Friday, April 4, 2014

Some Last Thoughts about the Women’s Movement in the United States

In the United States the month of March is commemorated as Women History Month.  Information Officer of the U.S. Embassy Abuja, Rhonda Ferguson-Augustus spoke with Peoples Daily reporter Favour Egbuta about the month and its significance.  Below are excerpts from the interview.

Can you give us some background about the Women History month?

International Women’s Month actually started as Women’s Day in the United States, going back to 1909.  I believe that initially, women banded together to advocate for women’s suffrage, improved working conditions, equal employment, and to champion the needs of working mothers.  These issues were important in 1909 and they are just as important now.  The International Women’s movement embraces these same issues.
The women’s movement in the United States got its start in 1848 at the Seneca Falls (New York State) Women’s Right’s Convention.  The movement picked up momentum in the early 1900’s as women from mostly middle and upper class backgrounds demonstrate in the streets for the right to vote.  Suffrage was won state by state, with Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan becoming the first states to give women the right to vote.  The increased agitation for the vote coincided with increased immigration, primarily to urban areas, where factories provided work for the new comers.  Women working in factories were given hard, detailed work in poor conditions and paid less than men.  Their struggles came to a head in 1911, when a horrific fire in a garment factory forced trapped workers to jump to their deaths to avoid the flames.  More than a 100 women died in the fire in front of people who watched in horror.  The incident captured the nation’s attention and the women’s movement rallied around it to push for better working conditions and promote women’s’ right to vote.  In 1920, the U.S. Congress passed the amendment that made women’s suffrage part of the U.S. Constitution.

After World War I, the women’s movement became more political and for some, too much so.  While there was strong support for the right to vote, many Americans were concerned that the movement was too closely tied to the radical labor movement and unions.  With the “red scare” in 1919, general support for the women’s movement eroded and it quietly passed from the scene.  The idea of a women’s movement stayed dormant until World War II, when women had to join the labor force by the millions to replace men going to war.  Women got a taste of equal work, but acquiesced to the returning soldiers who wanted their wives at home.

In the late seventies and early eighties, the American woman’s movement was back in the forefront, in part inspired by the civil rights movement.  The earlier theme of the ‘equal pay for equal work’ was now joined by demands that women be allowed to enter jobs traditionally held by men, including the military, the sciences and professional sports.  While there was resistance to the push for equality, over time, women slowly received acceptance in these fields, even to the point of some women running for president of the United States.

The woman’s movement in the United States has come of age.  Many in the United States, and the rest of the world, think that the Women’s movement has achieved its goal of full equality.  However, recent statistics find that American women make less than 80 cents on every dollar that American men do.  There are still many who believe that women should stay in their traditional roles.  But younger people in the U.S. are growing up with their mothers working in all types of jobs and getting equal respect and pay.  Many of the younger generation now believe that it is absolutely possible for women in the United States to become CEOs of major corporations, dean of prestigious universities, generals in the military and yes, even president of the United States.

So the women’s movement that started in the United States has come full circle to joining the International women’s month/day, in spirit, if not substance.  The goals and aspirations of women have not changed substantially and women around the world see the value of standing together to achieve them.

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