Voting, equal pay, fairness in business and the workplace; women have had to fight for equity and opportunity throughout history. As we celebrate Women’s History this month, my passion for the law has me reflecting on the laws impacting us.
The first thing I see is incredible progress. Astounding women have pushed the needle forward, inch by inch, for centuries. Every bit of ground we have gained as we strive for equality has been by the drive, labor, and often sacrifice of thousands of women.
But what I also see are the gaps. The laws that spelled equality for millions of women, but still quietly left melanated women marginalized. The Black and Brown faces simply erased from history. Below I reflect on some of the most important laws in women’s history and how they shaped progress, but also ways in which they have failed to address equality for ALL women.
The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment
The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were some of the first laws to affect change for women in the United States. In accordance with social tradition and English common law, women were denied most legal rights prior to these amendments. In general, they could not vote, own property, keep their own wages, or even have custody of their children. Though America established itself as a democracy in 1776, it was not until around 1848 that the first public demands for voting equality for women began to stir.
In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to all persons “born or naturalized in the United States,” including Africans enslaved in America, and provided all citizens with “equal protection under the laws,” extending the provisions of the Bill of Rights to the states. No state could pass a law that took away their rights to “life, liberty, or property”. This was the first major change in American law that granted agency or validity of any kind to women. It did not, however, grant women the right to vote. The amendment specified that voting rights were for “males” over the age of 21.
The Fifteenth Amendment declared that “the right of citizens … to vote shall not be denied or abridged … on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” – though the amendment granted the voting rights to non-white citizens for the first time (on paper), it look much longer to produce tangible voting opportunities, and still applied only to men.
The Nineteenth Amendment
The next major law impacting women was the Nineteenth amendment in 1920. It stated that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
However, the amendment only protected the voting rights of white women.
While voting discrimination was prohibited on the basis of gender, loopholes in the system allowed for voting obstacles, including poll taxes and literacy tests, intimidation tactics, the denial of citizenship because of ancestry/immigrant status, and other racist strategies. These tactics were used by white Americans to prevent Black, Indigenous, and people of color from voting. Neither Congress nor the Supreme Court took action to stop this active disenfranchisement.
Unfortunately, there was even a lack of support within the suffragist movement for Black women and other women of color. Left on the fringes, women outside of the white, middle-class groups in the suffragist leadership experienced erasure and deaf ears as they remained largely unable to vote throughout the century following the nineteenth amendment’s creation.
In some states, the nineteenth amendment made little impact for women at all. In Mississippi, the nineteenth amendment, and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) which was submitted to the states in 1972, were both allowed to expire without ever ratifying the amendments. Ratification was, in fact, so widely opposed that Mississippi never saw the formation of an anti-suffragist organization or any fear that it would even pass, and polls of the Mississippi House of Representatives showed non-existent support for ratification. Mississippi ultimately didn’t vote to ratify the nineteenth amendment until 1984, finally granting women the right to vote.
The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938
The Fair Labor Standards Act provided guidelines on employment status, child labor, minimum wage, overtime pay, and record-keeping requirements. Signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938, the FLSA transformed labor in the United States, and has seen many amendments and adaptations in the decades that followed.
While not specifically created for women, several of its provisions impacted women very directly. The increase of the minimum wage to a living wage (i.e. a wage capable of keeping up with the cost of living even as the only source of income) was especially important for women. Many women, especially single, head-of-household mothers, worked in minimum wage jobs that were insufficient to afford costs of living at the time. Societal discrimination that kept women out of boardrooms, management, and other higher-paying leadership roles contributed to women’s need for better minimum wages.
The gender pay gap, however, has held relatively steady – In 2020, women earned 84% of what men earned, according to the Pew Research Center. It is only in very recent years that this gap is starting to close, as more women are pursuing full-time careers, higher education, and greater autonomy, but the myriad obstacles ranging from C-level hiring discrimination to male-centric workplace cultures, have kept progress slow.
The Equal Pay Act of 1963
A follow up to the Fair Labor Standards Act, the EPA focused on women by prohibiting gender-based wage discrimination in the United States. The law mandates equal pay for equal work by forbidding employers from paying men and women different wages or benefits for doing jobs that require the same skills and responsibilities.
At that time, the average female worker earned only 60% of the average wage for men, though women made up a quarter of the workforce. In many states women even faced additional discriminatory laws that limited their work hours or kept their roles small in other ways.
The volume of women entering the workforce escalated especially quickly at the onset of World War II. In countless instances, women were fully taking on roles left by men who went to war, and often received lower pay. While the National War Labor Board endorsed better pay for women in 1942 (for those taking over positions held by men), it wasn’t until the Equal Pay Act that the wage gap was really addressed in the business world.
Like many of the previously mentioned laws, the Equal Pay Act was a great milestone for women in America, but left Black women and other women of color largely unaided, as the wording did not specifically address race (thus allowing loopholes for employers to exploit).
It was not until 1964, with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, that race was specifically addressed. This law makes it unlawful to discriminate against someone on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity), or religion.
The Act provided further protections by also making it unlawful to retaliate against a person because the person complained about discrimination, filed a charge of discrimination, or participated in an employment discrimination investigation or lawsuit. It also barred employers from segregating employees based on actual or perceived customer preferences, such as keeping women and/or people of color out of public-facing positions. This made it a revolutionary Act that forever (though gradually) changed the lived experience of millions of Americans.
The Civil Rights Act, however, was controversial, and challenged by many employers especially where gaps remained. Employers with fewer than 15 total employees are not covered by Title VII, and were therefore allowed to discriminate at greater degrees than large companies. Additionally, certain employers were still allowed to consider religion or religious practice when hiring.
Pregnancy discrimination has been one of the most persistent areas of discrimination against women in the labor force. A refusal to accommodate, hire, or retain women during pregnancy has created hardship for working mothers for decades. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) aimed to address this by prohibiting discrimination in the workplace on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.
The PDA allowed women to continue working while pregnant and work further into their pregnancies without being forced to leave their jobs.
But while the passage of the law was a critical step forward, it has not ended discriminatory practices targeting pregnant women. Filed complaints about pregnancy discrimination exploded throughout the 1990’s, and research conducted by maternity care initiative Childbirth Connection estimates that nearly a quarter million requests for pregnancy accommodation are denied each year. Additionally, women often fear retaliation or other workplace pressure if they speak up about pregnancy discrimination.
Beyond this, research has shown that race affects the perception of Black mothers in workplaces, as well as expectations of their labor. This ranges from an overall devaluation of their labor, to racially charged stereotypes and myths characterizing Black mothers as able to handle more physical labor than is normally expected of pregnant workers.
There’s no question that these laws have been great milestones in women’s history. I celebrate everything that they mean for me, for friends, for loved ones – for millions of women who have opportunities that women before us did not.
In equal measure I see where melanated women have been left behind with each step forward, and how there is still so much that screams to be transformed, rebuilt, renewed. Can laws affect change? Of course! But in the face of discrimination, laws must also be met with a reckoning in society that discrimination against one of us holds us all back, such that there is an equal force from those who traditionally have benefitted from discrimination in their favor to join forces with the continued chorus of Black women voices pushing for lived equality. The pursuit of equity and equal rights has never been a pursuit that was finished in a single Act, but a continuous dialogue and struggle to push the needle forward day by day.
So not only do we celebrate and share gratitude for the women who have fought for our future, but we also take up the mantle to continue evolving America into an environment where ALL women can thrive.