Two decades of struggle over women's rights have left their mark on American society - and on the laws of the country's 50 states. From the watershed era of the 1960s, with Betty Friedan's ``Feminine Mystique'' and the blossoming civil rights movement, to the great increase in the number of women in the work force in the '70s and '80s, to the rise in the divorce rate, men's and women's lives have been changing. And it has sparked a drive to reconsider laws at all levels affecting women.
``The process has been an evolution, not a revolution,'' says Roxanne Conlin, president of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund and a lawyer in Iowa.
NOW LDEF has just published ``The State-by-State Guide to Women's Legal Rights,'' which compiles and summarizes laws affecting women in such categories as employment, education, home and family, and economic opportunities.
Some of the revisions and new laws that have been made in the last 20 years are updates of old laws that had long been overlooked, such as one in Pennsylvania that said married women could not buy anything without their husband's permission - except for a sewing machine.
But most of the changes have been hard-fought, substantive, and occasionally controversial laws. The biggest areas of progress have been in employment and family law, says Ms. Conlin. Spurred by federal legislation in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which guarantees equal employment opportunity for women, states have created their own legislation, often covering small firms that federal law did not reach.
Conlin remembers the early days of litigation over job issues, when women were kept from becoming line workers for telephone companies. In Ohio, she says, women were barred from jobs that required lifting more than 25 pounds. They couldn't legally operate a freight elevator or shine shoes.
``Young women today have expectations that women did not have in the past,'' Conlin says. ``They expect to work outside the home. They expect to have careers and not jobs. Those are enduring changes. In 10 years, institutions [including laws] will reflect women's lives.''
Changes in family laws have been some of the more controversial developments in recent years - with legislation affecting marriage, domestic violence, inheritance rights, reproductive rights, and unmarried couples. There have been volatile arguments over laws governing abortion and no-fault divorce.
But Conlin says these laws are crucial. She points to the many marriages ending in divorce, and the many women and children finding themselves in poverty after the breakup of a family. She discounts criticism that some divorce laws have adversely affected women, saying that the problems facing divorced women are not stemming from the law, but from a system that has long given divorced women the short end of the stick.
Despite the many changes in law, NOW LDEF says much remains to be done.
``These [laws] are great tools, but enforcement is spotty,'' says Marsha Levick, executive director of the organization. Observers at the state level agree.
``We should never rest easy,'' says Alma Saravia, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Sex Discrimination in Statutes. ``We are looking at hundreds of years of common-law tradition with overt discrimination or laws that overlook the needs of women.''
The state commission, which has had broad bipartisan support, does not simply read laws to see if they discriminate. It also looks at problems women face and asks if state statutes confront those problems. That includes issues such as comparable worth, prevention of domestic violence, alimony and child support.
In Connecticut, women have made great gains in recent years, says state Rep. Pauline Kezer (R). A lot of that has come from the ``collective working together'' of women legislators of both parties. Agreeing to disagree on ideologically touchy issues such as abortion, they have prepared and passed legislation involving jobs and job training for women, displaced homemakers, sexual assault, pay equity, and health care.
Levick and Conlin hope the new state guide will be used by women as a handbook and introduction to a legal system that affects them every day of their lives. What often looks like a private problem, they say - on the job, at school, or in a relationship - too often has to be solved in a public and political way.
In addition to listing state statutes affecting women, the book gives an overview of legal rights and instructs women in how to get legal assistance, what to do when a victim of crime, how to recognize discrimination.