Women's Rights 150 Years Later

Feminists highlight persisting inequities, as America charts its progress since 1848 meeting that launched the women's movement.

It all began at a ladies' tea party in upstate New York, on a steamy July day in 1848.

The conversation turned to women's rights - or more precisely, the profound lack thereof - and the outrage poured forth: They had no right to vote, no right to formal education, and virtually no role in church affairs.

Married women had no right to own property or keep any wages or inheritance. Abusive husbands were tolerated, for divorce was not an option. In the eyes of the law, they complained, they were practically nonexistent.

The women, with housewife Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the lead, took action. Within a week, they convened the first gathering ever to address women's rights, at a chapel in Seneca Falls, N.Y. Thus was launched the women's movement, issuing a call that reverberated around the world.

Fast forward 150 years: In this sesquicentennial year of the women's rights movement, the lives of American women have changed beyond recognition. They can vote, run for president, run a corporation, and command a space shuttle. In all 50 states, it is now illegal for a man to rape his wife. Today, 1 in 3 girls participates in high school sports, compared with 1 in 27 in 1972.

But feminists aren't resting on their successes. "We've come far, but not far enough," says Judith Lichtman, head of the National Partnership for Women & Families here.

In this anniversary year - beginning with Women's History Month observances all during March - women's rights groups will highlight what they call remaining gross inequities in employment, wages, pensions, insurance, and health care. They also note that some of their gains aren't as complete as they seem; some laws barring discrimination have loopholes or are ignored outright.

"Elizabeth Cady Stanton would be upset," says Eleanor Smeal, head of the group Feminist Majority. "These suffragists weren't just for the vote and equal representation. They believed in equal rights."

Indeed, in 1923 - three years after women won the right to vote - suffragist Alice Paul drafted an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) nearly identical to the one Congress eventually passed in 1972. But with the amendment's failure to gain passage in enough state legislatures, the US Constitution still has no provision guaranteeing equal rights for women.

Does this matter? Activists on women's issues - liberal and conservative - continue to argue vehemently over what women really want and need. Women themselves are torn. In the research for her 1994 book, "The Deep Divide: Why American Women Resist Equality," author Sherrye Henry found that while nearly all women say they want equality, equal pay, and an end to job discrimination, most weren't willing to work toward those goals.

Part of the problem, Ms. Henry found, is that the term "feminist" carries negative connotations, signaling to many an antichild, anti-family attitude. Many women also couldn't explain how equality would make their lives better.

Freer, yes, but happier?

Conservative writers like Danielle Crittenden, editor of The Women's Quarterly, say the real issue today for women is not rights - that battle has essentially been won - but rather finding the right balance amid all their choices.

"Women are freer than they've ever been, but I don't think they're necessarily happier," says Ms. Crittenden. "The official women's organizations have basically become abortion-rights and gay-rights groups. You'll never hear NOW [the National Organization for Women] say, 'Gee, we have to help women think of ways to be mothers to their kids.' Yet that is consistently what the polls say: Women want more time with their families."

The rise of the Christian conservative political movement has added weight to the argument - made forcefully by anti-ERA champion Phyllis Schlafly - that women don't need to define power and accomplishment on men's terms (through money and professional titles) and instead can be no less equal and no less powerful in their roles as mothers. The growth of the religious right has also fueled the fierce backlash against abortion rights, an area of feminist pursuit that was not at issue in 1848.

Pressing on

Some feminists acknowledge that the political climate isn't hospitable to another full-bore effort to pass an Equal Rights Amendment. But they're preparing to make the case anyway. Ms. Smeal of the Feminist Majority says most Americans aren't aware of the ways women face discrimination, and this summer she plans to unveil an "equality act" that will lay out the issue point by point. Some examples:

* The wage gap. Women earn, on average, 74 cents for every dollar a man earns. Labor economists say some of that difference can be attributed to the fact that more women than men go into lower-wage fields, and that more women than men "downsize" their careers for the sake of family, but in the end, part of that gap is a result of discrimination.

* Retirement. Married men receive 100 percent of their Social Security benefits for the rest of their lives, while widows receive lower payments. Women are also half as likely to receive pensions as men, and therefore more women than men rely solely on Social Security for their retirement.

* Remedies for discrimination. If a woman can prove sex discrimination in employment, there's a cap on the damages she can receive, while there's no cap on damages in race-discrimination cases.

In the end, feminist historians say, there's nothing new in the nature of today's divisions over the role of women.

"At Seneca Falls, there was a big debate over whether women's suffrage was too radical a demand," and the only resolution that didn't pass unanimously was the one calling for the right to vote, says Rebecca Edwards, a historian at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "There's never been consensus about what women ought to do."

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