How Women’s Rights in the US Have Shifted in the Last 50 Years – A Comparison and Worried Rant

IN HONOR OF Women’s History Month and a belated post for International Women’s Day, I would like to highlight how, thanks to feminist activists and allies, women’s rights in the US have improved since 1970.

I want to celebrate those gains and the many, many courageous people, primarily women, who fought as well as those who continue to fight for true equality. 

Still, I worry about the state of women’s rights throughout the world. While it’s true that in my lifetime the world has generally improved how it treats women, I am appalled at the control that men still exert over women in so many places and in so many ways. It has never made sense to me that one-half of a population could have so much power over the other half. A power based entirely on physical and emotional violence. 

I can’t help but feel a sense of dread for the future of women as I look at the world through the lens of online news and social media.

In the US, religious right-wing and authoritarian political groups are using legislation and the courts to roll back women’s rights to basic sexual and reproductive rights, as well as protections against physical and sexual violence. 

In South Korea, Yoon Suk-yeol, recently rode the waves of an anti-feminist political movement to victory in the presidential election. 

The United Nations Human Rights Commission has reported about this backlash to women’s rights — and even the idea of gender equality — occurring throughout the world. And an anti-feminist coalition, led by religious fundamentalist actors from the US, Catholic and Islamic countries, and conservative nongovernmental organizations are working strategically on a global level to prevent and roll back continuing progress for women.  

Of course, this backlash isn’t new. It has been going on since forever. But it seems to have taken on a new intensity, which troubles me immensely.

So, as an antidote to my slippery slide of despairing thoughts, I want to focus on the positive progress we have made in the US over the last 50 years, as shown in the table below.

At least we can celebrate these. Let’s continue working to keep and expand upon these rights.


In 1970, women could not…

In 2022…

Obtain a legal abortion in most states.

Abortion, and reproductive rights in general, have been considered a constitutional right since the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade in 1973. This right is now under sustained attack by right wing politicians and religious nationalists. Already, abortion has been made inaccessible in a number of states, and a new case is being considered by the Supreme Court that directly challenges the 1973 decision. What will happen in 2022?

Get a loan or credit card in her own name.

Until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 was signed into law, women had to have a husband or other male cosign for a loan or to obtain a credit card.

Be guaranteed to keep her job if she got pregnant, and had no legal recourse if she got fired.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 prohibited sexual discrimination on the basis of pregnancy. Before that, getting pregnant often meant losing your job.

Could not serve on a jury or become a judge in many states. Women were deemed too “fragile” and emotional to understand the facts and objectively decide a case. 

The Civil Rights Act gave women the right to serve on federal juries, however it was not until 1973 that all 50 states passed similar legislation.

Could not be admitted to a military academy or fight in combat.

Although women were admitted to military academies as early as 1976, the ban on women in combat was not lifted until 2013. The right of women to engage in combat is still a controversial topic.

Could not take legal action against sexual harassment in the workplace.

Though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited workplace discrimination, sexual harassment was not included in the definition of discrimination. Over time, a series of cases and laws began to protect women, but it wasn’t  until 1977 when the U.S. Court of Appeals found that a woman’s supervisor had sexually harassed her and that harassment had violated the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, that women’s protection from sexual harassment at work became more commonplace.

Could not say no to sex if their husband wanted it.

As horrific as this is, marital rape did not become a crime in all 50 states until July 5, 1993. Many states still treat marital rape as less serious than non-marital rape.

Get health insurance at the same rate as a man.

Women were commonly charged more than men for health insurance until the practice was outlawed in 2010.

Get birth control if you were unmarried.

It was not until 1972, that the Supreme Court legalized birth control for unmarried women.

Get paid maternity leave.

In 2002, California became the first state to offer paid maternity leave. The fight for paid maternity leave is ongoing.

Could not breastfeed in public.

While this is still considered controversial in some places, it is protected by federal law, and all 50 states, DC, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands have laws allowing women to breastfeed anywhere.

Couldn’t become an astronaut. While there wasn’t a law against it, NASA didn’t allow women to interview for the position.

Sally Ride became the first female astronaut to go into space in 1983. 

Could not legally live with your opposite sex partner. Yep, that’s right. You could be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor for living with your intimate partner.

While cohabitation has become commonplace, and many states have “Domestic Partnerships” or “Common Law Marriage” legal provisions, there are still 2 states, Mississippi and Michigan, that have laws against cohabitation.

Couldn’t compete in all Olympic Games. 

Over the years, women have been breaking into previously forbidden sports. Starting in 2012, boxing was added to the list of sports women could compete in. We are still working on it. 


I would love to know your thoughts. When it comes to women’s rights, do you feel optimistic or not, and why?


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