ACLU History: Putting Women's Rights on the ACLU Agenda

The honor roll of early ACLU leaders who helped put women's rights on the organization's agenda includes not only Jane Addams and Crystal Eastman, but also Jeanette Rankin, Dorothy Kenyon and Pauli Murray.

Rankin, as the first woman elected to the House of Representatives, introduced a bill that would have allowed women citizenship independent of their husbands. She also opened the congressional debate on the right of women to vote, which was ratified as the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920, and became law on August 26, 1920.

Pauli Murray and Dorothy Kenyon were both longtime members of the ACLU Board of Directors, beginning in 1930 and 1965, respectively; and were also lifelong advocates for women's equality. Informed by her own experiences as a black woman, Murray drew connections between the legal status of women and that of African-Americans, using the term 'Jane Crow' in her scholarship. Kenyon was appointed to the League of Nations Committee on the Legal Status of Women from 1938 to 1940 and from 1947 to 1950 served as the first U.S. delegate to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women.

In 1944, ACLU founder Roger Baldwin asked Kenyon, a New York lawyer, to become chair of the ACLU's newly created Committee on Discrimination Against Women. Together with Murray and others, the committee lobbied for a federal equal pay for equal work bill (an issue that remains relevant in 2010, when women on average still make only 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man).

There was little popular support for such efforts – and indeed, little support for the notion of women's equality at all. In 1937, the ACLU made some headway with a lawsuit on behalf of 13 Connecticut schoolteachers who were denied reinstatement after going on maternity leave. Unfortunately, the lawsuit ended abruptly when the women withdrew after their husbands accused the ACLU of being a Communist organization.

By the post-World War II era, the momentum of the feminist movement that won suffrage and expanded women's rights in the early 20th century had waned. The media proclaimed the death of feminism and celebrated the happy, suburban housewife.

With the rise of the civil rights movement a decade later, feminists again made significant gains in the political arena. When Congress considered the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the ACLU was at the forefront of those lobbying for the addition of an amendment prohibiting sex discrimination in employment. After much debate, the Act was passed with such a prohibition in Title VII. But the movement to legally enforce these various instruments of equality would not fully emerge until nearly another decade had passed.


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