Changes in the law pertaining to women can both reflect and foster changes in gender relations. Since the emergence of the women's rights movement in the mid-19th century, there have been a number of changes in laws affecting women, from giving women full property rights to recognizing their right to wear pants.
1. Property Ownership
One of the first steps toward equal rights for women in the United States was the enactment of laws giving married women the right to own and manage property. Before then, marriage meant giving everything to your husband. As is noted in the Law Library of Congress, the 1848 New York Married Women's Property Act became a model for change nationwide.
2. The Right to Vote
After years of protests and petitions by the women's suffrage movement, in 1920 the 19th Amendment to the Constitution gave women throughout the United States the right to vote.
3. Jury Service
As women's right historian and sociology professor Holly McCammon chronicles, it was not until the 1960s that all 50 states had laws allowing women to serve on juries, and in 1975 the Supreme Court ruled that gender-based discrimination in selecting jurors is unconstitutional. As a result, now everyone has the right to try to get out of jury duty.
Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 as part of a series of initiatives aimed at ending racial discrimination in the United States. Shortly before the final vote, women were also added as a protected group, a soon-to-be revolutionary amendment that prompted the unsuspecting male congressmen to joke about "ladies day in the House."
In 1916, nurse and women's health crusader Margaret Sanger was arrested in New York for distributing birth control devices, which were then illegal under both state and federal law. The legal right to purchase contraceptives was not established in the U.S. until 1965, when the Supreme Court's ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut established the right to privacy.
Abortion had been legal in the U.S. before the mid-nineteenth century, when states began passing laws against dangerous poisons used in the procedure. The 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade cited the right to privacy as grounds for placing a constitutional limit on anti-abortion laws.
7. Sexual Harrassment
For years, a woman had no legal recourse against employers who pressured them for sexual favors in order to get or keep a job. That changed with a series of Supreme Court cases starting in 1975. Congress later strengthened this protection with the Civil Rights Act of 1991.
8. Maternity Leave
The rise of women in the workforce also called attention to the fact that the law allowed employers to fire women because they were pregnant or needed time to care for a newborn. The 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act made this illegal, while the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 required employers to provide up to 12 weeks of parental leave for both mothers and fathers.
9. The Right to Go Topless
In 1992, two women arrested for public indecency challenged a New York statute that allowed men to be shirtless in public but made it a criminal act for women. The state's courts agreed that that the law was discriminatory on its face, but not all of the other states have followed suit. [Reference 9]
10. The Right to Wear Pants
Laws against wearing gender-inappropriate clothing have a long history going back to ancient times, and some survive to this day--except in France, where in early 2013 the government minister for women's rights nullified the two-hundred-year-old Paris law that required women to get police permission before wearing pants.
- Law Library of Congress: Married Women's Property Laws
- Our Documents: 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Women's Right to Vote (1920)
- The U.S. Women's Jury Movements and Strategic Adaptation: A More Just Verdict; Holly J. McCammon
- We Will Be Heard:Women's Struggles for Political Power in the United States; Jo Freeman
- PBS American Experience: The Pill - Timeline
- The Atlantic: Abortion in American History
- Christian Science Monitor: The History of Sexual Harassment Awareness
- U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: Pregnancy Discrimination
- Village Voice: Yes, Ladies, You Can Walk Around the City Topless
- The Atlantic: It Just Became Legal for Parisian Women to Wear Pants
- Stanford Law School: Women's Legal History
- Mount Mercy University: Law Ungendered: History of Legal Status of U.S. Women
- Women's Life in Greece and Rome: Public Life: 173. Women demonstrate and obtain repeal of the Oppian law. Rome, 195 B.C.
- The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History: The Legal Status of Women, 1776–1830
- Women, Family and Gender in Islamic Law; Judith E. Tucker
- Equal: Women Reshape American Law; Fred Strebeigh
- Encyclopedia of Gender and Society; Jodi O'Brien
- Jupiterimages, Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images