Women's Rights in the 1950s

Written by justin beach
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Women's Rights in the 1950s
Working women were rarely seen in 1950s film and television. (George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

By 1950 American women had come a long way, but had a long way to go. During World War II women had entered the work force in record numbers, but now that the war was over, many returned home and their jobs were taken over by the men. The next wave of women's rights laws wouldn't come until the early- to mid-1960s when the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, which meant that women who did the same jobs as men were still paid less.

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In the 1950s professional jobs were still largely closed off to women. It was not unusual for companies to have a written policy that stated that women should be paid less than men. On average, women earned only 60 per cent of what men did. In addition, many women faced pressure from their families to stay home and not work at all outside the home. By 1960 only 3.5 per cent of lawyers and 2 per cent of business executives were women. By comparison, in 2005 30 per cent of all lawyers were women, and 73 per cent of women were working in "white collar" jobs. Since 1982 women have earned more university degrees than men -- as of 2004 they earned 58 per cent of all bachelor's and master's degrees and 44 per cent of all doctoral degrees.


In addition to facing family and social pressures to stay home, cook and raise children, women's rights in the home were severely limited. In many states women's property rights were still restricted. In some states women could not make contracts, including wills. They also could not sell property and in many cases they could not control their own earnings. All of these were the legal right of the woman's husband or father.

In almost every state, men had the right to have sex with their wife any time they wanted to, with or without her consent. There was, in other words, no such thing as rape if a couple was married, and any form of birth control was still illegal in many places. The combination of these two meant that a woman was almost legally obligated to have children if her husband wanted them.

Politics and Government

In politics and social situations, women were second-class citizens. They had the right to vote since 1920 but did not hold office in any large numbers. As of 1960, only 234 of 7700 state legislators and no governors were women; only two of the 100 U.S. Senators and 15 of the 435 members of the House of Representatives were women. There were no women on the Supreme Court and only two of the 307 federal district judges were women.

Women of Color

Women of colour faced all of the restrictions and limitations imposed on white women and all of the restrictions and limitations faced by racial minorities. In 1955 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus to a white man. Her arrest for that refusal led to a year-long boycott of the city's bus system and the civil rights movement in the U.S.

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