Test your knowledge on key facts about women’s rights!

Leigh Chandler, YW Boston Fund Development & Communications Associate
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Think you know about women’s legal history in the United States – from who was the first woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court to what Title IX covers? The YW Boston staff thought we knew a thing or two, but quickly realized today that we have much to learn.

Today during lunch we were joined by Andrea Kramer, YW Boston Board of Directors member and a Massachusetts litigator, who presented an insightful presentation for us on the history of women’s legal rights in the United States. Turns out, there was a lot of important information we had not heard before. Test yourself and check out ten of the main takeaways from today’s presentation below!

1) Which state in the US was the first in which women could vote?

In 1869, Wyoming was the first state in the US to allow women the right to vote – but not to benefit women, per se.

Wyoming, while seemingly progressive for the time, actually used state-wide women’s suffrage as a tool in attracting women to move to the western state where at one point men outnumbered women 6 to 1.

2) In what year were women granted, through the 19th amendment to the Constitution, the right to vote everywhere in the US?

Of the 68 women who signed the Declaration of Sentiments at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, only one lived to see the 19th Amendment pass in 1920.

From July 19-20, 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention met and declared, “That it is the duty of women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.” Charlotte Woodward, age 18 during the convention, was the only woman from the Convention who lived to be legally allowed to vote in 1920.

3) Who was the first woman elected to Congress?

In 1916, Jeanette Rankin of Montana became the first woman elected to the US House of Representatives.

As a representative, Rankin pushed for the nationwide right for women to vote, including creating the Committee on Women’s Suffrage of which she was the chair. A devout pacifist, she voted against entering World War I, which led to her being voted out of office. She returned to politics 1939, in time to be the only representative to vote against entering World War II, which led to her being voted out a second time.

4) When and where was the first law passed that permitted married women to own property in their own name?

The first law permitting married women to own property in their own name had little to do with providing equal rights to women.

It may shock you that Mississippi became the first state to allow women to own property in their own name in 1839. However, this measure was taken to give men the ability to protect their assets from creditors by placing them under their wives’ names.

5) What federal law first prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender in employment?

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, and adding in prohibition of sex-based discrimination may have been an attempt to kill the bill.

Howard Smith, an influential Virginia Democrat and segregationist who opposed the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, was the one who first added prohibiting sex-based discrimination to the bill. While we have no proof of why he did this, many say it was an attempt to keep the bill from passing. Whether Smith added it with good intentions or not, it is in the official record that when he first brought up banning sex-based discrimination in the House of Representatives, the room filled with laughter. 

6) True or false: The Supreme Court first recognized a constitutional right to privacy in the 1973 case of Roe v. Wade, which limited the ability to regulate abortion in the US.

False. The right to privacy, often attributed to Roe v. Wade’s allowing women’s right to an abortion in 1973, was first stated in Supreme Court cases involving contraception.

The Supreme Court first established the right to marital privacy in 1965 in Griswold v Connecticut, allowing married couples to purchase contraceptives. Seven years later, William Baird challenged Massachusetts’ “Crimes Against Chastity,” which prohibited selling contraceptives to unmarried people. Roe v Wade built on both of these cases to establish privacy rights as connected to abortion in 1973.

7) True or false: Until 1882, it was not a crime anywhere in the United States for a husband to beat his wife.

True, but it took an entire century after Maryland established the first law against spousal abuse for any state to outlaw marital rape.

In 1882, Maryland made marital abuse punishable by 40 lashes and up to a year in prison. However, even after states began implementing laws against sexual assault, most states had “marital rape exemptions,” which stated that in marriage, a husband had full rights over his wife’s body. In 1982, the highest court in New York ruled that marital rape was rape, sparking a number of changes across the country.

8) What is Title IX?

While many people attribute Title IX to women’s advancements in sports, it also plays a key role in conversations about sexual assault and gender identity on college campuses.

Title IX, which ensures equal educational opportunity to women, is often credited with the 1000% increase in women athletes from 1972 to present day. Currently, it serves as a key influence on universities providing support for student survivors of sexual assault. Under the Obama administration, Title IX also prevents universities from disallowing students to live as the gender with which they identify.

9) Who was the first woman to serve as a justice of the United States Supreme Court?

Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve as a justice of the United States Supreme Court, worked without pay at her first job as a lawyer.

Sandra Day O’Connor graduated third in her class from Stanford Law School in 1952, but had a difficult time finding a job due to gender discrimination. After turning down a job as a secretary, she worked as a deputy county clerk for no pay. In 1981, she became the first female justice of the Supreme Court.

10) Who was the first woman to argue before the Supreme Court?

Lucy Terry Prince, the first woman to argue before the Supreme Court (and win!), was a former slave with no formal legal training.

Prince was born in West Africa in the early eighteenth century, sold into slavery as a young girl, and brought to the United States. She married a free black man who purchased her in order to free her, and together they began a family in rural Vermont. When her white neighbors threatened her family and brought false land claims against them, she appealed to the Supreme Court where she represented herself. Samuel Chase, the presiding judge, stated that her argument was better than any Vermont lawyer’s he had ever heard.

 

Fighting for women’s rights, and social justice overall, requires an understanding of the centuries of steps we have taken to enact social equity. Thank you, Andrea Kramer, for teaching us more about the roadblocks, laws, and women who have come before us.