In Search of Equality for Women: From Suffrage to Civil Rights

Duquesne University Law Review, Vol. 59, Pp. 125, 2021

Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. 2390

43 Pages Posted: 8 Jul 2021

See all articles by Nan D. Hunter

Nan D. Hunter

Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: June 24, 2021


This article analyzes women’s rights advocacy and its impact on the meanings of gender equality during the period from the achievement of suffrage in 1920 until the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It teaches that one cannot separate the conceptualization of equality or the jurisprudential philosophy underlying it from the dynamics and characteristics of the social movements that actively give it life. Social movements identify the institutions and practices that will be challenged, decisions that in turn determine which doctrinal issues will provide the raw material for jurisgenerative change. Without understanding a movement’s strategy and opportunities for action, one cannot know why law developed as it did.

The article also demonstrates that this phase of women’s rights advocacy comprised not one movement – as it is usually described – but three: the suffragists who turned to a campaign for an Equal Rights Amendment after winning the Nineteenth Amendment; the organizations inside and outside the labor movement that prioritized the wellbeing of women workers in the industrial economy; and the birth control movement. Each was dominated by white women, but Black women worked in and through all three branches, in addition to developing distinctive organizations. Women engaged with courts, legislatures and other lawmakers, using a variety of methods and a mixture of complementary and contradictory arguments in an effort to secure full citizenship status for women in the political, economic and family realms.

Different approaches to equality, however, created a significant movement disability. Prioritizing the ERA cemented that branch’s allegiance to what would now be called formal equality, the principle that men and women should be held to the same rights and duties under law. This absolute equality stance precluded support for laws setting protective working standards only for women, the paramount goal of those most concerned with women working in factories. ERA advocates saw protective laws as Trojan horses that promised minimum wages and a cap on hours but also disqualified women from some of the highest-paying jobs. Labor activists saw the disabilities associated with women’s political and family status as problematic, but secondary to economic issues. Birth control advocates developed arguments that sidestepped the frame of equality altogether.

The absence of a united position on the scope of gender equality under the law facilitated the silence of the Supreme Court, which perpetuated a discourse of domesticity with respect to the legal status of women that began before suffrage and continued long after. The gap in constitutional law as to gender not only stymied doctrinal development, but also deprived women’s rights advocates of the cultural power that attaches to an overarching equality narrative. Yet although the discourse of law drove the branches of women’s rights advocacy apart, it also provided a venue in which equality had to be, and ultimately could be, defined, at least for regulatory purposes.

Somewhat surprisingly, it was the labor-oriented portion of the movement that brought the kind of statutory anti-discrimination model that we know today as “civil rights” into women’s rights advocacy. Demands for equal pay combined the no-differential-treatment approach of the ERA wing with the workplace-only focus of the labor movement. This linkage brought the women workers groups substantively closer to the anti-classification position associated with the equality/sameness understanding advocated by supporters of the ERA.

The institutional mechanism that led to the embedding of this model in federal law was the 1961-1963 President’s Commission on the Status of Women. The Commission produced a report that appeared to be destined for the shelves of bureaucracy. In its work on developing the report, however, the Commission served the function of aggregating and integrating women’s rights advocacy across all three movement branches and prepared the way for the successful fight to include sex discrimination within the parameters of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The conventional understanding that feminism was dormant between adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment and the eruption of rights claims in the 1960’s is wrong. Examining the campaigns for legal change across the branches of the movement during this time reveal an increase, not a diminution, in demands for full and equal citizenship in multiple arenas. What was dormant was the development of the concept of gender equality in constitutional law, but that was not for lack of activity by women on the ground.

Keywords: women, equality, rights, Nineteenth Amendment

Suggested Citation

Hunter, Nan D., In Search of Equality for Women: From Suffrage to Civil Rights (June 24, 2021). Duquesne University Law Review, Vol. 59, Pp. 125, 2021 , Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. 2390, Available at SSRN:

Nan D. Hunter (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

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