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Women/Women's History

This guide will help you locate information on topics related to women, their achievements, and their role in history.


Throughout history, women have had very different experiences at different times. Some past societies had women who were warriors, powerful priestesses, and political leaders. At other times strict expectations have been placed on women, with (male) writers portraying them as inferior to men.

Looking at how a society treats its women can be very enlightening. An investigation into the position of women at different points in history shows us how our society has grown and changed.

Often we think of history developing in a straight line. Women enjoy a better level of equality in present-day Western societies than at any time in history that we know of. Unfortunately, the further back in history you go, the less equality women have had. However, the truth is not so simple. In fact, women through history have gained and lost power at different times.

We can also remember that in many parts of the world today, women do not enjoy equal opportunities to earn, participate in politics or get an education. They can face gender-based violence and discrimination. Progress is not inevitable - we need to take action to ensure women have a life of dignity and fairness.


Vintage poster of Rosie the Riveter.

Image Credit: Pixabay

The origins of Women’s History Month began in 1981 when Congress passed Pub. L. 97-28, which authorized and requested the President to proclaim the week beginning March 7, 1982 as “Women’s History Week.” This continued over the next few years until 1987 when Congress passed Pub. L. 100-9 designating the month of March as “Women’s History Month.” Now every year, March is proclaimed the official time to celebrate and commemorate female leaders.

Open Sesame

The women's suffrage movement actually began in 1848, when a women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York. The Seneca Falls meeting was not the first in support of women’s rights, but suffragists later viewed it as the meeting that launched the suffrage movement. For the next 50 years, woman suffrage supporters worked to educate the public about the validity of woman suffrage. Under the leadership of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and other women’s rights pioneers, suffragists circulated petitions and lobbied Congress to pass a constitutional amendment to enfranchise women.

At the turn of the century, women reformers in the club movement and in the settlement house movement wanted to pass reform legislation. However, many politicians were unwilling to listen to a disenfranchised group. Thus, over time women began to realize that in order to achieve reform, they needed to win the right to vote. For these reasons, at the turn of the century, the woman suffrage movement became a mass movement.

In the 20th century leadership of the suffrage movement passed to two organizations. The first, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), under the leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt, was a moderate organization. The NAWSA undertook campaigns to enfranchise women in individual states, and simultaneously lobbied President Wilson and Congress to pass a woman suffrage Constitutional Amendment. In the 1910s, NAWSA’s membership numbered in the millions.

The second group, the National Woman’s Party (NWP), under the leadership of Alice Paul, was a more militant organization. The NWP undertook radical actions, including picketing the White House, in order to convince Wilson and Congress to pass a woman suffrage amendment.

In 1920, due to the combined efforts of the NAWSA and the NWP, the 19th Amendment, enfranchising women, was finally ratified. This victory is considered the most significant achievement of women in the Progressive Era. It was the single largest extension of democratic voting rights in our nation’s history, and it was achieved peacefully, through democratic processes.

National Women's History Museum

Women have been a part of the war effort since the Revolutionary War, but in the early days of our nation they had to cloak themselves in disguise to serve alongside men. When they were accepted into the military, women were given auxiliary roles. As the weapons and methods of warfare changed in the late 20th century, however, the Pentagon began to realize that gender matters less on the battlefield.

The First Female U.S. Soldiers

During the Revolutionary, Civil and Mexican Wars, a small number of women were involved in combat, but they had to disguise themselves as men and enlist under aliases. Deborah Samson Gannett, from Plymouth, Massachusetts, was one of the first American woman soldiers. In 1782, she enlisted under the name of her deceased brother, Robert Shurtleff Samson. For 17 months, Samson served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. She was wounded twice. She cut a musket ball out of her own thigh so a doctor wouldn't find out she was a woman. Years later, in 1804, Samson was awarded a pension for her service. Also during the Revolution War, in 1776, Margaret Corbin fought alongside her husband and 600 American soldiers as they defended Fort Washington, New York.

In the Mexican War, Elizabeth C. Newcume dressed in male attire and joined the military at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In 1847, she battled Native Americans in Dodge City. Ten months later, she was discharged when her gender was discovered. In July 1848, however, Congress paid her the land and money she was owed for her service.

In the Civil War, several women disguised themselves as men to enlist and fight for the Union. Sarah Rosetta Wakeman enlisted as Private Lyons Wakeman. She died during the war in New Orleans at the Marine General Hospital. At the time of her death, her true gender was not known. In fact, her headstone reads Lyons Wakeman.

U.S. Women in the World Wars

During World War I, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps allowed women to enlist. More than 12,000 enlisted and about 400 died during the war. Women also worked for the American Red Cross and the United Service Organizations, as well as in factory, office, transportation, and other jobs vacated by men who were off at war. By the end of World War I, women made up 24% of aviation plant workers.

In World War II, a total of 350,000 women served in the U.S. military. More than 60,000 women served as Army nurses and over 14,000 served as Navy nurses. Even though they were far from combat, 67 Army nurses were captured in the Philippines by the Japanese in 1942. They were held as POWs for almost three years. Over a dozen Navy nurses were also captured by the Japanese during the war. Also in 1942, the Army created the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). A year later, the WAAC became the Women's Army Corps (WAC), in which more than 150,000 women served. For the rest of the War, WACs were present in England, France, Australia, New Guinea, and the Philippines.

During World War II, the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard also established reserves for women. The Navy began Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) in 1942. More than 84,000 WAVES worked in administrative, medical, and communication jobs. The Coast Guard set up a women's reserve, in 1942, called SPARS, meaning Semper Paratus / Always Ready. A year later, the Marine Corps Women's Reserve began. Most Marine women served stateside and by the end of the war, 85% of the personnel at the U.S. Marine Corps Headquarters were women. These reserves were created so that more men could go fight overseas.

Also in 1943, the Air Force created Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASP). WASPs were civilians who flew stateside while male pilots served overseas. American aviator Jacqueline Cochran was instrumental in the creation of WASP. She wrote letters to various military leaders, suggesting that women pilots fly non-combat missions. She became the WASP director. In addition to these reserves, almost three million women worked to support the war effort at various factory, office and aviation jobs in the United States. During this time, Rosie the Riveter became a cultural icon, representing all the American women who worked for the war effort on the home front.

Women's Role in War Changes in Late 20th Century

Women continued to break new ground in the U.S. military after WWII. Part of the reason for this was necessity. The way wars were fought changed over the 20th century. Due to modern weapons of warfare, such as scud missiles and roadside bombs, front lines were blurred and every soldier was at risk. Over 40,000 women served in the 1991 Gulf War and engaged with enemy forces on an unprecedented level. On September 5, 1990, the U.S.S. Acadia left San Diego for the Persian Gulf. Of the 1,260 on board, 360 were women. It was the first time American men and women shipped out together in wartime conditions. The 1991 Gulf War was also the first war where women served with men in integrated units within a warzone. However, women in the military suffered a setback in 1994 when Defense Secretary Les Aspin implemented a rule that prohibited women from serving in units "whose primary mission is to engage in direct ground combat."

Despite the 1994 rule, women continued to play more active roles in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2005, Leigh Ann Hester became the first female soldier to receive the Silver Star for exceptional valor in close–quarters combat. Serving in Iraq, Hester led her team in a 25-minute firefight. She used hand grenades and an M203 grenade launcher while maneuvering her team to cut off the enemy. In 2008, Monica Lin Brown also received the Silver Star. After a roadside bomb was detonated in Afghanistan, Brown protected wounded soldiers with her own body and ran through gunfire to save their lives.

Women in the U.S. Military Today

As of 2015, women make up about 15% of the U.S. military. More than 165,000 women are enlisted and active in the armed services with over 35,000 additional women serving as officers.

In February 2012, after a yearlong review, the Pentagon announced women would be permanently assigned to battalions. In these ground units, women would be assigned to such critical jobs as radio operators, medics, and tank mechanics. However, many women have already served in those jobs, in temporary status, due to demand in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon's new ruling only made these job assignments official and still upheld the ban on women serving in combat tank units, Special Operations commando units and the infantry. Regarding the policy shift, Anu Bhagwati, Service Women's Action Network director, urged, "It's time military leadership establish the same level playing field to qualified women to enter the infantry, special forces, and other all-male units."

That playing field was leveled in January 2013, when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the ban on women serving in combat roles would be lifted. In a Jan. 9 letter to Panetta urging the change Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said, "The time has come to rescind the direct combat exclusion rule for women and to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service."

The move reversed the 1994 rule that prohibited women from serving in combat. The change would be gradual; some positions would be available to women immediately, but each branch of the military has until 2016 to request exceptions to the new rule. In fact, the first female soldiers to complete the grueling Army Ranger School will not be allowed to serve with the 75th Ranger Regiment because it hasn't yet lifted its ban on female soldiers.

Capt. Kristen Griest and 1st Lt. Shaye Haver made history by becoming the first two women to graduate from the Army Ranger School, along with 94 other students, in August 2015. They graduated in the first year that the Army opened the course to women. About 2015's course, Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh said in a statement, "This course has proven that every Soldier, regardless of gender, can achieve his or her full potential."

On Dec. 3, 2015, the Pentagon announces that all combat jobs would be open to women. In a press conference, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said that "there will be no exceptions" to the new rule. The historic announcement overrides the 1994 rule made by the Pentagon that restricted women from combat roles such as infantry, artillery, and armor. That 1994 rule had remained in place despite the fact that women were often in combat during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years.


Although women's sports have not always been considered popular or mainstream in the United States, female athletes and coaches have made enormous strides in the past ten years. In truth, though, this is only the latest phase in an ongoing journey to help make sure every girl and woman has access to the positive power of sports.

Up until the past few decades, sexist attitudes that prevented women and girls from participating in most sports were very prevalent. One of the biggest events that opened the door to change was World War II. Not only were women expected to step into traditional "men's roles" on the domestic front, but they also found new opportunities to participate in sports. This was especially true for women who were in college at the time: They fenced, shot, and played competitively.

Prior to the 1940s, women's athletic associations were informal and did not endorse competition. Even intercollegiate sports were not available to women until the basketball program at Smith College welcomed them in 1892. In the modern era, however, things began to change fast. Women realized the importance of making their own decisions about sports and reaping all of the benefits. They took a stand, inspired by the suffrage movement of the 1920s and 1930s.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement swept across the United States. Women were among the many marginalized groups who began to speak up loudly for their rights. In this climate of change, many major intercollegiate athletic organizations amended their rules to make it possible for women to participate in programs. Supporters used this momentum to push for legislative change at the highest levels, which they finally got in the form of Title IX.

Title IX is a federal law that bans all forms of sex-based discrimination in education programs that receive federal funding. This includes all athletic programs attached to universities and to colleges that receive any federal funds. The vast majority of institutions of higher learning receive federal grants or scholarship money, so Title IX was effectively a blanket ban on preventing women from participating in college sports. This opened the door for programs at other levels.

Title IX was enacted in 1972. Since then, women's sports have seen tremendous growth. Famous athletes such as Venus and Serena Williams, Danica Patrick, Ronda Rousey, Hope Solo, and Lindsey Vonn have pushed the envelope in their respective sports. However, whether you're looking at sports review pages or an online sportsbook, it's hard to escape the conclusion that there are still issues for female fans, sports journals, and athletes to overcome.

Research has shown that media coverage of women's sports still lags behind men's and that female sports journalists face discrimination in the workplace. Still, there are many hopeful signs: Amazing performances by female athletes in recent Olympic events have captured the public's imagination. More and more female athletes have booked game-changing performances in recent years, winning fans and inspiring girls to excel. Although there is still much to be done, the outlook for women in sports in the U.S. at all levels is looking better than ever.

Sportsbook Review

The gender pay gap is the average difference between the remuneration for men and women who are working. Women are generally paid less than men.

The gender gap in pay has narrowed since 1980, but it has remained relatively stable over the past 15 years or so. In 2018, women earned 85% of what men earned, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of median hourly earnings of both full- and part-time workers in the United States. Based on this estimate, it would take an extra 39 days of work for women to earn what men did in 2018.

By comparison, the Census Bureau found that, in 2017, full-time, year-round working women earned 80% of what their male counterparts earned.

The 2018 wage gap was somewhat smaller for adults ages 25 to 34 than for all workers 16 and older, our analysis found. Women ages 25 to 34 earned 89 cents for every dollar a man in the same age group earned.

The estimated 15-cent gender pay gap among all workers in 2018 has narrowed from 36 cents in 1980. For young women, the gap has narrowed by a similar margin over time. In 1980, women ages 25 to 34 earned 33 cents less than their male counterparts, compared with 11 cents in 2018.

Even though women have increased their presence in higher-paying jobs traditionally dominated by men, such as professional and managerial positions, women as a whole continue to be overrepresented in lower-paying occupations. This may also contribute to gender differences in pay.

Pew Research Center

What is the Equal Rights Amendment? It would provide equal protection to women under the law - and it could still be added to the U.S. Constitution - but we don't yet have it. Why does it matter?

Because women don’t currently have equal protection under the United States Constitution. By some estimates, 80 percent of Americans mistakenly believe that women and men are guaranteed equal rights, but the only right the Constitution explicitly extends to both men and women is the right to vote.

The E.R.A., a proposed amendment to the Constitution, would guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex. It would also require states to intervene in cases of gender violence, such as domestic violence and sexual harassment; it would guard against pregnancy and motherhood discrimination; and it would federally guarantee equal pay.

The ERA passed the Senate and then the House of Representatives, and then in 1972, the proposed 27th Amendment to the Constitution was sent to the states for ratification. Thirty-seven states have ratified it so far, meaning just one more is needed to make the ERA law. However, momentum for ratification came to a halt, thanks in part to Phyllis Schlafly, Due to her efforts and vitriolic debate, the deadline for ratification came and went.

That doesn’t mean that the ERA is dead on arrival though. Legal scholars believe that Congress can simply change the deadline again or do away with the deadline entirely and allow the ERA to be ratified. To that point, Nevada and Illinois have ratified the ERA in the last few years and now just one more state is needed to make the ERA law. 

The New York Times

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eBooks + Books

Discover eBook collections or find print books/materials through the catalog for each campus:


Suggested Websites

Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America

Her Story is a documentation of the breadth and diversity of American women's achievements throughout U.S. history.

National Women's Hall of Fame

Provides short bios of famous women and useful links to books and other websites about each person.

National Women's History Museum

Click on "education & resources" and find links to biographies of famous women. Take part in interactive displays, listen to lectures and view exhibits.

National Women's History Project

Recognizes the achievements of women in all facets of life, with an emphasis on positive role models.

The Real Rosie the Riveter Project

An archive of filmed oral histories representing 48 women from diverse backgrounds.




Explore how the Women’s Suffrage Parade on Washington in 1913 helped women secure the right to vote in the United States through the 19th amendment.