In recognition of International Women’s Day on March 8th, and March as Women’s History Month, let us take a look at the path of women in to the modern workplace. Over the course of human history, women have gained and lost equality. Through generations of resilience, the journey continues across the world today. Here in the United States, women have achieved much, thanks to the pioneering strength of those who paved the way.
At the founding of our country, women’s rights were not assured along side those of a white man. Abigail Adams, the wife of Johns Adams, recognized this disparity and urged her husband to stand as an advocate.
“…remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”Abigail Adams
Despite their omission from the democratic process, women steadily countered norms and reached for greater equality. Education became more assessible, although many higher learning institutions remained ‘men only’. Colombia College didn’t merge with Barnard College until 1983 when it officially accepted women into all areas. The difference in education mirrored the difference in degrees women could earn and professions they could follow. Through persistence and a growing field of allies, doors slowly opened. In the field of medicine, long monopolized by men in western cultures, Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to walk through the door. She earned her medical doctorate degree from Geneva Medical College in 1849.
“I do not wish to give (women) a first place, still less a second one- but the complete freedom to take their true place, whatever it may be.”Elizabeth Blackwell
Women’s inclusion in the democratic process would not be recognized until June of 1919 when the 19th amendment was ratified, granting women the right to vote. While a major step toward equality, this amendment left out women of color. A leading voice in both the suffragist and abolitionist movements was a young teenager named Mabel Ping-Hua Lee. She wrote articles, gave speeches and marched for women’s rights, all while knowing her actions could not immediately benefit herself. As a Chinese immigrant, she was barred from receiving citizenship and voting until 1943 when the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed.
“For no nation can ever make real and lasting progress in civilization unless its women are following close to its men, if not actually abreast with them.”Mabel Ping-Hua Lee
Change in legal rights does not change the minds of a culture over night. Equality of legal standing does not ensure people treated the same in practice. Further protections were enacted in 1963 by President Kennedy with the Equal Pay Act and 1964 by President Johnson with the Civil Rights Act. The 1970’s and 1980’s saw the crashing through of a great many barriers which had formally limited women. Sandra Day O’Connor was sworn to the United States Supreme Court in 1981, breaking barriers in the field of law. She served for 24 years. Sally Ride joined the academic elite when she was accepted as one of the first six female astronauts in 1978. She became the first woman in space in 1983. Katharine Graham took over leadership of The Washington Company, now know as The Washington Post in 1972. In doing so, she become the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
Children of today learn a very different ethos than those of our grandparents time. Limitations which were once seen as impossible choices are now taken for granted as rights. Women make decision as CEO’s, create laws as members of congress, and invent new technologies as engineers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics showed women made up 50.04% of the American workforce in 2020. Despite all the progress detailed here, gender biases persist. Equal legal standing continues to see different treatment. Doors have opened, ceilings have been broken, and recognition is growing. With Kamala Harris as the first female Vice President of the United States, a new generation will grow up with new expectations.
“While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last.”Kamala Harris