Logo: Civil Discourse, An American Legacy Toolkit
A protest rally on International Women's Day, in support of women's rights.

Women’s Rights

How far have women’s rights come and how much further do we need to go? Explore seminal events, cases, and texts such as the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, Minor v. Happersett (1875), Roe v. Wade (1973), Dobbs v. Jackson (2022), and the Equal Rights Amendment. Prepare to engage in discourse around what needs to be done to secure women’s equal rights once and for all.

Podcasts & Videos

Beyond the Legacy: Women’s Rights

  1. Watch and listen to the 60-Second Civics video below. If you'd like, you can also read along using the script that appears below the quiz. Or you can turn on the video's subtitles and read while watching the video.
  2. Take the Daily Civics Quiz. If you get the question wrong, watch the video again or read the script and try again.
Episode Description
Mark Gage: Welcome to Beyond the Legacy, an extended long-form bonus episode of 60-Second Civics, where we dive more deeply into the issues discussed over the past week. This episode has been prepared especially for the Civil Discourse: An American Legacy Project. I'm Mark Gage. We are joined today by our special guest for the series, Dr. Lisa Tetrault, an associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University.

Mark Gage: Dr. Tetrault, throughout the past five episodes of 60-Seconds Civics, you've addressed issues of fundamental rights as they've applied to women throughout history. One of the most well-known ways that women have tried to claim their rights under the Constitution is by asserting their right to vote. Most famously, people referenced the Seneca Falls Convention. Tell us the story about how Seneca Falls and voting go together.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: Thanks, Mark. Good to be with you. And thanks to all the listeners out there. The voting is probably the most famous or well known anyway, Crusade in the 19th century for rights to get basic voting rights, which many people call a basic constitutional right. There were many, many, many other ways in which people did pursue rights in the 19th century, including many women who did not find voting to be the most central wrong that they faced or the best solution to what they faced.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: But that said, it is the probably the work, the most well known crusade of the 19th century. And that is said to have, you know, been accomplished women's suffrage in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is said to give women the constitutional right to vote that we all believe we have. And if that's the ending point, the starting point that people often point to is 1848 and the convention in Seneca Falls, New York, that's called the Seneca Falls Convention, which in 1848 was the very first convention called in the United States to explicitly discuss something called women's wrongs or women's rights.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: It was not the first time people had discussed women's rights that had been going on for quite a while. Nor was the first time that women had been in convention, but never had they been in a publicly announced convention for women's Rights explicitly. It was a very local impromptu convention called the July of 1848 and a little tiny town up in the Finger Lakes of New York.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: It's today the site of a national historical park. And at that convention, the organizers, which included Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and some others, drafted a manifesto that they organized the convention around that manifesto, The Declaration of Sentiments, about which we did a brief episode, made a bunch of demands, and it modeled itself on the Declaration of Independence, and it said, We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: And then it listed a whole bunch of grievances against man in particularly in the original, it had been against the king. These included all kinds of important rights, which have not even yet been achieved today, equal access to the professions, equal wages, an end to the sexual double standard, like all kinds of things, and famously also the right to vote.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: This was not the first call for the right to vote, although it's often said to be, nor would it be the last. But it was an important piece of that convention's work.

Mark Gage: I'm also curious about the role of Frederick Douglass at the convention and the relationship between the movements for civil rights, for African Americans and the women's suffrage movement. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: Yeah, so we can look at both kind of the the the lead the preamble to this convention and also the post, the postscript leading up to this convention. Part of what had drawn women to women's rights was their work in abolition and in civil rights of its era. Many women worked in abolition, many white women and many black women, and many white women were said to be out of their sphere as it was.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: They were supposed to be in the domestic realm, home, not out in the public. And they were supposed to be passive supporters of their husbands. And marriage was sort of the only option white women had in this era. And men were supposed to be out in the public speaking their minds. And so when women, white women in particular, get engaged in abolition work, they are told there they are denounced often by ministers and many other people.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: And this leads a lot of women to start saying, I have a right to speak in public. I have a right to advocate my political opinions, things like that. So many people talk about the women's suffrage movement as growing out of civil rights activism and then at the convention, because these two causes were so blended. Frederick Douglass lived just north of Seneca Falls in Rochester, New York.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: At the time. He was part of this abolitionist circle that helped organize the Seneca Falls Convention, and he came down for it. And when they made all their demands, they spent the whole two days of the convention debating this manifesto that they had written and all of the demands there in the ninth resolution, which was out of 12, which was the one for the vote, was the most controversial.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: And there are interesting reasons why the person to stand up and salvage that claim and keep it as part of the declaration was Frederick Douglass. Frederick Douglass stood up and made an impassioned plea for the right of women to the elective franchise. And with that, it passed. So he has a very important role in keeping that at the center of that movement and also giving it legitimacy and also as a lifelong supporter of women's rights.

Mark Gage: Now, I'd like to turn, if you don't mind, to the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, which is seven years before the minor have present case. Yet in minor rehab, the court found no guarantee to the right to vote for women in the Constitution. How did the 19th Amendment and later interpretations of the 14th Amendment add to women's equality under the law?

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: So this is where we get to a part of history that most people are very confused by because it doesn't make sense. We all know that we have a constitutional right to vote right. What the court clarifies here is that we do not. And it's not just women that don't have a constitutional right to vote. It's all people do not have a constitutional right to vote.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: And this case in 1868 or well, the 14th Amendment is ratified in 1868. And we should stop here and say, okay, we had the Seneca Falls Convention, we had abolition, we had all this. Then we had a major civil war, 1861, 1860, 61 to 1865. War ends, 1865, and out of the war comes three really, really important amendments.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: They are thought to be the basis of the modern rights revolution, kind of. They give us the modern Constitution 13th Amendment abolition of slavery except as punishment for a crime. I highly recommend you follow up that that exception. Lots and lots of work out there to to take a look at around that including an a documentary called the 13th.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: The 14th Amendment was birthright citizenship. So it gave citizenship to African Americans born in the United States. In other words, they would be welcome into the nation as equal citizens. And it also said they got equal protection under the laws and you couldn't deprive them of their rights without due process. In other words, they would no longer be covered by a separate code of laws.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: And thirdly, we got black male suffrage. The first suffrage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That last amendment, the 15th Amendment, which was ratified in 1870, started for the first time a biracial Democratic experiment in the United States. And many of the governments across the South elected lots of African Americans, and many of the Southern states sent African American delegates to the U.S. Congress.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: The first black senator in the U.S. history came from Mississippi in 1870. We would that's sort of we can't imagine that. But there was this brief experiment where black men had the right to vote. That angered many, many people, many white supremacist and particularly the people who had just been defeated across the South, who were now, as they said, you know, under black rule, which to them was inconceivable.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: So very quickly, white supremacists went about trying to destroy the 15th Amendment. Look, at the same time, we also have this women's suffrage movement that's been plodding along since since abolition. And they're saying, hey, we want the right to vote, too. You just gave black men the right to vote. And white women are saying, what about us? And so they're trying to figure out how can we creatively use these amendments to argue that we are also enfranchised because the 15th Amendment did not include gender or sex, it only included race and it didn't include.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: Well, I'll get to that in a minute. So white women and a variety of other and variety of African-American women as well who are not allowed to vote by the 15th Amendment. Start just going to the polls and voting. It's a whole strategy. It's why is famously Susan B Anthony will be arrested for voting in 1872. In 1872, a bunch of women just go to the polls and start voting.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: And they have done this earlier to a whole bunch of black women have gone to the polls and start voting in Washington, D.C., all around the country. And what they do is they want to take their illegal voting right to the courts and have the courts decide that it is, in fact, legal. So they go out and start voting The person's case, who makes its way all the way up to the United States Supreme Court.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: One of these women who voted was Virginia minor. Her case goes to the United States Supreme Court and in Minor v. Happersett that the court rejects her argument. Her argument is I am a U.S. citizen 14th Amendment right. I therefore also have the right to vote declared in the 15th Amendment because I am a citizen. And we all know that citizenship comes with a basic, fundamental right to vote.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: This is where it gets kind of amazing because the Supreme Court says, no. They are also part of this push back against the 15th Amendment to say, we are not going to read that broadly, to interpret it as giving people the right to vote, not just American women, but also African American men. And it will be a companion decision with another decision where a black man protests that his vote was not taken in 1876.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: A year later, Minor v. Happersett is 6075 and the United States RESA 76. And in that the Supreme Court says the 15th Amendment gives no one the right to vote. The Constitution gives no one the right to vote. There is no constitutional right to vote. It is a privilege and the states can deny it on any grounds they see fit except one.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: And that is the one that was in the 15th Amendment that said race. And they argued that Victoria Minor had no standing under the 15th Amendment because she wasn't being discriminated upon upon race, only upon sex. Therefore, she did not have the right to vote as a citizen. So that court case reminds us that although we open this with how women have pursued a constitutional right to vote.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: Interestingly, that has never been achieved by American citizens of any stripe. We still, in this day have no constitutional right to vote.

Mark Gage: That's really astounding.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: It is. And many people are very shocked by that. And that's why we're in the midst of a massive wave of disenfranchisement, because the states can still restrict as they see fit, except for the ways that they've been stopped from restricting by the federal government or the U.S. Constitution.

Mark Gage: Turning now to a more modern debate about equal protection, I'd like to address the Equal Rights Amendment, and if you'll entertain me for a moment, Section 1 of the proposed ERA reads as follows: "Women shall have equal rights in the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."

Mark Gage: This doesn't sound very controversial to me, but why has the ERA attracted so much opposition over the years? And what are the barriers to its ratification now?

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: So when the 19th Amendment is ratified in 1920, women are looking around and thinking, What should we do now? At least those women who were covered by the 19th Amendment, many African-American women and women of color still couldn't vote after 1920. And that was because the amendment only said states could not discriminate on the basis of sex. Those states could still discriminate on the basis of poll taxes and literacy tests, which had just previously disenfranchized black men in spite of the 15th Amendment.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: So those women looked to white women suffragists and said, Your cause now should be to help us vote right to continue this work. And those white women said no. And that was a big problem. And many African-American women went on and fought for all kinds of things, including their voting rights after 1920. And Latino women and indigenous women went on to fight many other causes.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: Those white suffragists, however, who were satisfied with the 19th Amendment would cast about and eventually Alice Paul, one of the famous suffragists, would settle upon the idea that we just won this amendment that says you cannot discriminate in voting on the basis of sex. How about an amendment that discriminates that says you can't discriminate on the basis of sex, period, in anything?

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: And Alice Paul will decide to launch that crusade in 1923, and she will go to Seneca Falls to unveil the first version of the Equal Rights Amendment. Harkening back, obviously, to that idea that this is where the vote began. The vote is ostensibly now over, and this is our next our next crusade, when in fact it didn't begin in 1848 and it certainly didn't end in 1920.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: In the 1920s and well up to today and certainly in the sixties and seventies, when it was most prominent. Many people believe that men and women are not fundamentally the same. They are in fact different creatures, and therefore they should be treated differently. And so fair treatment under the law is actually discriminatory in the eyes of some people.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: Right. It hurts women because it says that they have to be treated like men and women are different and special, and therefore they should have special, you know, men and women are not the same creature. Therefore, they should not be treated the same. That's one reason why it's had a lot of opposition over the years. And another reason is that that idea that has been true for a very long time that we were talking about earlier in the opposition to women being out advocating for abolition, that they were out of their sphere.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: Right. Men and women and have it different. They do complementary but different things and society. That argument had been used. At the end of the 19th, early 20th century to create special protections for women in the labor force. So one of the things people had done to try to get rights was to get protection from capitalism so that they couldn't work 80 hours a week.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: They couldn't put you in dangerous situations. They had to pay you if you got wounded on the job. Right. All of these things, that kind of labor protection, which had been a major fight of the union movement, got in, put in place for women, but not for men in many cases, because women were thought to deserve special protection because of their special procreative function.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: So women got limited hours, they got special protections and many, many labor activists didn't want an era because it would destroy the gains that they had made in at least women's industrial labor work. Lastly, the reason many people oppose this today and other times is that a lot of people think it's already been achieved, that we don't have sex discrimination anymore.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: And so it's it's an interesting. It is a very, very simple statement. No discrimination based on sex. It is a very fraught and very difficult concept in this nation. And I'll just add to this. Can I add one more thing? The person who made that true in law for the very first time was the recently departed with Bader Ginsburg or the notorious RBG.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: Sex discrimination was entirely legal in this country, always, except in voting. And that was the one place you could not discriminate in in, you know, application of law. Classified ads for jobs used to be, you know, help wanted male, help wanted female. That was all considered perfectly legitimate until a case a variety of cases that Ruth Bader Ginsburg and other people argued before the United States Supreme Court in the 1970s.

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: And it wasn't until the 1970s as the Supreme Court said, differential treatment based on sex is, in fact, discriminatory. So that's a very recent idea, which also tells you if the court's been that slow to acknowledge that, then, you know, you can imagine why we haven't yet put it into the Constitution.

Mark Gage: Well, thank you. Thank you for that. What do you think? Just out of curiosity, what do you think are the chances that the era will ever be a no idea, given today's political atmosphere?

Dr. Lisa Tetrault: I am no fortuneteller. You know, I don't know.

Mark Gage: Well, thank you so much for joining us for the series, Dr. Tetrault. It's been an honor speaking with you. And that's all for today's podcast for 60-Second Civics. I'm Mark Gage.

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