The timeline of feminism and what can be learned from historical female figures

Women’s History Month gives the public a chance to reflect on the accomplishments of women while staying mindful of how far the feminist movement has yet to go.  

Looking to past events in the feminist movement can set the stage for the advancement of women. While there have been many important moments and individuals that played vital roles, here are some notable ones to remember. 

Early feminist literature of the 18th and 19th century

History associate professor Stephanie Cole said looking to early feminist literature and theory reminds her of the work that women from the past accomplished to get women’s rights where they are today. 

Cole said one example of an early book discussing feminist theory is A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft, an 18th-century British feminist writer. 

The book, published in 1792, discusses the importance of opportunities for women’s education and challenged the notion that women exist only to please men, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica website. 

Another early work, The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, a 20th century French feminist writer, captured the idea of double standards between men and women and what was expected societally, Cole said.  

Beauvoir’s early feminist theory challenged society’s ideas of femininity, gender roles and how women in general were perceived, Cole said. 

The first co-ed college

Oberlin College in Ohio was the first co-ed college in America, admitting four women in 1837.

This was an important event for the feminist movement, marketing freshman Wendy Martinez said. To her, all women deserve an education if they choose to pursue it. 

Colleges excluding a whole gender for several hundred years is upsetting to think about, Martinez said. 

“You’re limiting so much knowledge that could be attained just because you don’t want to listen to a woman,” she said. 

The suffrage movement and ratification of the 19th amendment

The suffrage movement won women the right to vote in 1920 when the 19th Amendment was ratified. The decision came following a long battle by suffragettes like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, according to

When social work assistant professor Brittanie Ash thinks about important moments in women’s history, her mind immediately goes to suffrage, she said. 

Personally, Ash is motivated by the female activists that came before her, who chose to participate in civil actions like voting and fighting for inclusion, justice and people-centered movements, she said. 

“Our collective right to vote is so powerful historically and even today,” she said.

However, despite this accomplishment, Black women, Native American women and other marginalized groups still faced discrimination and obstacles before the ability to vote.

Additionally, the 19th amendment only removed sex as a barrier, as opposed to giving all women the right to vote as many believe, Cole said. 

The creation and legalization of birth control 

In the 1950s, Margaret Sanger, founder of what later became Planned Parenthood, teamed up with biologist Gregory Pincus to conduct research on hormones for use as contraception. 

With funding from Sanger’s close collaborator, Katharine Dexter McCormick, Pincus was able to conduct research that revealed a suppression in animal ovulation through a synthetic hormone

In May 1960, the first oral contraceptive, Enovid, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for public use. Almost 6.5 million women in the U.S. were on the pill by 1965. 

For business freshman Sui Par, the feminist movement is all about giving women opportunities, and the creation of birth control gave women a choice in terms of when to start a family, she said. 

Women having a chance to establish what they want for themselves instead of staying under men’s control was an important change in history, Par said. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was first proposed by former president John F. Kennedy and signed into law by former president Lyndon B. Johnson in July that year, according to The act ended segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or nation of origin. 

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 began dismantling legal obstacles like literacy tests at the state and local levels that prevented Black Americans, including women, from voting under their 15th amendment rights.

For Cole, these two pieces of legislation were important because they had enforcement mechanisms behind them if not followed, she said.

The formation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was an important part of abolishing racial bias, Cole said. But the group didn’t tackle gender discrimination, which is why the National Organization of Women was formed. 

The organization acted as a lobbying group and watchdogs of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which didn’t always properly uphold its values, Cole said.  

The formation of NOW

The National Organization of Women was formed in 1966 and is currently the biggest grassroots organization of feminists in the U.S. The group still works to achieve social, economic and political equality for women through lobbying, lawsuits, marches, rallies and more. 

The core issues they face are reproductive rights, economic and racial justice, ending violence against women, LGBTQIA+ rights and upholding constitutional equality for women, according to their site. 

The group was and is still important because its inception during the early second wave of feminism forced women to acknowledge how issues surrounding race and class were a part of feminist causes, Cole said.  

Women, and especially minority women, have fought for justice and equality throughout history, Ash said. Learning and educating others about those milestones is important, along with listening to those who were speaking up but rarely heard. 


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