A Survey of Women’s Issues in the 19th and 20th Centuries

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Photo Credit: American suffragists,  members of the American contingent that took part in the Women’s Social and Political Union’s 23 July 1910 procession, monochrome photo, World’s Graphic Press Limited: LSE Library/Flickr/No known copyright restrictions

Women have had a lot to fight for since women’s suffragism came to the forefront in the 19th century, and we’re still fighting. But what are those issues, particularly during the Gilded Age, the Progressive Era, and the era of “Occupation: Housewife”?

In the 19th century, organized suffragism was born of a group of brave women whose names are branded in history like Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. During this time, suffragists focused first on getting society to recognize women were equals to men (with limitations dictated by the separate spheres, of course — no use rocking the boat too much). But later, their focus shifted to one solitary goal: to win women the right to vote. Why was this so important? Suffragists were smart enough to realize that without the right to vote, they would never be able to implement changes into public policy that would carry through to future generations. 

When progressive movements took center stage at the turn of the 20th century, suffragism continued with women such as Jane Addams, Alice Paul, and Ida B. Wells. Women achieved success when the 19th Amendment was ratified in the United States in 1920. The Progressive Era increased awareness for many women that equality wasn’t just about the right to vote. It was also about psychological freedom and throwing off the shackles of 19th-century femininity limiting what women could and could not do and be. In that light, the New Woman was born: active, athletic, and freer in body and spirit than her mother and grandmother had been.

After the fight for suffragism and breaking the stereotype of the Victorian “angel in the house”, the post-World War” II generation brought back a more modern version of the angel. Betty Friedan labeled her “the feminine mystique”. Magazines, advertisements, and doctors advocated for a woman’s place in the home and her identity became tied to her relationships with others rather than her identity in and of itself. Friedan found these women in American suburbs living a life that fulfilled this destiny, but they were not happy because they suffered from The Problem That Has No Name. These women felt discontented and frustrated as if something was missing from their lives but they couldn’t define what it was.

Friedan’s book inspired others to speak out about their frustration and disillusionment, eventually leading to second-wave feminism in the late 1960s and 1970s with activists such as Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Bell Hooks, among others. These women, whose slogan was “the personal is political” went further into the political sphere than their 19th and early 20th century sisters. They zoomed in on social and personal oppressions, including issues such as domestic violence, rape, and reproductive rights. 

Friedan’s book and others that identified the same disillusionment with the feminine mystique eventually led into the second-wave feminist movement in the late 1960s and 1970s with activists such as Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Bell Hooks, among others. These women, whose slogan was “the personal is political” went further than the political sphere of the 19th and early 20th-century suffragists. They honed in on more social and personal oppression of women, including issues such as domestic violence, rape, and reproductive rights. 

I discovered feminism when I was in college, and it opened up a whole new world for me. Until then, I had very little knowledge of what women before me had been up against, nor did I really have a sense of my own oppression. My well-meaning family followed a very patriarchal model, as my parents came of age in the era of “Occupation: Housewife”. I discovered women’s fiction in college and started exploring historical texts like Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929). Since then, my writing has always brought in elements of women’s psychological and social issues embedded in the characters’ psychological reality. For example, in Pathfinding Women, the third book of my Gilded Age family saga, the Waxwood Series, Vivian Alderdice begins to question the conventional path of a wealthy young woman followed by her mother and grandmother when she befriends Nettie Grace, a working-class women, and suffragist. Similarly, the five stories in Lessons From My Mother’s Life were inspired by my reading of The Feminine Mystique.

If you’d like to know more about my Waxwood Series, you can check out this page. The first book of the series, The Specter, is at 99¢. And you can find out more about the issues of post-war suburban housewives in America and how some fought back in my short story collection Lessons From My Mother’s Life.

Want to explore the nooks and crannies of history that aren’t in the history books? Like social and psychological history and not just historical events? Want in on exclusive sneak peeks, giveaways, and surveys? Then sign up for my newsletter! You’ll get a free short story when you do.

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Author: tammayauthor

As soon as Tam May started writing at the age of fourteen, writing became her voice. She writes historical women’s fiction and historical cozy mysteries. She loves to take readers into the nooks and crannies of the past, and she wants to inspire readers with her resilient and autonomous female characters. Most of her fiction is set in and around the San Francisco Bay Area because she fell in love with the city and found her independence and writing voice when she lived there in the 1990s. Her book Lessons From My Mother’s Life debuted at #1 in its category on Amazon. She’s also published a Gilded age family saga set among San Francisco’s Nob Hill elite titled the Waxwood Series which follows the Alderdices as they discover their place amidst revolutionary changes and shifting values in the last decade of the 19th century. Tam’s current project is a historical cozy mystery series titled The Paper Chase Mysteries. The series takes place in Northern California at the turn of the 20th century and features amateur sleuth and epistolary expert Adele Gossling, a progressive and independent young woman whose talent for solving crimes comes into direct conflict with her new community apt to prefer the previous era's angel in the house to the current century’s New Woman. Tam lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area “home”. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature, watching classic films, cross-stitching, or cooking yummy vegetarian dishes.

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