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Key Drivers for Equal Opportunities for Men and Women

| October 9, 2012 | 0 Comments

Abstract: This essay looks at the struggle for equal opportunities for men and women during the 20th Century. Driven primarily by unequal opportunities and artificial gender roles, the 20th Century was a period for reimagining and redefining women’s role in the labour force, in politics, and at home. Looking at three major factors: labour, vote, and politics. The essay explores the key drivers for equal opportunities.

The movement for equal opportunities for men and women during the 20th century brought to the forefront the inherent problematic nature of the normal order of male and female, domestic and public. ‘Until [the] late 1960’s…most men and women tended to agree that the normal order of family life properly subsumed women within its boundaries, rendering their needs and desires as well as rights and obligations secondary’ (Kessler-Harris, 2001:3).  To many people the ‘natural order’ was the acceptable norm, however during the 20th century the struggle for equal opportunities within the labour force and elsewhere showed that women were becoming disillusioned by their roles in society. Driven primarily, but not exclusively, by the right to the vote, labour during and post WWI and WWII, and the acceptance of women in the political sphere, equal opportunities became more than the rallying cry of women during the 20th century. This essay will explore the ways in which these three factors affected and perpetuated the conditions for one of the most extreme and controversial periods in women’s history. Focusing primarily on theUnited States of America it will argue that although the material drivers played a key role it was women’s desire to challenge and redefine their roles that propelled the idea of equal opportunities forth.

The differences and boundaries that have governed the identities of male and female actors in society have been constructed principally by ‘work, [and] wage work’ (Kessler-Harris, 2001:4). Considering the notion that female and male identities were established along the ‘socially constructed and artificial’ boundaries of labour, the vacuum created in the labour force due to WWI and WWII made available a new kind of identity for women (Hakim, 2006:279). ‘The war drew many women into the labor force’, however when the war ended they were expected to return to the drudgery of domestic life (Acemoglu et al., 2004:499). The combined effects of the link between ‘wage work to tangible, publicly provided rewards’, such as the act established by the American government in 1930, and the freedom’s awarded women during the war period provided one of the foundations for women’s movements (Kessler-Harris, 2001:4). Although labor practices varied from country to country most maintained the same unequal practices in regards to men and women’s benefits and the rigid division of labor. ‘Early women’s rights advocates had taken an uncompromising stand on almost all issues and set out to eliminate the rigid division of labor between men and women’ (Chafe, 1992:4).  Labor became a major issue of contention and one of the main drivers for equal opportunities. One could argue that women’s newfound freedom in the labor force provided them with a glimpse of an alternate identity and generated their fight for the vote.

‘Women’s suffrage is seen as a benchmark in women’s political and social experience’ (Chafe, 1992:3). ‘The suffrage movement…was a coalition of different people and organizations that worked together…around the common goal of votes for women’ (Freeman, 1995). For the most part the movement proved to be a vital instrument in liberating women and obtaining them the vote. The mobilization of women was immense; from ‘ordinary’ housewives to politicians to beauty pageant participants, there was an extraordinary sense of comradeship in their combined goal. Women were crossing the artificial barriers put in place by society and ‘whatever the hated symbols of oppression were, women were saying that what is most personal is political’ they were essentially challenging and ‘redefining their roles as wives, mothers, [and] workers’ (Murray, 2011). In 1920 with the passing of the 19th amendment American women finally became eligible to vote. As Jenni Murray rightly states in her article: ‘let it never be said that women were given the vote – it was hard fought for and won!’ (Murray, 2011). In America as in the rest of the western world women’s suffrage was a key driver for equal opportunities for men and women. Considering women’s struggle for the vote, and the desire for recognition within the labor force, it is clear that these were key drivers in the campaign for equal opportunities. Women’s desire for recognition as legitimate actors within society, alongside the changing circumstances of the 20th Century were indeed the very fabric of the push for equal opportunities. This is seen predominantly in politics, the arena in which women’s struggle for the vote, and wage labor, came into fruition.

In theUnited States of America, with theUnited Kingdomas exception, women’s political stance was most recognizable. Women played an active role inWashingtonas key political actors in a male dominated sphere. The creation of NAWSA (National American Woman Suffrage Association), and later the Woman’s Joint Congressional Committee proved that women could participate within a male dominated sphere and band together to form coherent and legitimate political strategies (Freeman, 1995). As Freeman states in his article the Woman’s Joint Congressional Committee was recognized by some as ‘the most organized and powerful lobby inWashington’ (Freeman, 1995). It was one of the key drivers in propelling women into the world of men, proving to them and each other that they were capable of participating on equal grounds with their male counterparts.

The struggle for equal opportunities in theUnited States of America, and indeed in the rest of the western world, was one fuelled by a variety of phenomena. The fight for wage work, the push for the vote, and the appearance of women within the political sphere were merely the principle factors in an otherwise multifaceted move for equality. Although all these beg equal recognition as key drivers, perhaps the most significant driver for equal opportunities was women’s drive and desire during the period. Indeed one could say that the time was ripe for redefining and challenging the roles put in place by society and government policies. The war and post-war period created a vacuum not only in labor force but also in the very fabric of what was ordinarily accepted as the ‘normal order of family life’ (Kessler-Harris, 2001:4).



  • Acemoglu D., Autor D. H., Lyle D., 2004, Women, War, and Wages: The Effect of Female Labor Supply on the Wage Structure at Midcentury, Journal of Political Economy, 2004, vol. 112, no. 3


  • Chafe, W. H., 1992, The Paradox of Change: American Women in the 20th Century,OxfordUniversityPress


  • Freeman, J., 1995, From Suffrage To Women’s Liberation: Feminism In Twentieth Century America, Published in Women: A Feminist Perspective ed. by Jo Freeman,Mountain View,Calif: Mayfield, 5th edition, 1995, pp. 509-28.


  • Hakim, C., 2006, Women, careers, and work-life Preferences, British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, Vol. 34, No. 3, August 2006


  • Kessler-Harris, A., 2001, In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in 20th-CenturyAmerica,OxfordUniversityPress


  • Murray, J., 2011, 20th CenturyBritain: The Woman’s Hour, BBC


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Category: Essay & Dissertation Samples, History Essay Examples

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