12 Important Women's Rights History Moments That You Didn't Know About

The struggle for women's equality in America seems so simple on paper. We fought for and eventually won the rights to inherit money and land, vote, own property, receive equal pay, and generally be treated as equal citizens to men, right? But the story of women's rights in America hasn't been a smooth one — it's been a rocky road, with great triumphs, huge setbacks, and amazing moments that the history books leave out.

Today, in honor of Women's History Month, learn about some of the most important moments in American women's history — the ones that you didn't hear about in school. We've all read about the feminist accomplishments of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, but what about Margaret Brent? Or Frances Perkins? Or Victoria Woodhull? Or the other unsung women who helped us down the road to equal rights? Their achievements deserve our attention, too.

Here are 12 crucial moments in the history of American women's rights that you probably didn't know about — but definitely should.

1648: Margaret Brent Demands "A Vote & A Voyce"

Margaret Brent was, by any standard, an amazing woman. Born in 1601 in England, she emigrated to the colonies, and was the first female lawyer in America. Brent practiced her legal skills in over 100 cases, and was so highly regarded that the Governor of Maryland chose her as the executor of his will. In 1648, she made a formal request for “A Vote And A Voyce” in the Maryland Assembly. In her own words, she “Protested against all proceedings … unless she may be present and have vote as aforesaid.” She didn’t get American women the vote, but it was a hell of a start.

Image: National Geographic Society

1776: Abigail Adams Wants Women In The Declaration Of Independence

Abigail Adams, wife of second President of the United States John Adams, threatened him with serious consequences if he forgot about the rights of women while he was writing the Declaration of Independence in 1776. “If perticular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or Representation,” she wrote. He replied by saying that it would probably not be possible, writing of her demands, “I cannot but laugh.”

Image: Wikimedia Commons

1839: Married Women Get The Right To Own Property In Mississippi

Before 1839, wives basically had no legal existence separate from their husbands in the United States. They couldn’t earn their own money, own their own property, receive inheritances, or sign contracts. But that began to change with the Married Women’s Property Act. Connecticut had allowed women to write their own wills as early as 1809, but the Mississippi act of 1839 meant that for the first time, women could own and control property, inherit it on their own outside their marriage, and maintain their own finances. It was the first in a series of state laws expanding the scope of women’s legal lives.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

1848: Suffragists Sign The Declaration Of Sentiments

You probably know about the formation of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1890 — but half a century earlier, one of the Suffrage Association’s main leaders, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, organized a groundbreaking women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York. The convention’s attendees (68 women and 32 men) signed the Declaration Of Sentiments, a document based on the Declaration of Independence, demanding rights for women.

It pointed out that married women were “civilly dead”, that women had an “inalienable right” to vote, and that education, property, wages, and ”all the avenues to wealth and distinction” were exclusively and undeservedly male. You tell ‘em!

Image: The National Endowment for the Humanities.

1851: Sojourner Truth Delivers Her "Ain't I A Woman" Speech

At the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851, emancipated slave Sojourner Truth asked to deliver some impromptu remarks. The result was one of the most powerful speeches in American history. She explained that she was as strong as a man, and that arguments that women were less intelligent than men was no impediment to giving them rights: “If a woman have a pint, and a man a quart – why can’t she have her little pint full?”

She followed that up by pointing out that Christ came into the world because of Mary – a woman. The speech, which was transcribed from the memories of attendees, went on to become a landmark work in both the women’s and civil rights struggle in America.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

1870: Esther McQuigg Becomes The First Female Justice Of The Peace

Esther McQuigg became the first female Justice Of The Peace in America in 1870 — because her male predecessor resigned in protest against women’s suffrage. McQuigg’s home state, Wyoming, had given state votes to women in 1869, and when the previous Justice of the Peace threw a tantrum about it, the state brought in McQuigg to replace him. Her disapproving husband made a huge scene about it — and she threw him in jail. McQuigg’s legacy regarding women’s suffrage in general is contested by many, but there’s no question that her appointment was a huge step forward for women in American government.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

1872: Victoria Claflin Woodhull Tries To Run For President

Victoria Woodhull was a woman of firsts. She was the first woman in America to run a brokerage firm, among the first to found a newspaper, and — most notably — the first woman to run for President, in 1872. Though Woodhull herself was a controversial figure (she made money off of the medically questionable practice of “magnetic healing” and sometimes published tabloid stories), her party, the Equal Rights Party, advocated for women’s and civil rights, and wanted women to have the ability to marry and divorce without government interference.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

1872: Illinois Passes A Bill Allowing Women To Join Every Profession

19-year-old Alta Hullet had trained as a lawyer, but when the state of Illinois refused her admission to the bar, she and Ada Kepley — another thwarted female law school graduate — went to work. In 1872, they successfully lobbied the Illinois state government to sign into law America’s first anti-sexual discrimination act, which they’d drafted themselves. It read, “Be it enacted by the people of the State of Illinois represented in the General Assembly, that no person shall be precluded or debarred from any occupation, profession or employment (except military) on account of sex.”

Image: The Chicago Bar Association

1903: The National Women's Trade Union League Is Formed

The National Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) was the first woman-focused collection of trade unions in America. The organization worked to improve working conditions for women and expand their legal rights. For example, they agitated for safer working conditions for garment workers after 1911’s horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, a disaster in which 146 (mostly female) workers burned to death due to lack of proper exits. One of the group’s leaders, Rose Schneiderman, delivered the famous line about a worker’s need for dignity: “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

1911: Annie Peck Climbs A Mountain For Women's Rights

One of the first American female adventurers and academics, Annie Smith Peck earned a Masters in Greek from the University of Michigan in 1881 — but her great contribution to women’s rights was the publicity stunt to end them all. In 1911, at the ripe old age of 61, Peck — who’d climbed set records climbing the Matterhorn and mountains all over South America — climbed Mount Coropuna in Peru and unfurled a flat saying “WOMEN’S VOTE” at the summit. The newspapers loved it, and it gave the movement greater visibility.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

1933: Frances Perkins Becomes The First Female Cabinet Member

Women in the US got the vote in 1920, but it wasn’t until 1933 that a woman became part of the inner sanctum of government — the President’s Cabinet. Frances Perkins was appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt as Secretary of Labor, and didn’t waste any time: she established the first minimum wage laws, became one of the key authors of the New Deal, and helped pass the Social Security Act of 1935.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

1968: Sex-Segregated Job Ads Are Made Illegal

The most prominent feminist activists of the ’60s, like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, tend to get most of the press for the era’s gender equality achievements — but several quiet legal victories also made waves. Newspaper publishers were shocked in 1968 when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that “help wanted” ads couldn’t be segregated by sex. The decision was backed up by the Supreme Court in 1973, allowing women to enter previously male-dominated parts of the workforce.

Images: Express Museum; Wikimedia Commons; Global Libraries Commons.