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Hindsight: Speaking Truth To Power

Jordan Kirtley / KMUW

Hold a credit card, buy a house, or take out a loan in her own name.

Serve on a jury.

Be pregnant and keep your job.

Attend military academies and Ivy League schools.

Refuse sex from husbands.

Fight on the front lines.

Take legal action against sexual harassment at work.

Access contraceptives of her choice.

Even as American women won the right to vote in 1920, they could do none of these things on their own. 

Sometimes barred by law and sometimes by custom, this list just scratches the surface of inequality and inequity that assumed women were primarily and naturally wives and mothers, and therefore did not need access to the fullest possible public and personal life. 

The fight for suffrage had taken more than 70 years, and yet American women would need the rest of the 20th century to expand their rights. As in previous generations, women built on previous movements and developed new ones, putting pressure on public and private institutions to demand rights. But from World War II to the end of the century, women of all different backgrounds, classes, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and experiences increasingly  challenged white middle class women as the sole purveyors of feminism, and arbiters of women’s rights. But women also used the political system, the federal court system, the power of organizing, and the strength of their individual—and alarmingly common—experiences to speak truth to power, demanding the equal rights, access, and justice promised in American life. And they are still fighting for equality in the 21st century.

On this episode of Hindsight, we will explore women’s activism from World War II to the present day. We will examine the ways in which women used war and government work to expand economic and professional opportunities, while others remained unconvinced that equal access would improve their lives. We will discover how a little-known section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided the opening wedge to end discrimination on the basis of sex. And we will see how women of color, lesbians, Chicanas, and working-class women challenged what constituted women’s rights and what was worth fighting for.

Dr. Robin C. Henry holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Indiana University and is an associate professor in the history department at Wichita State University. Her research examines the intersections among sexuality, law, and regional identity in the 19th- and early 20th-century United States.