The mission of the Women’s Museum of California is to educate and inspire present and future generations about the experiences and contributions of diverse women by collecting, preserving, and interpreting their stories. We embrace our role as ana cultural institution that takes an active role in advancing the status and visibility of women. We are proud of our history as a purveyor of truths so that we can understand the past, grapple with our present, and navigate our way toward a better tomorrow.
Since our organization was founded in 1983, one way that we work to promote gender equality is by chronicling the history of the women’s movement. From the suffrage marches at the turn of the 20th century to the historic Women’s March of 2017, we honor the legacy of brave women who battled for our rights.
The history of the women’s movement from the 19th and 20th centuries, reveals that reproductive justice is foundational to women’s efforts to achieve gender equality. The fight we are in today is certainly not new.
For centuries, and up until the late 1800s, abortion was legal and widely practiced in the United States. Abortion was a safe, condoned, and practiced procedure in colonial America and common enough to appear in the legal and medical records of the period. If a woman living in New England in the 17th or 18th centuries wanted an abortion, no legal, social or religious force would have stopped her.
In 1880, anti-abortion legislation arose as a societal backlash against the growing movements of suffrage and birth control. Increased female independence perceived as a threat to male power and patriarchy were just one of many factors that informed the new restrictions. It opened the door to tightened governmental control over women’s health care and their lives.
What was once a private and personal decision regarding a woman’s health became public agenda adjudicated by the government. A campaign to criminalize abortion subjected women to fear, shame, and desperation. Poor women and women of color suffered disproportionately, as obtaining a safe abortion often depended on economic situation, race, and location. Too often, women resorted to dangerous, sometimes deadly, methods of ending their pregnancies.
In the mid-20th century, the women’s movement took the subject of abortion public. Women marched, rallied, and lobbied for abortion on demand. Civil liberties groups and liberal clergy joined in these efforts to support women. By the late 1960s, a nationwide effort was underway to reform the criminal abortion laws in effect in nearly every state.
On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme court announced its decision in Roe v. Wade, which recognized for the first time that the constitutional right to privacy “is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy”.
Women having safe access to reproductive health care in the United States has allowed women to make giant leaps in equality. Since the 1970s the number of women in the workforce has grown and so has women’s leadership in those places of labor. Women’s participation in higher education as well as their graduation rate has increased to outpace the number of men. These gains are due to the fact that women have been able to plan when and how they start a family and exercise control over their own reproductive health.
Now, the Court appears to be on the verge of overturning the right to an abortion, bringing a movement that transformed American politics over the past century to a standstill. But, if we have learned anything from history is that the determination and perseverance of women in our fight for freedom is formidable and must never be underestimated.
The Women’s Museum of California stands with our sisters who continue to battle injustice like so many women before us. We will join in the march and with every step we take, work to ensure that our country lives up to our most prized ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.