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July 1, 2012 / Sandy Asher


The so-called “War on Women” implies that women could lose, lose big, lose all they’ve gained through years of struggle for equality.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.   Though challenges remain, and are likely to continue, the gains have been huge and solid.  Sometimes this is hard to see because any backlash against those gains is magnified in the media until wildfires seem to be springing up everywhere.  Lately, such magnifying focus has been leveled on the issues of contraception, abortion, and decisions to stay at home or remain in the workforce.

Assessing the situation of American women today requires historical perspective on where they began and how far they’ve traveled. The story is one of changing strategies in which victories outnumber defeats and major battles have been won – permanently.


Cinderella picking peas out of the ashes had nothing on women in colonial America, who were denied the right to own, sell or transfer property, make contracts, or instigate lawsuits regarding property they brought into their marriages.  Property rights transferred to husbands, and in turn, to male heirs.

It was extremely difficult for a colonial woman to get a divorce without losing claim to her children.  Though her husband physically abused her, committed adultery, and engaged in incest with one of their daughters, it was not surprising to Abigail Abbot Bailey “that such wickedness was not checked by legal restraints (for) great difficulties attend in such a case.”

Professions such as medicine and law were closed to all women, as were most jobs to married women. The jobs a single woman could hold— i.e., teacher, domestic, shopkeeper—paid low wages and offered few advancement opportunities. Education, limited to the upper class, emphasized acquiring household skills (sewing and knitting), etiquette (decorum and manners), and social graces (dancing and music).            

Early in the 17th century, when Anne Hutchinson challenged the Puritan ministerial hierarchy by holding mixed-sex meetings in her home, she was put on trial and convicted of heresy and community disruption. Male dissenters Thomas Hooker and Roger Williams were allowed to leave and set up new colonies incorporating their religious beliefs. During the notorious Salem witch trials of 1639, women vastly outnumbered men as accusers, accused, convicted, imprisoned, and executed.

In the dawn of our democracy, women could neither vote nor hold political office.         

Colonial Americans tolerated abortions before “quickening,” the time when the mother first felt the fetus move, but abortions took place covertly because they were likely hiding a prior sin—sex outside of marriage.

In the mid-19th century, the American Medical Association launched an anti-abortion campaign mainly to undermine their competition – homeopaths and midwives.  Troubled by higher birthrates among newly arrived immigrants, many states banned abortions and contraception in hopes of boosting the number of Anglo-Saxon births.  The Comstock Act (1873) continued this pattern by prohibiting the distribution of birth control information in any form. 


How have men come to feel justified in limiting the rights of women? 

Beginning with Colonial times, the Bible has often been cited to show the good wife understands “thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee.”  Then, as now, men have acknowledged that women perform separate, vital roles in family life, but not as household heads.

In the mid 19th century, “scientific” evidence was used to restrict women’s sexuality. Dr. William Alcott, in The Physiology of Marriage (1856), asserted that women had fewer sexual desires than men, making them morally purer and also responsible for controlling men’s urges.  (Women raised in the 1950s, one hundred years later, will attest that these particular assertions had staying power!)  Given their supposed frailty and sensitivity, women were thought to be particularly prone to incurable venereal diseases and other infirmities from excessive and unwarranted intercourse. 

 It followed, then, that entry into the Byzantine world of business and politics would strain frail bodies and minds governed by emotion and short on reason.  Enfranchised women would vote their hearts over intellect.

For historian Gerda Lerner, patriarchy was sustained by excluding women from “ideological production,” namely, the expression of a feminist consciousness. Lacking clear authority to speak, adequate education, and a known tradition of feminist critiques, women accepted male constructs of gender and colluded in their own oppression.  


What tactics and strategies have women pursued to improve their situation? 

The first approach was an appeal to men’s better angels. On the eve of the rebellion against England, John Adams’ much-admired spouse Abigail urged her husband and his revolutionary colleagues to “remember the ladies and be more generous to them than your ancestors.”  Abigail saw this as a proper reward for the sacrifices women made in the events leading up to the War for Independence, managing family farms, for instance, while their husbands were away.  John did not take her recommendation seriously.

Elizabeth Lucas, like other subscribers to the duty of Republican Motherhood, urged equal educational opportunities so women could better nurture patriotic sons—the country’s future leaders – by raising them to shun wealth, titles, and pomp, and to cultivate integrity, intellect, and virtue.  That request also went nowhere.

The more radical entreaty for equality proposed by Judith Sargent Murray in 1790 likewise fell on deaf ears:  “Yes, ye lordly, ye haughty sex, our souls are by nature equal to yours; the same breath of God animates, enlivens, and invigorates us.”

The best known failed demand for equal rights and privileges was Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments, drafted for the 1848 meeting at Seneca Falls, New York.  Public reaction—from both men and women—was harsh. Early feminists were mocked at rallies and attacked by the press as cranks, amazons, and frustrated spinsters.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a new phase of the women’s movement pushed gender differences as the basis for obtaining political rights and economic opportunities by suggesting that bringing compassionate female qualities to the sordid world of political intrigue and ruthless business competition would lead to moral improvement in those arenas. As reformer Jane Addams put it, “The very multifariousness and complexity of city government demands the help of minds accustomed to details and variety of work, to a sense of obligation for the health and welfare of young children, and to a responsibility for the cleanliness and comfort of others.”  This change in tactics also proved unconvincing.

Bottom line?  Supplication is most effective when aimed at those already inclined toward supporting a cause; it doesn’t get far among those convinced the status quo is preferable or tolerable.


The most successful change agent for women’s rights has been direct mass action on the local, state, and national levels: drafting resolutions, conducting petition campaigns, staging public protests, grassroots political organization, and litigation. 

Between 1846 and 1851, in an era of constitutional conventions to redraft the original compacts, women lobbied for and achieved expansion of property rights and easier divorce.  As often is the case, “lobbying” meant arm twisting and the threat of litigation.

That same kind of activism and political savvy was on display by the thousands involved in the struggle for the vote. The National American Woman Suffrage Association, led by Carrie Chapman Catt, pursued “the Winning Plan” where women who could vote in state or local elections were urged to back candidates who supported national suffrage. Concomitantly, Alice Paul’s militant National Women’s Party led protests and boycotts.  Some members chained themselves to public buildings or dropped acid into mailboxes.  Paul, Lucy Burns, and Dora Lewis shared cells occupied by streetwalkers and the homeless, and were beaten and force fed when they refused to eat, but their hunger strikes gained recognition of and sympathy for their political agenda.

As a reward for American women supporting World War I and taking on factory jobs while “the boys” were fighting overseas, President Wilson finally backed the 1920 Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote in national elections.

As often happens after sweeping change, a lull followed. In the 1920s, women became more involved in private life than public causes.  In the wake of world war, Americans of both sexes were tired of calls to defer personal pleasure for lofty goals. Politically minded women joined the League of Women Voters, less a lobbying group than an organization to inform the public impartially about the issues and the candidates’ positions.

The end of WWII found Rosie the Riveter back in her familiar role as wife and mother. Coeds saw the university as a place for obtaining an “M.R.S.” degree, which meant finding a more educated husband and often dropping out to marry. Psychiatrists Ferdinand Lundberg and Marynia Farnham, in Modern Women: The Lost Sex, claimed an independent woman was a contradiction in terms; the more educated she was, the greater her chance of experiencing a sexual disorder.

Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique (1963) raised the consciousness of middle class women to the “problem that had no name” and led them to question roles centered exclusively on home, husband, and family, and “sexploitation” by males in control of media and advertising. In 1968, the Miss America “beauty pageant” was cancelled.

The National Organization for Women, founded in 1966, played a large part in procuring Title IX legislation prohibiting sex discrimination in school athletics (1972) and the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision giving women unlimited right to abortion in the first trimester.

NOW also pushed admitting women to U.S.military academies (1976) and lobbied for the Violence Against Women Act (1994), currently being held up for reauthorization because it would add protections for undocumented immigrants, gay men, and lesbians.

NOW’s heavy and lengthy investment in the Equal Rights Amendment — “the last great cause” — paid no dividends. The bill expired on June 30, 1982 when it failed to receive the requisite number of state ratifications mandated by Congress. Today, the organization has 500,000 contributing members, fewer than it had in 1969.

There are lessons about change in the status of American women and societal change in general to be drawn from this brief account of 200+ years of the women’s movement:

            1. Those in charge always rationalize maintaining the status quo.  What has long existed is good simply because it has long existed.

            2.  To challenge the dominant ideology, consciousness must be raised.  

            3.  The climate of opinion has to be right. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her cohorts did not enjoy great success in mid-19th centuryAmerica; 120 years later, the same egalitarian message struck a more responsive chord among the majority of Americans.   Timing is everything.

            4.  When a movement has moderate as well as radical components, the establishment is more likely to negotiate. “Better Carrie Chapman Catt than Alice Paul” led to greater willingness by males to yield on women’s suffrage.

            5.  Reform movements wane because new, younger leaders are not willing to extend the cause.  Enjoying the benefits of their predecessors’ efforts, they feel the original cause less urgently.

            6.  Backlash from both the establishment and more radical movement members is inevitable.  For the former, things have gone far enough; for the latter, not enough has been accomplished.


The current “War on Women” hoopla is strengthened by “We Told You So” and “Yes, But” culture critics who stress the failures of the feminist movement over its triumphs and measure reality against utopia, thereby presenting an incomplete and distorted picture.  Their assessments of the current status of American women are strong on ideology and weak on history.

The “We Told You So” camp asserts that after Superwoman got it all, the happiness she anticipated fell far short of expectations.  This has supposedly left her in a situation as bad as, or even worse than, before.  According to this line of thinking, more and more women leave for work longing for the good old stay-at-home days.  Single women, it’s been said, are becoming more depressed, or so worried about their femininity that they’ve taken to wearing racy underwear under their power suits.

The “Yes, But” group acknowledges the many gains achieved by past feminists but believes they did not go far enough and/or are less relevant to the current problems women face: affordable child care, paid parental leave, family planning resources, workplace flexibility, and wages sufficient for a family to live on one salary.

They point out that while women make up 51% of the population, they hold only 17% of Congressional seats. The United States ranks 90th in the world for electing and appointing women to government office, and is not yet one of the 67 countries to elect a woman president.   The media continue to promote and reinforce unhealthy attitudes and perceptions of women and younger and younger girls that encourage them to exploit their sexuality for empowerment. Even accomplished women often present themselves more like centerfolds than professionals.

But is all this evidence of a “War on Women,” or even an organized conspiracy against them?  The issue is not that clear-cut.  One wonders . . .

How much of the difficulty in getting to the top is a result of male-imposed glass ceilings and how much reflects the unwillingness of females to engage in the rat-kills-rat behavior built into our corporate culture?

How much of the disparity in elections to political office is a result of women losing most of the seats they’ve contested and how much is because of their choosing not to enter brutal political frays?

How much of the success of those who would allow states to limit women’s control of their bodies comes from the absence of large scale, sustained protests against restrictive legislation?

To what extent are women complicit in their sexual objectification?  Actress Ashley Judd observed recently that “Patriarchy is a system in which both men and women participate.”


Those who claim women have asked for too much and those who say women haven’t accomplished enough both distort reality.  But so do those who entirely blame the patriarchy, disproportionately seeing women as victims while short-changing their demonstrable strengths and proven record in overcoming obstacles.  

“Herstory” is not a litany of abuse, despair, and passivity or of women as appendages to men. Nor are women limited to “Superwoman or nobody” choices.  Thanks to their own actions over the years, American women are now freer to get an education, manage their own finances, experience love, enjoy their families, take pleasure in work, socialize, participate in politics, do community service, engage in satisfying leisure activities, play an active role in their religious communities, and serve their country.  

Yes, there are lulls, backlash, and brushfires to contend with, but laws that severely limit what women can and can’t do have largely gone by the wayside while hard-won achievements in gaining full citizenship remain intact.  The accomplishments are impressive, significant, and enduring.


Alice Rossi, ed., The Feminist Papers: From Adams to de Beauvoir, 1973

Gail Collins, American Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines, 2003.

Carol Hymowitz and Michaele Weissman, A History of Women in America, 1978.

Linda Kerber and Jane De Hart, eds., Women’s America: Refocusing the Past, 2004.

Sarah Evans, Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America, 1989. 

Gerder Lerner The Creation of Patriarchy, 1986; and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, 1993. 

David Allyn, Make Love, Not War: The Sexual Revolution, An Unfettered History, 2001.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, Why we have too few women leaders,available on YouTube at


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  1. Kay Winters / Jul 1 2012 4:16 pm

    Loved your article,! I grew up in the 50’s determined to have a career. Betty Friedan’s book reinforced that goal.I had a career in education at a time when most of my peers were at home. And then took early retirement and started a new career, writing childrens books. I have never regretted either. And at 75 have no plans to retire. Have been happily married for 52 years, and now am enjoying grand children…just asmen have done for centuries. I am very glad to be living in this time period when these choices are available,
    Kay Winters

    • Harvey Asher / Jul 1 2012 11:12 pm

      So glad you enjoyed the post, Kay. Betty Friedan had a huge influence on my wife as well!

  2. Judy A / Jul 2 2012 3:28 pm

    I learned a lot from this; it was a reminder that it’s always a good idea to hold onto the big picture, and to cloud the issue with facts.

    • Harvey Asher / Jul 3 2012 4:42 pm

      Thank you, Judy. So glad you’ve joined the conversation!

  3. bob esbenshade / Jul 2 2012 5:51 pm

    Perhaps not enduring………….

    • Harvey Asher / Jul 3 2012 4:42 pm

      Let’s see how the women’s vote goes in November . . .

  4. Meryl Baer / Jul 3 2012 5:04 pm

    It is frustrating to take two steps forward and one step back, but realistically and ultimately, I guess that is the history of progress.

    • Harvey Asher / Jul 4 2012 5:13 pm

      Often the pace is even slower than that, but, in this case, the steps forward were big ones.

  5. Lynn Hinds / Jul 3 2012 6:14 pm

    Great piece Harvey! I have a couple of comments

    “Colonial Americans tolerated abortions before “quickening,” the time when the mother first felt the fetus move” Thomas Aquinas attributed quickening to the soul entering the fetus. This is consonant, by the way, with Roe v Wade.

    Back in the 70s I referred to the National Organization of Women and had my head chewed off by the quest who told me in no uncertain terms it was NOT the Org OF Women but the Org FOR Women. She explicated the difference to my satisfaction.

    It was my understanding that Title 1X was added to the civil rights legislation, not by pressure from women’s groups, but by cynical politicians who wrongly assumed that if they added women the bill would be defeated.

    Finally, I’ve long thought it a shame that women finally get to vote and their choices were Warren Harding or James Cox.

    • Harvey Asher / Jul 4 2012 5:19 pm

      Thanks for the heads-up on the NOW acronym, Lynn. I’ve made the correction.

      Yes, the story of how Title IX came into being is comedic and true, women’s first choices in the presidential election were less than steller. But we play the hands we’re dealt, and we’ll take progress any way it comes!

  6. Rhoda Clark / Jul 9 2012 1:06 pm

    well, I grew up taking a lot for granted! Born in 52 I really didn’t have any idea about a lot of what you wrote Harvey. Thanks for enlightening me…..I think.

  7. Robin Koontz / Jul 9 2012 5:45 pm

    Great article and as always, filled with practical information. But, things have changed in the last decade or so – the hours people now have to put in for many top-level positions are beyond ridiculous. There is no more 9-5. No more Huxtable family. Add a long city commute and it’s more like 5 am-midnight. These hours make it nearly impossible to raise a family or even to nurture a marriage or partnership. While men are parents, too, it is more common (from the mothers I know) for women be the ones who feel guilty when their careers keep them from spending time with their children or from having a family at all. They throw in the towel for the sake of their family. And once again, the man keeps the top spots and she keeps his socks clean.

    Just an observation.

    • Harvey Asher / Jul 9 2012 9:08 pm

      Yes, women have always gotten the short end of that stick and probably always will. There is the current pressure for flex time and other accommodations, based less on gender than on economic realities and a new migration from the suburbs, with their traditionally long commutes, back into the cities. There’s still the right to vote and to control fertility, and women outnumber men in attending and graduating from universities.

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    • Harvey Asher / Feb 8 2013 1:09 am

      A happy coincidence for me, too! Thanks for stopping by and for bookmarking.

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