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Women's Movements

Civil Rights And Women's Movements In The United States

The definition of women's interests in terms of individual rights is one that informs liberal feminism around the world and represents the mainstream of the U.S. women's rights movements. Set forth by white, propertied men to promote their interests, the rights discourse was adopted by the women's rights movement, as well as by the civil rights movement, the gay and lesbian rights movement, and most recently, the disability rights movement. The common language and philosophy of rights have facilitated cooperation and mutual progress among the various rights movements. Other groups, however, have criticized the women's rights movements because they were willing to reform the existing system rather than pushing to uproot the structures of inequality in the family and society.

The official beginning of women's rights movements is marked by the 1848 Seneca Falls women's convention and its resolutions calling for women's rights to legal adult status, access to all professions, and women's suffrage (the right to vote). Of the delegates, renowned black abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, middle-class, white, feminist foremother, argued most strongly that women needed the right to vote in order to attain their other rights. The ideals of the women's suffrage movement drew on the liberal notion of the rights of the individual. In the 1970s, this same ideal was the foundation of a renewed, but unsuccessful, campaign for an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U. S. Constitution.

Through the first wave of the women's rights movement, which ended when women gained the right to vote in 1920, through the second wave of the new women's movement, which began in the 1960s, and the contemporary third wave, women's movements in the United States have been linked to the struggles for civil rights for African Americans. The 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited sex discrimination (Giddings 1984), was particularly important. On the other hand, white women's rights activists have sometimes used overtly racist arguments to support their cause and failed to recognize how their conceptions of women's interests have been shaped by white, middle-class, and heterosexual privilege. For example, at the last meeting of the American Equal Rights Association in 1869, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony proposed a resolution opposing the fifteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted voting rights to Black men. This resolution and Stanton's subsequent appeals to racialist rhetoric have been interpreted as "constructing a hierarchy of rights, with those of white women on top" (Caraway 1991, p. 145).

Although the young, middle-class women of the women's liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s, most of whom were white, did attend to racism as an issue, their small consciousnessraising groups were primarily directed towards their own personal and political concerns. Like the more mainstream National Organization for Women (NOW), founded in 1966, women's movement organizations in the late 1960s and 1970s tended to be independent of political parties and other women's organizations. Their mistrust of the state as an economic support for women and desire to set their own independent agenda may have contributed to tension between the women's liberation movement and other contemporary social movements. For example, women of color, lesbians, and working-class women organized their own women's movements (Johnson-Odim 1991).

Among these were the welfare rights movement, created by poor women for better public support for low-income families, and the Coalition of Labor Union Women, representing women in labor unions. As womanists, black feminists, and Third World feminists, women of color in the United States have developed independent movement organizations as well as multicultural coalitions. The National Black Women's Political Leadership Caucus was established in 1971 and the Organization of Pan Asian American Women in 1976 (Nelson and Carver 1994). The Indigenous Women's Network, the Center for Third World Organizing, and the National Black Women's Health Project represented U.S. women at the U.N. World Conference on Women in 1995 (Dutt 2000).


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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Social IssuesWomen's Movements - Feminist And Feminine Movements In Brazil, Civil Rights And Women's Movements In The United States