In life, every issue is connected to every other issue. This is definitely true for a topic such as feminism, which deals with half the population of the world. It breaches economics, politics, the home, the workplace, and leisure. Winning suffrage was something almost all women could agree on — it was a fundamental right of an American citizen. But beyond the ability to vote, to represent oneself, what other rights does an American have? What other rights do women Americans have?
A major split happened within the groups that had stood together to win suffrage in the 1920s. Those considered more radical wanted blanket legislation — namely the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) — supporting women’s full equality with men in every area of life, but specifically in the workplace, and it included no special treatment. This charge was led by the National Woman’s Party (NWP). Most other feminist groups — the League of Women Voters (LWV), The National Women’s Trade Union League, the Woman’s Christian Temperence Union, and The General Federation of Women’s Clubs — did not agree with this approach. They believed protecting the already established women labor protection legislation was more important than trying to prove they were equal to men. Some of them didn’t believe they were to begin with, so this suggested legislation was especially shocking.
Much could have been lost in the immediate situation of the early twentieth century if the ERA was passed. The labor legislation protected women from unfair treatment in the workplace and helped to equalize the market in general. However, much was lost in the overall battle for equality without the ERA. It has taken a long time to bring women’s presence in a professional realm and a women’s importance in the home to public thought. Both sides can be argued effectively, especially when viewed through the lens of the contemporary situtation. But I would saw the passage of time has shown that women being able to pursue economic independence and any career they choose has been an important step in history. Ending coverture and other legislation of the sort was necessary, though remnants of this ideology still pervade the law. The ERA was never passed; however, many of the problems facing the feminists of the 1920s and 1970s have dissipated as women have done what the were denied in the past. Specific court cases have also helped to set precedents of women being able to do what men can. The most recent frontier conquered was total inclusion of women in the military in 2015.
A major component of this debate, and most others in relation to women, is a woman’s ability to have children. For those who believe motherhood is the ultimate end of all women, working long hours and trying to advance in a career would be distracting from something she is required to do. I think the beauty of what Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party was suggesting is freedom for women to be mothers if they choose and to pursue a different occupation if that is their desire. With economic climates throughout the years, most women have been both a mother and careerwoman out of necessity. Pulling from both the NWP and LWV & co.’s philosophies is important: women need to be legitimized as laborers, but they also need to be fairly compensated and protected from exploitation (as do men!). These two thoughts are not exclusive to each other, though achieving them sometimes was.
So what does equality mean? Should women be given every opportunity offered men, or should our inherent differences cause us to be seen differently in the eyes of the law? Further than considering the inherent differences between man and woman, I think an individual’s inherent differences should be considered and appreciated. After all, isn’t what makes a democracy the constant honing of policies based on differing opinions and everyone’s voice mattering? Whether man or woman, native-born or immigrant, rich or poor, your rights and opportunities as a citizen should not be infringed upon. Every citizen has something to offer the nation as a whole, and to qualify those citizens for different careers based on something like gender is degrading. It is said that justice is blind, and I guarantee she isn’t going to assess your anatomical structure before allowing you to vote, attend college, apply for a job, or advance in your career.
Women’s America, 8th edition, by Kerber et al., Oxford Press.