Women’s roles in society have been evolving as time progresses. In the late 19th century, the US had imbalanced demographics in terms of social structures that were characterized by men controlling almost everything in society.
However, in modern society, such dominance has changed. Women have now acquired strategic roles in society. This success has not been achieved easily. Through feminist movements, women have suffered socially, politically, and culturally when attempting to bring about change where women’s roles are recognized in society. This paper discusses feminism or the women’s liberation movement in the US. It shows how the movement started, its social significance, and women’s subordinate challenges that it can help to address today.
Why the Feminist Movement Started
The understanding of why the feminist movement of the United States started can be adequately developed upon considering women’s lives within societies that prevailed during the 17th century through the early 20th century. For example, Coontz (2000) offers an insight into the role of women in American society during the seventeenth century. The author reflects on themes such as the low socio-economic status of American women during that period and the limited role of the woman in society at the time.
In this society, freedom coupled with individualism was men’s reserves. Coontz (2000) further reveals how women were aware of the domineering of men but could not change the normalized perception of gender roles. This situation persisted because women, for instance, in the Atlantic colonies, had no right to hold any office or even vote.
The 17th century saw women in all states lose suffrage rights (Coontz, 2000). The rights to inherit property or own any asset was also lost. In any circumstance, where women possessed assets acquired through hard work or even birthright, ownership automatically shifted to the male spouse. Coontz (2000) paints a picture of a subdued 17th-century American woman whose role was to support the man in his endeavors. Therefore, the liberation of women was not only important but also long overdue.
Fara (2009) attempts to show how women lived and the injustices they faced in the male-dominated world during the 17th century by analyzing the work of Elizabeth Tollet. The writer goes through the work of Elizabeth Tollet to come up with findings of how the society used to live. Fara (2009) paints a picture of a male-dominated society that did not appreciate the need to educate women. Elizabeth had two brothers who were taken to the university by their father. They ended up disappointing him. Elizabeth was denied the chance to go to university.
In the early 20th century, women’s roles in the US were limited on the grounds of lesser capacity to execute certain social roles in comparison with their male counterparts (Paula, 2009). For instance, women were perceived as being incapable of making familial decisions and other decisions that influenced their lives such as raising legal proceedings in courts for seeking a divorce from abusive marriages. Their duties were also restricted to homes. Thus, they could not get involved in paid labor.
Therefore, movements rose to fight for the economic discrimination of women (Kozol, 2005). Accessibility to equal education opportunities for the girl and boy child was also highly impaired. Worse still, American women never had suffrage civil liberties. Denial of these rights amounted to discrimination of women. They also created perceptions that women were inferior people in society and that they were incapacitated when it came to building the wellbeing of society.
Conceptualization of the dominance of the males in the society, which prejudiced and discriminated women, gave rise to movements for fighting equal rights of women with men, including suffrage rights in the early 1930s. Perceptions of the incapacity and inferiority of women in the societies were often explored through traditional conservatism on male dominance in societal roles. Therefore, women’s movements came up to break this ailing force of conservatism for them to have equal say and participation in economic activities with men.
Social Significance of the Movement
Through liberation efforts, women were able to overcome social prejudices. For example, outside the US context, Ben-Yehuda (1980) informs that in the 17th century alone, about 250, 000 to 550,000 Europeans were executed. About 85 percent of these people were women (Ben-Yehuda, 1980). The article further argues, “The character and timing of these executions and prosecutions, which preceded them, were determined in part by the changed objective of inquisition, as well as by differentiation process within the medieval society” (Ben-Yehuda, 1980, p. 1). Through liberation movements, women acquired the ability to bargain for their rights and/or overcome the discrimination that mainly targeted them.
In the 17th century through the early 20th century, women struggled with social discrimination. They had to abide by the gender-based requirements of moral boundaries. Women remained the weaker gender that lacked privacy. They were incredibly scrutinized to reveal any nonconformity to the anticipated moral and ethical conduct. Ben-Yehuda (1980) observes that the situation reveals why many of the witch-hunts caught disproportionately a high number of women than men.
In the 17th century, economic changes, demographic changes, and the changing understanding of the role of women in American society occurred. This turn of events created the need for emotional relief for women. In some situations, women were accused of falsely, yet they did not have the voice to prove such accusations wrong. With women liberation movements, the oppressed class acquired a voice to secure their dignity and value.
In the 1930s, women acquired voting rights in many states of America. Until then, they participated in paid labor and the political sphere. Indeed, women’s roles were mainly confined to bringing up children, nursing the sick, domestic chores, and even manual jobs such as sewing and knitting. Women liberation movements demonstrated that females could take equally challenging tasks, including participating in battlefields, paid labor, and politics. More emphasis was put on ensuring equal accessibility of men and women in education. Hence, women’s liberation movements in the US were significant for social empowerment through the alteration of gender-based social stratification.
Successes and Challenges
The feminist movement in the US has been fighting for the social, political, and economic rights of women. However, in these efforts, the movements have had successes and challenges. The vicissitudes can be seen through America’s social history and current events. While women such as Hilary Clinton have proved that they can equally lead and fight for national and foreign political discourses, subordinate groups of women in America still encounter some challenges that require women movements to participate in initiating national agenda on how to address them. One of such important challenges entails domestic abuse that is directed towards women.
In the majority of the situations, women are found to be the major victims of domestic violence. Krishnan et al. (2006) argue that changes in spousal economic status “are associated with subsequent changes in violence risks” (p.139). They claim that women increase their risks of being subjected to domestic violence by 80 percent when their economic status changes from joblessness to employment.
Research on the impact of domestic violence on the ability of women to work such as the one conducted by Audra and Shannon (2010) shows that women who are abused have a minimal probability of choosing to work than women who have not experienced domestic violence. Hence, battering influences the capacity of women to look for means of bettering their economic status. Considering the implication of domestic violence on women, women liberation movements can help in addressing the problems by initiating a public debate on how to prevent it and/or how to deal with its perpetrators.
The evolution of feminist movements emerged due to the perception of the incapacity, conservatism, and discrimination of the segregated groups of people to execute certain societal roles. Women were secluded from paid labor. They faced discrimination in terms of property rights. They also suffered bad fate, in which the dominant gender (men) could only explain its occurrence due to women’s weaknesses that were attributable to their gender.
Recognition of this discrimination led to the emergence of the women’s liberation movement in the US. The movement aimed at helping to overcome many of the challenges experienced by women since medieval ages. The said challenges included seclusion from voting, paid labor, and property ownership. However, today, women’s liberation movements have the responsibility of fighting some remnant challenges, for instance, domestic violence and unjustifiable discriminatory policies in the workplace.
Audra, B., & Shannon, S. (2006). Domestic Violence, Employment, and Divorce. International Economic Review, 47(4), 1113-1149.
Ben-Yehuda, N. (1980). The European Witch Craze Of The 14th To 17th Centuries: A Sociologist’s Perspective. American Journal of Sociology, 86(1), 1-31.
Coontz, S. (2000). Historical Perspectives on Family Studies. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 6(2), 283-297.
Fara, P. (2009). Elizabeth Tollet and her Scientific Sisters. History Today, 9(4), 52-59.
Kozol, J. (2005). Still Separate, Still Unequal. Harpers magazine, 1(1), 17-18.
Krishnan, S., Rocca, C., Hubbard, A., Subbiah, K., Edmeades, J., & Padian, N. (2010). Do changes in spousal employment status lead to domestic violence? Insights from a prospective study in Bangalore, India. Social Science & Medicine, 70(1), 136-143.
Paula, R. (2009). Race, Class, and Gender in the United States: an Integrated Study. New York, NY: Worth.