Social Movements in America: The Fight for Equality


By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D., George Mason University

America was established as a democracy, but it was a particularly weak one. We credit the American civil rights movement as helping to significantly expand democracy and civil rights in the country. Let us take a look at the policy of affirmative action and the women’s suffrage movement that can be seen as a precursor of the civil rights movement in America.

An African-American woman using a megaphone to protest.
History witnessed a multitude of movements and protests toward achieving civil rights for all in America. (Image: Motortion Films/Shutterstock)

The End of the Jim Crow Era in America

The election of 1960, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, was a turning point in the struggle against racial discrimination. To win the election, Kennedy supported civil rights as a central theme of his campaign. Kennedy won the election but was assassinated in November 1963 before civil rights legislation could be enacted.

With a promise to carry out Kennedy’s legacy, his Vice President, Lyndon Johnson, a southerner (from Texas) himself, oversaw the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act—landmark policies that fundamentally changed the course of American history. 

These laws effectively ended the Jim Crow era in the South. Moreover, the strategic choice of elite Democrats to help end systematic disenfranchisement of African Americans created a strong bond of partisan loyalty between the Democratic Party and the African American community that remains to this day.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the US Government. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Rise of Affirmative Action

Affirmative Action refers to a policy that uses some form of preferential weighing of individuals in order to achieve diversity. 

In an attempt to achieve a more diverse employee or student population, companies or universities enacted policies that provided some preferential treatment to candidates from minority backgrounds. 

There were three key Supreme Court cases that addressed the legality of affirmative action.

Regents of University of California v. Bakke Case

A group of young protesters holding placards asking for justice.
Racial discrimination was a significant problem in the United States bringing about various movements and actions. (Image: AlessandroBiascioli/Shutterstock)

In 1978, a white student sued the university for racial discrimination upon being twice denied admission to medical school at the University of California, Davis. 

The Supreme Court agreed with Bakke that using race as a criterion was “suspect”. The Court ruled that schools could not set aside seats for students using a race-based quota system to achieve a diverse student body, they also found that the use of race as a criterion in admissions decisions in higher education was constitutionally permissible.

Hopwood v. Texas Case

In 1996, a case was decided not in the Supreme Court, but in the Fifth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals—one step below the Supreme Court. 

The Fifth Circuit Court ruled that race could not be considered at all as a factor in university admissions. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case on appeal, which meant that the ruling of the Fifth Circuit became the legal standard for all states under its jurisdiction.

Grutter v. Bollinger Case

In 2003, the Supreme Court gave a ruling in a case that has put affirmative action on its strongest footing yet. The ruling stated that racial considerations can sometimes be utilized to serve a compelling state interest.

In upholding the University of Michigan Law School’s affirmative action program that took race into account (minus quotas), the Supreme Court provided a legal blessing to a key system many companies/universities utilized to help achieve racial diversity goals.

Learn more about the Supreme Court’s role in politics and government.

The Revolution of Women’s Rights Movement

Throughout the late 1800s, thanks to Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two key figures in the women’s suffrage movement, some states granted women the right to vote. However, women did not gain federal protection for their right to vote until 1920, with the ratification of the 19th amendment.

A golden statue of a woman holding the scales.
Women fought for equality for almost a century, sacrificing for future generations. (Image: Micheal Kalasek/Shutterstock)

After securing voting rights, the women’s rights movement sought further civil rights (protection from discrimination based on sex) and advocated that the US adopt an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. Section One of the proposed amendment reads:

Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

The proposal became known as the ERA.

Feminism vs. Anti-Feminism and the Fate of ERA

In 1972, during the peak of the movement known as second wave feminism, the House of Representatives passed the ERA by an overwhelming 354 – 24 vote, and the Senate passed it with a vote of 84 – 8. Once passed by Congress, a constitutional amendment had to be ratified by three-quarters of state legislatures. 

Hence, the ERA had to be ratified by at least 38 states, and 30 did so within the first full year. By 1978, 35 states had ratified. At that point, anti-feminist organizations such as Eagle Forum Led by Phyllis Schlafly generated intense pressure against ratification. 

They argued that the amendment would be detrimental to American families and communities and would encourage women to eschew their traditional roles as caretakers or homemakers. Pro-ERA feminist groups became ineffective advocates for ratification because they were divided over the issue of abortion. 

But when the landmark Supreme Court case, Roe v. Wade was handed down in 1973, America’s focus on women’s issues heightened. In 1978, Congress extended the ratification deadline to 1982.

No new states ratified the ERA during this extension period, but some states rescinded their previous ratification, and ultimately the 10-year clock ran out. On January 27, 2020, however, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the ERA.

Learn more about American Democracy.

The Effects of ERA on Women’s Political and Social Status

Women continue to be underrepresented in political office. While about half the US population is female, in 2019, only 24% of US Congress members were women (30% for state legislators). 

Since 1971, however, the number of women serving in state legislatures has more than quintupled. Notably, as of 2019, the Nevada state legislature is more than 50% female, but in Mississippi, only 14% of state legislators are women. 

The first woman to serve in the US House of Representatives was Jeannette Rankin, elected as a Republican from Montana in 1916—before her right to vote was federally protected.

A Renewal of Feminist Social Movement

In recent years, women’s issues have gained increased public attention, leading some to suggest that we are entering a period of renewed feminist social movements. Various campaigns have led many victims of sexual harassment to go public about the abuses they’ve experienced. 

Several high-profile and powerful male executives have lost their jobs as a consequence of being exposed. Most were top news and entertainment heavy-hitters as well as several politicians.

Common Questions about Social Movements in America: The Fight for Equality

Q: Who supported civil rights as a central theme of his presidential campaign in 1960 in America?

To win the elections in 1960, John F. Kennedy made the civil rights his focus point during the presidential campaign.

Q: What is the ERA?

After securing voting rights, the women’s rights movement sought further civil rights (protection from discrimination based on sex) and advocated that the US adopt an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. The proposal became known as the ERA.

Q: When did women embark on their struggle for civil rights?

In the mid-1800s, women began their movement for civil rights.

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