“The Evolution of Women’s Rights Under the U.S. Constitution”
Posted on October 17, 2023 by Sandra Huffman
In recognition of Constitution Week, Joshua Wheeler, Assistant Professor of Political Science, presented a talk on “The Evolution of Women’s Rights Under the U.S. Constitution,” on September 20. Through graphics, short videos and quotes, he presented an overview of how constitutional rights become law and how these laws provided or restricted women’s rights. His discussion began with the basic understanding of the two ways in which this occurs: either amending the text of the constitution, or judicial interpretation. He described how almost all the rights under the constitution are not affirmative rights at all. Instead, they check the government’s ability to restrict rights.
Regarding women’s history, Wheeler explained how in 1920, fifteen states already provided women the right to vote prior to the passing of the 19th amendment, because there was nothing in the constitution that addressed who could legislate this right. The passing of this amendment legislated that the government could not deny the right to vote based on sex, which, as a result, made it legal for women to vote in all states. Later in 1972, women tried to amend the constitution again to pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), but momentum slowed as conservative activists, like Phyllis Schlafly, put forth scare tactics that influenced the states who were to ratify the amendment. The lack of votes needed killed the ERA.
Judicial interpretation has done more for women’s rights than amendments, said Wheeler. The 14th amendment of 1868, he explained, includes several provisions that would deny states the ability to discriminate against women, particularly with the right to vote. Twentieth century cases refer to this amendment often. One of the most influential justices to support women’s rights, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, advocated and played a major role in the litigation of many cases that expanded the constitutional rights of women under this amendment.
Wheeler ended his presentation by noting how women’s rights are the most controversial political issue of the last 50 years because of the 1973 decision in Roe v Wade, which held that the constitution gives women the right to choose to have an abortion. In 2020, SCOTUS reversed that decision, which pushed the ability to regulate this right back to state control.
September 17 is Constitution Day and Citizenship Day (Constitution Day). This day commemorates the September 17, 1787, signing of the United States Constitution. Each educational institution that receives Federal funds for a fiscal year is required to hold an educational program about the U.S. Constitution for its students.