… we just haven’t always called it war.

Judging by the headlines these days, you might think spontaneous “wars” are erupting all over America. Unfortunately the hyperbolic term has become synonymous with just about anything one group advocates for, and another group advocates against — which amounts to essentially everything.

War  is a strong term, generally reserved for ‘waging of armed conflict against an enemy’ (i.e. the Iraq war, the Civil War, the Cold War), but it also characterizes ‘an active struggle between competing entities’, which may seem far less menacing or dire than “armed conflict”, but can exist at the same level of severity, encounter equal numbers of casualties, and also devastate communities and cultures.

I’m not certain which media outlet most recently checked the term “War on Women” out of cold storage, but it has spread like wildfire and become as much an axiom on the side of those who advocate for its existence, as it has a farce by those who reject the notion outright.

When I first heard the term War On Women floating around the media-sphere I mostly dismissed it, assuming some sensational headline had momentarily reached viral status, with an underwhelming story below the fold that would deflate the hype in short order. In fact, the exact opposite occurred and the term began appearing everywhere from news media to social media and every media in between. It quickly became the “Hot New” American controversy with vehement supporters on one side and vicious opponents on the other.

Funny thing about controversial issues, though — they are never as black and white, right or wrong as advocates of either side would have us believe. There are layers of complexities and grey areas at the heart of every issue and the War on Women is no exception. I started writing this post in an effort to prove, or disprove, that a war on women actually exists in America, and if so, to then understand exactly what issues the War On Women encompasses, where controversy on each topic stems from, how each issue ranks on a scale of importance to women, and why.

In my pursuit of information, I discovered that without first understanding the history of women in America, it is nearly impossible to grasp the context of what we are calling the modern War on Women in America . (I also realized how quickly a single post can morph into a 5-part series.)

A (not so) Brief History of Women in America

The first group of Europeans settled what is now the United States of America, around 1526. For the next 300 years, women existed as second- (or third) class citizens under laws which both implicitly and explicitly denied them the same rights and freedoms that white men enjoyed — like the right to vote, access to education and professional careers, ownership of wages, money and property.

Prior to what is considered the first wave of feminism, which began in 1848, women had no role or representation in government. They were not permitted to hold elected office or participate in legislation, and consequently laws were enacted which served to remove any and all power from them. This was especially evident in cases of marriage and divorce. When a woman married — she, her income, possessions and children legally became the property of her husband. When a woman divorced, the laws gave men the power to retain everything and leave his former wife with nothing, regardless of the circumstances under which divorce was initiated.

I’m hard-pressed to come up with a single example of a right or freedom that women have today, which another woman (or group of women) before them hasn’t fought for. Today, American women can vote, own property, obtain higher education, choose almost any profession, and have more options than any other time in history available to them, in order to make their own informed decisions about health care, reproductive health and family planning. Women have come a long way in their journey towards equality in America and yet, almost 500 years after the first U.S. settlement was established, women still actively strive to preserve the rights and freedoms they’ve already obtained, while simultaneously pursuing the equality they deserve, but have yet to attain.

Women’s Right to Vote

In London, at the World Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840, officials refused to seat female delegates, among them were American abolitionists Elizabeth Stanton and Lucretia Mott. The indignity of this act led them to convene the Seneca Falls Convention in July 1848 — the first women’s rights convention. At convention’s end, 68 women and 32 men (of an estimated 300 attendees) signed the “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” calling for an end to the disenfranchisement, social and religious degradation and oppression of “one-half the people of this country” — women.

The first National Women’s Rights Convention was held in Worcester, MA in 1850 and conventions were held regularly thereafter until the Civil War began in 1861. Following the Civil War in 1866, Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the American Equal Rights Association which sought to merge the causes of racial and gender equality. The 14th Amendment was adopted in 1868 granting blacks citizenship (but not the right to vote), and was the first Amendment to ever specify the voting population as “male”. The 15th Amendment, enacted in 1870, granted black men the right to vote, but not women.

“The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.”

Over the next 20 years, Women’s Suffrage would evolve through a series of changes, with factions separating and coming back together based on philosophies and goals at any given time. In 1890 a merger created the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and re-energized the movement. Suffragist Alice Paul founded the National Women’s Party (NWP) in 1913, reportedly over a disagreement with NAWSA over tactics and organization goals — NAWSA preferred a state-by-state approach and didn’t think the time was right to attempt a Constitutional amendment for women’s right to vote, Paul thought the time was now.

Suffragists finally got women’s voting rights enacted and ratified with the 19th Amendment in 1920. 72 years it took for women to earn the Constitutional right to vote from the time they officially began lobbying for it — 394 years after the U.S. was first officially settled.

Women’s Right to Equality

Alice Paul took another leap forward in writing and introducing the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1923. She believed that while the 19th Amendment protected the right to vote regardless of gender, the amendment in and of itself would not prohibit other remaining fragments of gender-based discrimination.

The ERA was presented for the first time to Congress as the “Lucretia Mott Amendment”. (In addition to her activism as an abolitionist, Mott was also a prominent women’s rights activist who began speaking out in 1810 after discovering that she and other female teachers were paid three times less than their male counterparts.)

The Amendment passed both the House and Senate in 1923 and went to the states to be ratified, but failed to receive the requisite number of state ratifications for approval (two-thirds) before its Congressionally imposed deadline in June of 1982, although it has been reintroduced to every session of congress since. It is worth noting that 21 states have some version of the ERA in their State Constitution.

Women’s Right to Healthcare and Reproductive Choice

In 1910, a decade before women gained the right to vote, a young nurse by the name of Margaret Sanger became the first public advocate for contraception, sex education and women’s heath. Her activism was influenced by her mother’s 18 pregnancies over 22 years and subsequent death at the age of 50 from Tuberculosis and cervical cancer, as well as her concern for low-income women suffering frequent childbirth and self-induced abortions. Sanger founded the American Birth Control League in 1921, which ultimately became Planned Parenthood.

A landmark 1965 Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut ruled that the Constitution, specifically language in the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments, create a general ‘right to privacy’ “that cannot be unduly infringed”. The case involved a Connecticut law which prohibited the use of “any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception”. The court invalidated this law on the grounds that it violated the “right to marital privacy”.

A subsequent 1972 case, Eisenstadt v. Baird,  extended the scope to include unmarried people as well, striking down a Massachusetts law that prohibited unmarried couples from using contraception, citing that the law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

Griswold set precedent for the ruling on  Roe vs. Wade where the Court ruled that “a right to privacy under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment extended to a woman’s decision to have an abortion”, but went on to clarify “that right must be balanced against the state’s two legitimate interests in regulating abortions: protecting prenatal life and protecting women’s health.”

Women’s Right to Education

It might seem archaic to modern society, but it wasn’t that long ago when women were denied the right to most formal education — or any education for that matter — beyond what they needed to successfully perform  their ‘domestic responsibilities’.

Until the mid-to-late 1700’s, girls were not educated outside of the home, but near the end of the century they were finally permitted to attend classes in newly established, public school districts. In either case, they were relegated to learning only (what were then commonly referred to as) the “3-Rs” – reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. The right to learn, complete with restrictions.

As late as the end of the 19th century, “scientific” reports were being circulated as evidence that educating women would “hurt a woman’s reproductive system”. Claims were made that women’s brains were too small, that “biological forces limit women’s intellectual capacity” and that energy expended on educating girls between the ages of 12 and 20 could lead to “depletion of energy required for full, physical development”. Yes ladies, our brains were considered too small and inferior to allow for simultaneous intellectual and physical growth.

Women earned the right to formal, higher education over a long period of time and in baby steps. It was no easy feat given the conventions of the time, and it didn’t happen overnight. The first college to accept female (and black) students was Oberlin College (in Ohio) in 1833. By 1910 about 39% of undergraduate students were women, yet Harvard didn’t accept their first female student until 1945. 1996 was the first year in which more women earned Bachelors Degrees than men and in 2011, American women, for the first time, collectively earned more advanced degrees (Bachelors and higher) than men.

Women’s Right to Pay Equity

So, women in America are finally achieving advanced degrees in greater numbers than their male counterparts – that means they won, right? Not so fast, roadrunner. On average, women are still earning about $0.77 on the dollar to what men earn for the same job with an equal skill set. The issue of Equal Pay has been – and continues to be – a fiercely debated issue in America.

During WW I, women filled many of the manufacturing positions vacated by men serving in the military. In 1918 President Woodrow Wilson established a federal agency known as the National War Labor Board (NWLB), to arbitrate labor disputes and ensure productivity in wartime. The NWLB instituted and (reportedly) enforced regulations stipulating that women filling manufacturing positions, earn the same wages as the men. The Board’s mandate was the first to federally regulate gender inequality/pay inequity in the workplace, however railroads were the first industry to address the issue and adopt equal-pay standards, years before the NWLB regulations were enacted.

Ironically, pay equity regulations were initially implemented to protect men’s jobs and salaries from attempts by employers to hire or retain more female workers as a cost-saving tactic. If men and women earned equal pay, there would be no incentive to employ cheaper labor, theoretically ensuring servicemen their jobs would be available to them upon their return from active duty.

During WWII, women entered the workforce in large numbers, many of them in war industries, and upon reestablishment in 1942, the New National War Labor Board established an Equal Pay for Equal Work Order — a modified version of the WW I regulation, which seemed on its surface to solidify the Equal Pay rule, but actually made it easier for employers to circumvent. The language read in part, “Where the plant management, in order to meet the necessity of replacing men by women, has rearranged or lightened the job, perhaps with the employment of helpers to do heavy lifting or the like, a study of job content and job evaluation should afford the basis for setting “proportionate rates for proportionate work.” The new language created less defined regulation, open to much broader interpretation, which of course, many employers took advantage of and used to their benefit.

The Women’s Equal Pay Act of 1945 was introduced but did not pass due to some contentious debate over the language “equal pay for comparable work” vs. “equal pay for equal work”. No agreement could be reached, and consequently, the bill died in the Senate.

Despite reintroduction to Congress every year, during each subsequent session, it was 18 years later when the Equal Pay Act (EPA) was finally approved by Congress and signed by John F. Kennedy in 1963. It amended the Fair Labor Standards Act by explicitly prohibiting wage-based gender discrimination.

The Paycheck Fairness Act (PFA) was introduced to the 105th Congress in 1997 and was intended to update and improve the Equal Pay Act by strengthening employer penalties for wage discrimination and prohibiting retaliation by employers against employees who disclose wage information, among other things. PFA was re-introduced in 1999 (106th Congress), 2001 (107th Congress), 2003 (108th Congress), 2005 (109th Congress), 2007 (110th Congress), 2009 (111th Congress), and in 2011 (112th Congress). Five times the bill was referred to committee and died, twice it has passed the House but not the Senate. As of the publish date of this post, the bill had been referred to committee in April, 2012 for consideration, and hasn’t moved since.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009. This bill Amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 by essentially revising the statute of limitations on lawsuits regarding pay discrimination, effectively allowing a longer period of time to file a pay discrimination lawsuit.

One Step Forward? Two steps back?

In a 2500 word summary of American women’s history, it’s become crystal clear to me that whether or not there is a “war” being waged on women in this country, historically our society has encountered a significant amount of difficulty getting to a place where woman are legitimately, consistently and legally regarded as equal, rather than inferior and/or subordinate.

In hindsight, the fact that I expected to get to the bottom of the “War On Women” in a single blog post was completely absurd, but if I didn’t realize that going in, I have to assume other people see the issue through a trivialized lens as well. So, in the coming weeks I’ll be putting my new found historic knowledge to good use by examining each of these issues one-by-one in the context of past and present, real or rhetoric — how women have moved forward and made great strides, where we’ve been held back, and whether or not we are winning the real (or fictitious) War on Women.  ✻