Women's Equality Day: 7 Activists Who Changed History

To celebrate Women's Equality Day, learn more about some of the activists who fought for women's rights on the long road toward equality.
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To celebrate Women's Equality Day, learn more about some of the activists who fought for women's rights on the long road toward equality.

Women getting the vote — thanks to the 19th Amendment, which just turned 95 years old — was only one step on a long road toward equality. As women started voting in the 1920s, they faced discrimination and unequal pay in the workplace. Many states didn't let women serve on juries (some even kept them from running for office). Even marriage came with pitfalls: 16 states didn't permit married women to make contracts. And, thanks to a 1907 law, an American woman who wed a foreign national lost her U.S. citizenship.

With issues like these, activists had plenty to work on after suffrage. Here's a look at seven women who continued the fight for women's rights, and what they accomplished.

Alice Paul

Alice Paul Photo

Alice Paul (Photo: United States Library of Congress [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Alice Paul felt that suffrage was just a first step for women. In 1920 she declared, "It is incredible to me that any woman should consider the fight for full equality won. It has just begun."

Convinced that women needed an equal rights amendment, Paul organized her National Woman's Party to focus on getting one passed. In 1923, the amendment that Paul had drafted — called the Lucretia Mott amendment — was first introduced in Congress. Unfortunately, it didn't progress any further for decades: While Paul had gotten the NWP's support, she hadn't convinced other women's organizations to back the amendment. At the time, many activists feared that if equal rights became the law of the land, protective legislation about women's wages and working conditions that they'd struggled for would be lost. 

After a new women's movement gained strength, both houses of Congress finally passed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972. Paul died hoping the ERA would succeed; unfortunately, not enough states ratified it within the specified time period.

Maud Wood Park

Maud Wood Park Photo

Maud Wood Park (Photo: Harris & Ewing [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Maud Wood Park not only aided female voters as the first president of the League of Women Voters, she also helped form and chaired the Women's Joint Congressional Committee, which lobbied Congress to enact legislation favored by women's groups.

One law that Park and the committee pushed for was the Sheppard-Towner Maternity Bill (1921). In 1918, the United States, when compared to other industrialized countries, had ranked a disheartening 17th in maternal death; this bill provided money to take care of women during and after pregnancy — at least until its funding was ended in 1929.

Park also lobbied for the Cable Act (1922), which let most American women who married foreign nationals keep their citizenship. The legislation was far from perfect — it had a racist exception for people of Asian descent — but it at least recognized that married women had identities separate from their husbands.

Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary Mcleod Bethune Photo

Mary McLeod Bethune (Photo: w:en:Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

For African-American women, getting the vote often didn't mean being able to cast a ballot. But Mary McLeod Bethune, a well-known activist and educator, was determined that she and other women would exercise their rights. Bethune raised money to pay the poll tax in Daytona, Florida (she got enough for 100 voters), and also taught women how to pass their literacy tests. Even facing off with the Ku Klux Klan couldn't keep Bethune from voting.

Bethune's activities didn't stop there: she founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935 to advocate for black women. And during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, she accepted a position as director for the Division of Negro Affairs in the National Youth Administration. This made her the highest-ranking African-American woman in government. Bethune knew she was setting an example, stating, "I visualized dozens of Negro women coming after me, filling positions of high trust and strategic importance."

Rose Schneiderman

Rose Schneiderman Photo

Rose Schneiderman (Photo: National Photo Company Collection. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

A former factory worker and dedicated labor organizer, Rose Schneiderman focused on the needs of working women post-suffrage. She did this while holding various positions: From 1926 to 1950, Schneiderman was president of the Women's Trade Union League; she was the only woman on the National Recovery Administration's Labor Advisory Board; and she served as New York state's secretary of labor from 1937 to 1943.

During the Great Depression, Schneiderman called for unemployed female workers to get relief funds. She wanted domestic workers (who were almost all women) to be covered by Social Security, a change that took place 15 years after the law was first enacted in 1935. Schneiderman also sought to improve wages and working conditions for waitresses, laundry workers, beauty parlor workers and hotel maids, many of whom were women of color.

Eleanor Roosevelt

DO NOT USE? - Eleanor Roosevelt Photo

Eleanor Roosevelt (Photo: United States Library of Congress [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Eleanor Roosevelt's work for women began long before her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt won the presidency. After joining the Women's Trade Union League in 1922, she introduced Franklin to friends like Rose Schneiderman, which helped him to understand the needs of female workers.

In the political arena, Eleanor coordinated women's activities during Al Smith's 1928 run for president, and later worked on her husband's presidential campaigns. When Franklin won the White House, Eleanor used her new position to support women's interests; even the press conferences she held for female reporters helped them in their jobs.

Eleanor continued to be an advocate for women after Franklin's death. She spoke out about the need for equal pay during John F. Kennedy's administration. And though she'd initially been against an equal rights amendment, she eventually dropped her objections.

Molly Dewson

After suffrage, both the Democratic and Republican parties set up women's divisions. However, it was Molly Dewson's actions within the Democratic party that helped women reach new heights of political power.

Dewson, working closely with Eleanor Roosevelt, encouraged women to support and vote for Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election. When the election was over, she pushed for women to receive political appointments (again with Eleanor's support). This advocacy led to Franklin making groundbreaking selections such as Frances Perkins becoming secretary of labor, Ruth Bryan Owen being named as ambassador to Denmark and Florence Allen joining the Circuit Court of Appeals.

As Dewson once noted, "I am a firm believer in progress for women coming through appointments here and there and a first class job by the women who are the lucky ones chosen to demonstrate.”

Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger Photo

Margaret Sanger (Photo: Underwood & Underwood [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Margaret Sanger felt that "no woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body" — for her accessible birth control was a necessary part of women's rights.

In the 1920s Sanger put aside earlier radical tactics in order to focus on getting mainstream support for legal contraception. She founded the American Birth Control League in 1921; two years later her Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau opened its doors. The Bureau kept detailed patient records that proved the efficacy and safety of birth control.

Sanger also lobbied for birth control legislation, though she didn't meet with much success. However, she had more luck in court, with the U.S. Court of Appeals ruling in 1936 that it was okay to import and distribute birth control for medical purposes. And Sanger's advocacy also helped shift public attitudes: the Sears catalog ended up selling "preventives" and in a 1938 Ladies' Home Journal poll, 79% of its readers supported legal birth control.