A Short History of Women’s Rights PART 1: My Great Grandmother
A Short History of Women’s Rights - Because It Is a Very Short History
Gather round, My Sisters. It’s Perspective Time. Are you in your 20s, 30s, 40s? I hope so. Because you are in for a ride. The reason this is titled ‘A Short History’ is because it is, in fact, a short history. The United States is 240 years old, and rights for women – most notably, the federal recognition of half the population’s right to vote – was established in 1920. Only 96 years ago. That’s two ladies back to back! Not old! And like, recent, soon, not ancient history! (Credit for the above analogy to Louis C.K.) Winning women’s rights in this country was hard-fought, over many decades, and they are in jeopardy today.
The civil rights of women in the United States can be illustrated in four generations. Four women, from my great-grandmother who came to this country in 1910, to me, privileged white chick.
Before we get into the thick of it, I want to make clear this is mainly about federal rights. You may read along and think, “Hold the phone! – My state enacted these rights years before this!” And you are probably right! States often lead the way in positive policy changes (look at what’s happening with marijuana laws today) and federal law finally catches up. On the downside, it can go the other way – states can stonewall and erode federal rights, which we will include. This is most notable for women of color, with Jim Crow laws. We’ll also look at Texas, particularly for current women’s rights shitty undermined developments.
Let’s hit it!
Ernestine, 1891 - 1973
My great-grandmother, Ernestine Machacek, was a girl from a wealthy family in Bohemia. After the death of her mother, her father married a very young woman who did not care for her – there was only room in the inheritance for the new son, half-brother to Ernestine. My great-grandfather, John Ezer, fell in love with Ernestine. A senior officer in the Calvary of Kaiser Wilhelm II, he deserted before the war, not wanting to get into it and get killed and all. He asked Ernestine to run away with him – literally. To the States. With nothing.
Kaiser Wilhelm II, King of Prussia, Emperor of Germany. Thanks for everything, Dude. If you hadn’t been keen on war, I’d be a very wealthy aristocrat right now. Not that I really care, but I care a little. And let’s add bringing on a World Fucking War - What a dick!
Well, more nothing for her than for him. Here are the federally-recognized rights my great-grandmother had, as a single woman, when she arrived in the States:
No right to own property. No right to vote. No right to be part of a jury. No right to retain any earnings from her own work. No right to any aspect of credit or ownership without her father or husband’s consent.
One of the first women’s rights statutes was passed in 1848, the Women’s Property Act. It granted married women the right to keep their own wages and to own property. Sweet! She can keep the wages she ACTUALLY EARNED THROUGH HER OWN WORK! No handing it over to her husband! Of course, this law didn’t cover single women. Sorry single women who had not landed a husband, those wages go to your father! And if you were a woman of color? You were probably a slave, so you had no rights at all.
In 1872, Congress passed a law granting female federal employees equal pay for equal work. This right was not extended to the majority of female employees who work for private companies or state and local governments until the adoption of the Equal Pay Act in 1963. Let’s read that again – the first federal equal pay act was passed in 1872, and the more inclusive act wasn’t passed until 91 years later, just before I was born. We are STILL fighting that fight, Ladies.
Meanwhile, state Jim Crow laws started being enacted in the 1880s, and were alive and well into the 1950s.
Ernestine lived until 1973. The year Roe v. Wade was decided. My great-grandmother, whose husband deserted World War 1. The right to a private abortion, a women’s own decision, was recognized only 44 years ago.
Next week! Lyn takes a look at the rights of her grandmother, Annie (1918 – 2000).