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26 June, 2013
An Outline of American History
Women's Rights
by U.S. Department of State


Such social reforms brought many women to a realization of their own unequal position in society. From colonial times, unmarried women had enjoyed many of the same legal rights as men, although custom required that they marry early. With matrimony, women virtually lost their separate identities in the eyes of the law. Women were not permitted to vote and their education in the 17th and 18th centuries was limited largely to reading, writing, music, dancing and needlework.

The awakening of women began with the visit to America of Frances Wright, a Scottish lecturer and journalist, who publicly promoted women's rights throughout the United States during the 1820s. At a time when women were often forbidden to speak in public places, Wright not only spoke out, but shocked audiences by her views advocating the rights of women to seek information on birth control and divorce.

By the 1840s a group of American women emerged who would forge the first women's rights movement. Foremost in this distinguished group was Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In 1848 Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, another women's rights advocate, organized a women's rights convention -- the first in the history of the world -- at Seneca Falls, New York. Delegates drew up a declaration demanding equality with men before the law, the right to vote, and equal opportunities in education and employment.

That same year, Ernestine Rose, a Polish immigrant, was instrumental in getting a law passed in the state of New York that allowed married women to keep their property in their own name. Among the first laws in the nation of this kind, the Married Women's Property Act, encouraged other state legislatures to enact similar laws.

In 1869 Rose helped Elizabeth Cady Stanton and another leading women's rights activist, Susan B. Anthony, to found the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), which advocated a constitutional amendment for women's right to the vote. These two would become the women's movement's most outspoken advocates. Describing their partnership, Cady Stanton would say, "I forged the thunderbolts and she fired them."

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