive of the beginning of the second wave of feminism. The decades of gender discrimination, combined with the oppressive traditional role of women were the context for the resurgence of feminism. The Civil Rights Movement and Feminine Mystique enabled women to begin the process of equal rights accusation, which the second wave of feminism was.

While discussing social changes in the twentieth century, it is impossible to ignore the topic of family. Family roles, as well as definitions of family, have been changing and developing, acquiring different shapes. The traditional family model where a woman takes care of a home and her husband provides is nearly abandoned. Instead, modern family structures involve dual-income partnerships. It is in sharp contrast with the situation in the 1950s, when the media and public officials actively promoted and encouraged the concept of nuclear family where women always stayed at home. Many families also remain unmarried, which can be referred to as cohabitation. Other modern family models include childfree, same-sex marriage, and single-parent households.

Gender equality and empowerment of women to fight for their rights and stand for Social Justice has been an elusive but reputable organizations such as the United Nations have identified that it is important to recognize the need to empower women. The United Nations they are for recognizes gender equality as one of its most important pillars identified with its sustainable development goals for emerging and established economies. Other supporters of gender equality recognize that it is the best way to give women a voice so that they can agitate for their rights and reduce the social injustices that have been meted against them for ages.

Through global activism and advocacy, supporters of gender equality are creating a democratic space where women are not bound by social and cultural barriers that have long decelerated their progress towards empowerment. Since the days after achieving universal suffrage, women have become more conscious of their individual abilities to better what their male counterparts have accomplished. Due to the social imbalance that has always favored men instead of women, the time has come when women have demonstrated they can equally achieve the greatness that has always been associated with men in areas such as education, corporate leadership, and politics.


In conclusion, the twentieth century has seen many vital shifts in gender roles. Some of them were imposed by patriarchy, others were a response to the crises such as the Great Depression or World War II, and in all circumstances, women took an active position to challenge their gender roles. As a result, the second wave of feminism was able to achieve many crucial milestones in shaping a more equal society. As the fight for gender equality continues, it is important to remember the history of the women’s rights movement and tackle the discrimination, and gender stereotypes in the current society.


Hewitt, Nancy, and Steven Lawson. Exploring American Histories, Volume 2: A Survey with Sources. 4th ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2022.

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