Women’s Rights and Changes Over the 20th Century


The current rights, freedoms, and roles enjoyed by modern women have not always been in place in many different societies worldwide. The contemporary social structure is driven by gender equality that is practiced and maintained in developing and developed countries is a product of multiple changes that took many decades. Initially, in most societies worldwide, men assumed the dominant role of providers and leaders of households while women were limited to such duties as homemaking and childbearing (Buchanan, 2009).

The first transformations began to appear at the end of the 1800s when women first became allowed to own estate and personal earnings. Between the 1840s and 1880s, the number of states with such permissions grew from 0 to 30-36 out of 38 (Geddes & Lueck, 2002) The changes that occurred over the past century are even more impressive. They are highly important because they stimulated the shift in the social perception of women, their roles as members of communities and families, and affected many spheres of life. For example, the establishment of women as equals to men in terms of political influence and career opportunities changed social and political tendencies in countries, their labor markets, and education systems.

Due to the complexity of the aforementioned change, it can be viewed as a highly important and telling socio-cultural event. Consequently, this event requires a thorough exploration and research that could help develop a deeper understanding of its nature, impact, and consequences. Over the course of the 20th century, the rights and roles of women underwent a series of changes that affected the balance between genders in societies, altered behaviors of both sexes, resulted in numerous manifestations in culture and media, and led to the transformation of ethical perceptions and ideas.

Analysis of Humanities

Human Behavior

The first wave of women’s rights movement that occurred in the 20th century began right from its onset. At the time, the ideas related to gender equality had little popularity and were widely dismissed as unrealistic or inappropriate (Chafe, 1992). Women’s rights movements of the early 1900s usually appeared in the form of quiet protests and gatherings. They focused predominantly on voting rights and equal job opportunities but were not limited to these two issues (Chafe, 1992). The major intention of the movement was to attack the perceived distinction between what was regarded as male and female spheres of activity (Chafe, 1992). Some of the first wave behaviors were marches for women’s liberation from harmful gender stereotypes that stimulated disrespect and objectification (Fox-Genovese, 1999).

The 1960s and 1970s are referred to as “the age of the pill” (Goldin & Katz, 2000). The most important behaviors of this period were feminist protests against limiting gender roles, the shift to women’s emancipation, the expansion of women’s rights, and their growing independence from men (Geddes & Lueck, 2002). During these decades, women gained control over their reproductive rights, career opportunities, and moved to self-ownership as working individuals who can provide for themselves. It was possible to observe behavioral change using statistics. For example, the ratio of unmarried women with higher education who received family planning services grew from 0.0 to 0.6 between 1940 and 1955 (Goldin & Katz, 2000).

The contemporary movements are recognized as the third wave of feminism. They focus on protecting women from sexual aggression and raising awareness of the prevalence of rape, sexual harassment, and other forms of abuse (Fox-Genovese, 1999). This wave is known for some extreme feminist campaigns and movements where feminists take quite an aggressive path of generalizing all males as predators. Such campaigns usually result in the appearance of opposing communities. One of the examples of such communities is the anti-feminist or egalitarian movement on YouTube where many young men and women who disagree with extreme feminism create channels to promote liberal attitudes. One video of this kind is Radical Feminism & Misandry by Forever Computing (2015).

Human Expression

Ever since the onset of women’s rights movements, feminism began to make its way to popular culture, art, and mass media. The rapid development of modern media helped to promote women’s equality and provide an ongoing reminder of the societal flaws that used to prevail in the past (Munford & Waters, 2014). Literature, art, and cinema have seen major changes due to the expansion of women’s rights and gender equality. Some of the early manifestations of strong and unconventional female characters in the literature can be seen in Jane Eyre (1847) and Pride and Prejudice (1813). Further, in the 20th century, independent female protagonists began to appear in historical novels and other non-fiction genres of literature. Some of the most popular items in this category are The Bell Jar (1963) and The Feminine Mystique (1963).

The growing influence of television produced multiple films and TV series focusing on strong female protagonists promoting the idea that women do not need men to solve their problems. Some of the most popular examples of such artifacts are the first Alien films, the Wonder Woman franchise, and such TV shows as Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and Sex and the City. These days, the empowerment of women begins at a young age, and the mass media are focused on the implementation of inspirational ideas and images for young girls in the advertisement, animated movies, and cartoons. Some examples of the latter include Moana, Steven Universe, Frozen, Brave, and Mulan, to name a few. Separately, the heavy presence of female high-achievers promoting female empowerment in show business is an additional booster.


Feminist movements occurred as products of strong and persistent ethical concerns created by the inequality of genders. In particular, seeing the rapid technological development, industrialization, urbanization, and the growth of businesses, women began to notice the limited social roles to which they were reduced. There appeared doubts concerning the social structure and perceptions of the time. As a result, the need for the recognition of women’s rights as human rights occurred on a global scale (Okin, 1998). The first feminist movements brought to the public attention the fact that many human rights that stood for individual security, safety, and well-being did not apply to women (Okin, 1998). This tendency was highly unethical because women, whose numerical representation in most societies equals that of men, were treated as a marginalized minority community.

Moreover, the ethics of this issue also included the problem of male domination in multiple spheres followed by the establishment of corresponding requirements. Women trying to function in such spheres faced much pressure due to the need to match unfair standards (Okin, 1998). Seeing the obvious limitations that could be addressed, the leaders of women’s rights movements began to raise awareness and attack the uneven social treatment of men and women. In ethics, the vision of gender equality aligns with the ideas of utilitarianism where the optimal solution of any problem is driven by the need to leave every stakeholder group satisfied.

Critical Analysis of Situation & Recommendations

Relevance to Contemporary Issues/Future Concerns

As the overall quality of life in the developed countries improved due to the advancement of medicine and technology, the need for self-actualization gained power as a driver of social change. Moreover, due to the complexity of the issue of gender inequality, it took three waves of women’s rights movements to power all the necessary transformations. The first wave of feminism fought for suffrage and employment opportunities while the second wave stood for the further emancipation of women, reproductive rights, and female independence (Fox- Genovese, 1999). Both of these waves faced social backlash and criticism.

Kimmel (1987) named three major responses to feminism that appeared as responses. The first response was anti-feminist. The individuals who promoted this vision spoke in favor of the return to the former state of affairs backing up their arguments with natural law and religious texts primarily (Kimmel, 1987). The second response was focused on the separation of men from women as a way of reclaiming male independence that was perceived to be threatened by women’s liberation. The final response was pro-feminist and included the individuals who wanted to contribute to the development of this movement (Kimmel, 1987).

Today, the three types of reactions are still in place as feminists of the third wave face opposition and men’s rights movements. However, the effect feminism has produced on contemporary societies all around the globe is massive. From the second position in communities and families, women moved to the leading roles. From individuals with the poor quality of life regarded as the property of their husbands, women traveled a lengthy path towards equality, opportunities, and independence.

Recommendations for Future Considerations and Future Areas of Study

Even though women’s rights movements began many decades ago, they are still relevant in the contemporary world. However, one of the major inconsistencies in such movements today is their heavy presence in the most developed countries where women enjoy all the rights and freedoms men have. One of the main concerns related to the modern-day feminism is its negative reputation due to the feminists’ inclination to blow issues out of proportion.

In her interview, Christina Hoff Sommers, a renowned American scholar, a former professor of philosophy, and a passionate feminist stated that the problem is that contemporary feminists “are addicted to a language and a rhetoric of oppression” (London, 2018, para. 9). Specifically, Hoff Sommers noted that women’s rights activists today like to emphasize that women in developed countries are oppressed and that the patriarchy is still in place (London, 2018). The scholar criticized this type of language and called this discourse silly and inaccurate. In the interview, Hoff Sommers promotes equity feminism as opposed to gender feminism (London, 2018). The latter is a misleading concept that teaches women to see themselves as victims and perceive the world around them as full of threats that need to be attacked (London, 2018). This new development within feminist movements in developed countries requires further exploration and research.

Rationale for Recommendations

It goes without saying that the issues such as sexual objectification, harassment, and abuse of women – the phenomena battled by the third wave feminists – are still in place. However, the image of contemporary feminists has become flawed and damaged by excessive aggression towards versatile social trends and cultural aspects. Such tendencies harm this useful and important movement by killing its noble reputation. As a result, there is the need for research focusing on the drivers of feminist aggression in developed countries and the root causes of the popularity of feminist movements concentrating on the artificial victimization of modern women living in advanced societies and enjoying all the existing rights, freedoms, and opportunities.

It is possible that the causes of this happening lie in the psychology typical for modern generations of young people and their perception of the world around them. Finding scientific ways to explain such tendencies could help resolve many socio-cultural conflicts and achieve a more balanced state of the society addressing its current disposition towards fragmentation and division. After all, since gender roles are constructed socially, it is possible to explore the new constructs that are exploited by contemporary feminists who rely on the language of aggression (Galligan, 2010). Moreover, research aimed in this direction could also help predict future tendencies and trends that may appear in modern-day feminism. It is important to explore this phenomenon because research might help forecast some of the future turns developed societies may take in terms of the vision of equality, gender relations, and cultural perception of gender roles. It would also be interesting to learn the stimuli that push modern young women whose rights are not limited in any way to join the community of feminists guided by the extreme vision of male domination, the threatening patriarchy, and the ideas of oppression.


Over the last century, women’s rights movements managed to make a massive impact on most societies and countries worldwide. Throughout the 20th century, such movements went through several stages and battled the lack of social recognition, backlash, and anti-feminist communities. Additionally, women’s rights movements underwent a certain form of evolution that changed alongside the most common concerns that their members and activists faced on a regular basis.

In turn, the changes brought about by feminist movements affected the societies in which they occurred transforming gender roles and providing more freedoms, rights, and opportunities for women. Between 1880 and 1920, in the USA, the states that began to embrace women’s right to own estate and earnings made much progress in terms of keeping women in schools (67-70%) compared to the states that refused these rights (54-62%) (Geddes & Lueck, 2002). Similar growth tendencies were observed in terms of population size and real wealth per capita. As a result, more and more important social concerns were brought to public attention as limitations experienced by females. The first wave of feminists focused on the acquisition of the right to vote and better employment opportunities. The second wave fought for the reproductive rights of women and battled degrading gender stereotypes. The third wave is raising awareness of sexual violence harassment, and objectification of women.

Breaking through all of these issues, women’s rights movements made many great achievements that helped shape contemporary social norms and attitudes. It is important to study and explore feminism as a lengthy and ongoing socio-cultural event that managed to generate a tremendous change over just a few decades. This change can be easily observed by viewing advertisements and films made at the beginning of the 20th century and comparing them to the contemporary vision of gender roles. Statistical data reflect this change as well. For instance, as shown in Figure 1, between the 1960s and 80s, the ratios of female to male medicine, law, and business students changed from 0.1-0.3 to 0.39-0.57 (Goldin & Katz, 2000).

Personal Reflection

Working on this project, I enjoyed the opportunities for research exploration that it provided. I was stimulated to find, read, and evaluate many different sources. At first, I found it quite overwhelming due to a large amount of information available online. However, over time, I learned how to assess the sources and sort them selecting only the most suitable ones. I believe that this project stimulated the application of critical thinking because I needed to evaluate the information I found, process it effectively, and identify the points that could contribute to my paper. Separately, due to the sensitive nature of the selected topic, I had an opportunity to practice my self-expression and academic writing skills using neutral and ethical language.

Throughout various stages of working on this project, I faced several challenges. One of them revolved around the need to fit in all my ideas into the limited word count. I had to find the most valuable points and formulate them using effective language which was not easy as I had to go over the entire paper several times and shorten some parts. Another challenge was the search for relevant information. The heavy presence of biased and unprofessional sources was a barrier, which I overcame focusing predominantly on scholarly articles and books.

One of the positive aspects of the work included in this project was learning. As I read about the selected topic, I expanded my knowledge of its background and development. I explored it throughout many decades and gained a detailed understanding of the incredible advancement of our society that it stimulated. Additionally, I appreciated the language used in the articles and books that I used as sources of information. In this paper, I used some of the techniques and styles I found there in order to better my critical writing. Finally, working on this research project, I had to combine the information from books and articles with my personal insights. To collect the most relevant and interesting thoughts, I had to develop a habit of writing down my own thoughts in the form of short theses, elaborating on them, and thinking wherein the paper they would be the most appropriate.

As an individual living in a developed country and supporting gender equality, I got to notice various occasions where women still faced unfair treatment and obstacles. As I found evidence of the kind of treatment women used to receive on a daily basis at the onset of the 20th century, I was genuinely shocked. At the same time, I was impressed by the level of change that feminist movements managed to generate and maintain. This research project made me more appreciative of movements advocating for the rights of any kind of group or community. Equality is very difficult to achieve in a society where standards, attitudes, and norms are formulated based on inequality.

I am glad I selected women’s rights movements as the topic for this research paper. It was quite a challenging and, at the same time, grounding experience. I had an opportunity to work with many scholarly sources, analyze and process the collected information, use critical thinking to generate new insights, and reflect on personal experiences. Overall, this was a great, multifaceted set of lessons aimed at the development and practical application of various skills; and I sincerely appreciated it.


Buchanan, P. D. (2009). American women’s rights movement. Wellesley, MA: Branden Books.

Chafe, W. H. (1992). The paradox of change: American women in the 20th century. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Forever Computing. (2015). Radical feminism & misandry [Video file]. Web.

Fox-Genovese, E. (1999). Women’s status: A century of enormous change. The Public Perspective, 26-28.

Galligan, Y. (2010). Gender democracy: The legacy of the 20th century. Web.

Geddes, R., & Lueck, D. (2002). The gains from self-ownership and the expansion of women’s rights. American Economic Review, 92(4), 1079-1092.

Goldin, C., & Katz, F. L. (2000). Career and marriage in the age of the pill. American Economic Review, 90(2), 461-465.

Kimmel, M. S. (1987). Men’s responses to feminism at the turn of the century. Gender & Society, 1(3), 261-283.

London, S. (2018). The future of feminism: An interview with Christina Hoff Sommers. Web.

Munford, R., & Waters, M. (2014). Feminism and popular culture: Investigating the postfeminist mystique. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Okin, S. M. (1998). Feminism, women’s human rights, and cultural differences. Hypatia, 13(2), 32-52.


 Ratio of female to male first-year medical, dental, law, and MBA students.
Figure 1. Ratio of female to male first-year medical, dental, law, and MBA students.

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