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
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
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. …