15 Moments That Changed Women’s History Forever
In honor of Women's History Month, a look back at the single moments in history when, for women, doors of opportunity suddenly flung open.
The future is female, thanks to these moments in the past
We probably think of women’s history in terms of several major milestones, but the truth is that these milestones have all been hard-won by years of back-breaking, often unrecognized labor by scores of activists and ordinary women. While these major moments, from the United States to Australia to Saudi Arabia and beyond, are incredible and should be celebrated, they’re all steps along the path to equality, and we have a long way to go. These 15 most inspiring women alive today give us hope!
1895: South Australia gives women the right to vote
Who knew that this Down Under nation was ahead of the times in allowing women to cast their ballots in national elections? The South Australian Parliament passed a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote in December of 1894, which meant women could vote in the following year’s elections. The battle was hard-won. Women had reportedly fought for a decade to make this historical event happen. Although New Zealand was the first self-governing country in the world to allow all women to vote in parliamentary elections (in 1893), women were not allowed to stand for election there until 1919. As the South Australian amendment allowed women to stand for election from 1895, South Australia became the first electorate in the world to grant equal political rights to men and women. Learn about more countries where women could vote before the United States.
1920: The United States ratifies 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote
It’s hard to believe that only 100 years ago, women were first permitted to vote in the United States. That’s what happened on August 18, 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, thanks to the tireless efforts of women including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Ida B. Wells, and Lucretia Mott. Organizing for women’s suffrage dated back to 1848, at the historic Seneca Falls Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, the first women’s rights conference in the United States. Did you know that in the United States, there were 20 states where women could vote before the 19th Amendment?
1963: Equal Pay Act passed in the United States
Former President John F. Kennedy backed amending the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act—as part of his New Frontier Program—so that women could be paid the same wages as men performing the same job. This act aimed to put a stop to sex-based wage discrimination, although we haven’t seen that happen yet. Women on average are paid $0.82 cents to every $1 earned by white, non-Hispanic men (the largest demographic), and women of color earn even less: on average, Latina women earn $0.55 and Black women earn $0.63 to every $1 earned by a white, non-Hispanic man. Even when earners in similar demographics, such as ethnicity and level of education are compared, the gender wage gap persists, consistently showing that women earn less money than men, retire with less money than men, and have more student debt than men (it’s a lot harder to pay off your loans when you’re earning less money!) Clearly, there is a lot of work left to do. Find out some more ways women still aren’t treated equally to men.
1971: Reed v. Reed
Up until the early 1970s, if a relative in the United States died, the job of administering the estate was automatically given to the closest male relative, not the female. Obviously, this created some major family friction. In Reed v. Reed, the Supreme Court ruled that this violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, according to this ACLU summary. Note: This was the same year Ruth Bader Ginsburg established the Women’s Rights Project. Learn some of the many ways Ruth Bader Ginsburg has made history.
1973: Roe v. Wade
Probably one of the most contentious court rulings regarding women’s rights over the last 75 years, Roe v. Wade handed the difficult decision of whether to end a pregnancy over to the woman who is pregnant. Courts, doctors, politicians, and other individuals could no longer make that decision for them, according to this Supreme Court ruling. This law has been contested ever since, with many individual states seeking to make it more difficult for women to make this choice despite the federal ruling. Check out this story of women’s rights activist Betty Friedan, who founded the pro-choice organization, NARAL, as well as other inspiring stories of women who changed the world.
1976: Portugal grants women the right to vote
Before the 1960s, women living in Portugal had few rights, especially when compared with the United States and other European nations. They couldn’t get a Portuguese passport or travel to another country without their husband’s consent. The year 1976 was a major year to be a woman living in Portugal, because that’s when the country’s constitution was amended to give women the same voting rights as men. Read these confidence-boosting quotes from amazing women in history.
1980: New Marriage Law passed in China
China’s New Marriage Law in 1980 granted certain rights to women during the legal contract of marriage: Women needed to be 18 years or older to marry, both parties had to consent, and the courts could reject marriages with ulterior motives (such as human trafficking and arranged marriages). Under the New Marriage Law, divorce proceedings started to consider women’s rights, including child custody and division of property. These marriage customs from around the world may surprise you.
2003: Japan’s government vows to fill more senior-government roles with women
In 2003, Japan declared the ambitious goal of aiming to have 30 percent of senior-level government jobs in the country held by women by 2020. Apparently, it was too ambitious, because it was later revised to seven percent, taking into account the lack of an uptick a few years into the new initiative. Government officials blamed the slow pace of cultural shifts. Hopefully, one day Japan will be in the same position as Paris, France: In 2020, the city was fined 90,000 euros for appointing too many women (11, or 69%) to senior government positions. Only five men were appointed, and the imbalance violated a rule that at least 40% of positions should go to people of each gender. The city paid the fine, and the rule has since been amended.
2012: United Nations passes a resolution banning female genital mutilation
The terror—and unfortunate reality—of young girls up to the age of 15 having their genitals mutilated came to a halt in 2012 (at least on paper) when the United Nations called on citizens worldwide to stop the practice, which has been most common in countries throughout Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, affecting as many as 200 million girls and women. Thanks to increased awareness of this physically and emotionally scarring practice, February 6 was named International Day of Zero Tolerance.
2017: Saudi Arabia lifts ban on female drivers
Imagine being a woman in this Middle Eastern country and needing a man to give you a lift for simple errands like picking up groceries at the market or visiting a friend. In fall 2017, the Saudi Arabian government lifted the ban on female drivers; it took effect in June 2018.
2017: India rules sex with minors illegal
Another sign of the modernization of India was a Supreme Court ruling in October 2017 that deemed rape of a female under the age of 18 (even if the minor is a child bride) illegal. Further, being charged with this crime can result in a ten-year prison sentence. This ruling helps discourage the tradition of child brides and speaks to the country’s attempt to create more equal marriages (age-wise, at the very least).
2017: Lebanon repeals law that sided with male rapists
It’s hard to believe, but up until the summer of 2017, a male rapist in Lebanon could be exonerated if he married his rape victim. In August, Lebanon’s Parliament finally repealed this ancient and horrific law at the urging of Lebanese and international women’s rights activists.
2018: Iceland requires fair pay for women
Some countries talk a good game about equal pay for women, but Iceland made it the law of the land. In 2018, Iceland became the first country in the world to make it illegal—resulting in a fine—to pay men and women in the same job differently. One major difference between this law, and the Equal Pay Act in the United States is that the burden is no longer on the employee to make this claim—the onus is on the companies to prove that they are paying men and women equally as a matter of general review. Thus, women are not required to become detectives themselves (and risk their reputations and work relationships) to find out if they are being paid the same as their male colleagues.
2018: Major U.S. Congressional milestones
It’s fairly rare that midterm elections in the United States have made major news or generated much fanfare. But after two years of Donald Trump as president, Americans were mobilized to vote like never before. The 2018 midterm elections saw a surge of amazing firsts for women in government: the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, the first Muslim women elected to Congress; and Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous women in Congress (who is now nominated to serve in the Cabinet as Secretary of the Interior). Plus, in the 2020 election a record number of women were elected to the House of Representatives; 143 House seats are now filled by women, soaring past the previous 2018 record of 102. While this is incredible, that’s still only 27.1 percent of the total House—we have a long way to go! Read these facts and figures about the Equal Rights Amendment—which still isn’t law.
2021: First woman sworn in as Vice President
On Inauguration Day, January 20th 2021, Kamala Harris was sworn in as Vice President of the United States. She took her Oath of Office with her hand on two stacked Bibles, one belonging to the late Supreme Court Justice and civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall, and the other belonging to a close family friend. Harris is only the third woman to be named a candidate for Vice President, and she is also the first woman, first Black woman, and first woman of South Asian descent to hold national office in America! Next, read about more incredible female firsts that made history.
- National Museum of Australia: “Women’s Suffrage”
- History.com: “19th Amendment”
- U.S. EEOC: “The Equal Pay Act of 1963”
- AAUW: “The Simple About the Gender Pay Gap”
- ACLU: “Successes”
- WomensSuffrage.org: “Europe”
- ThatsMags.com: “China Enacts New Marriage Law”
- CNN: “Japan slashes target for women in senior positions”
- NPR: “City of Paris is fined 90,000 Euros”
- UN.org: “Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation Day”
- The New York Times: “Saudi Arabia Agrees To Let Women Drive”
- USAToday: “5 major wins for women’s rights across the world”
- The New York Times: “Lebanon Repeals Its Marry-Your-Rapist Law”
- NPR: “Companies in Iceland now Required to Demonstrate That They Pay Men, Women Fairly”
- Rutgers University: “Women in the 117th Congress”
- USAToday: “Fact check: Kamala Harris used 2 Bibles when she was sworn in”