Bus Tour Newsletter #23 – August 2022

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Women’s Equality Day is August 26. Celebrated since 1971, it marks the anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which granted women the right to vote.

This month’s newsletter covers the history of legal protections based on sex in the U.S. and discusses the current state of civil rights for women.

A History of Federal Protections

In Oregon, women won the right to vote in 1912 — a full eight years before the 19th Amendment was ratified and women gained the right to vote across the nation. The beginnings of the women’s suffrage movement are strongly tied to the Black suffrage movement. However, many women were excluded from the women’s suffrage movement in Oregon because of their race and ethnicity.

Portland resident Mary Beatty was the first Black woman west of the Mississippi to publicly advocate for women’s suffrage. Beatty settled in Portland with her husband, James William Beatty, in 1864, and attempted to vote in the 1872 presidential election along with three white women — Abigail Scott Duniway, Maria P. Hendee, and Mary Ann King Lambert. Although she passed away before women gained the vote in Oregon, she played a major role in the achievement.

Mrs. Amanda Garvin, formerly enslaved, casts her first ballot in Portland Oregon, pictured in the Nov. 8, 1916, issue of the Oregonian. (Source: Oregon Historical Society/OHS.org)

Another major stride for women’s rights came in 1973 in the case of Roe v. Wade, when the Supreme Court ruled that unduly restrictive state regulation of abortion is unconstitutional. Women were often systematically denied the opportunity to build credit easily or earn income independently at that time. This ruling set a precedent that helped to ensure reproductive rights for multiple generations of Americans, allowing many women to participate in the workforce and gain economic independence. 

Prior to 1974, lenders could legally deny women loans and mortgages. In 1974, the Fair Housing Act was amended to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. This reform also helped to bolster women’s economic mobility. However, HUD had little power to enforce this reform until the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) of 1988 was passed. Up until then HUD’s role was limited to investigation and conciliation of discrimination complaints. 

The FHAA allows HUD to bring charges against a housing provider who violates Fair Housing law. Since it was passed, HUD has enforced protections specified in the 1974 amendment, including advertising indicating a gender preference; discrimination against survivors of domestic violence; sexual harassment/quid pro quo perpetrated by a landlord; and a landlord refusing to stop sexual harassment between tenants.

Before the FHAA was passed, there were also disparities in the quality of housing that single women could attain compared to men. For instance, divorced single mothers oftentimes had no choice but to settle for substandard housing where they might experience a lack of safety. Unfortunately, without the ability to enforce protections against discrimination based on sex, this type of disparity was common.

Women whose identities intersected with other protected classes, like disabled women and women of color, were even more at risk of discrimination and housing disparities. Women living in rural areas also oftentimes experienced greater discrimination than those living in urban areas due to a lack of enforcement of Fair Housing laws in rural areas.

Transgender women have also experienced extreme barriers to finding and keeping housing. While there are legal protections against this type of housing discrimination today, individuals whose identities are made up of intersecting protected classes continue to experience higher rates of housing discrimination than other groups.

The Fight for Equal Rights Continues

Although the struggle for equal political and economic power regardless of sex has come a long way over time, additional federal protections are needed to guarantee true equality for all. In the recent Supreme Court ruling in the Dobbs v. Jackson case, Roe v. Wade was overturned.

This ruling implies that state legislatures can determine the legality of abortion on a state-by-state basis. Since then, several states have passed anti-abortion legislation. Extreme legislation like this not only harms women’s reproductive health but potentially disempowers them economically and politically as well.

Abortion rights protestors (Source: Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash)

For instance, in states where abortion is illegal, someone who seeks an abortion can be charged with a felony. Their status as a felon can then be used to deny them the hard-won right to vote. It can then also make it harder for them to rent or own property due to widespread bias against people with criminal records in the housing realm.

There is also the question of the right to privacy and personal choice. There are certain unenumerated, or implied rights that could protect individuals from being prosecuted based on conversations that they hold in their own homes that involve seeking or having an abortion.

The Supreme Court ruling in the case of Lawrence v. Texas, involving sexual relations between two men in one of their homes, demonstrates the right to liberty based on the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Due Process Clause protection of the right to privacy regarding sexual relations was also cited in the case of Roe v. Wade, when the Court ruled that this right to privacy included a woman’s decision to have an abortion.

We are now seeing that these implied rights can be stripped away by the Supreme Court as quickly as they were granted. The U.S. Constitution does not explicitly guarantee that the rights it protects are held equally by all citizens without regard to sex. One piece of legislation that would help to solidify equal rights for women under the law is the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). As a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution, it seeks to end the legal distinctions between men and women in terms of divorce, property, employment, and other matters.

Oregon ratified the Equal Rights Amendment in 1973, but many states have yet to follow suit. There are many reasons why the ERA would be beneficial for the U.S., including improving its standing on human rights issues within the world community. Passing the ERA would also help provide a strong legal defense against potential threats to women’s rights that have been achieved in the past century, including the precedent set by Roe v. Wade.

Ways to Get Involved

If you are feeling activated and looking for a way to celebrate Women’s Equality Day this month, there are many opportunities to join the fight for equal rights.

Check out these organizations seeking to preserve and expand equal rights for all:


Women’s Rights Organizations

We want to hear from you

Is there a particular topic we discuss on the bus tour that you are interested in learning more about? Does your organization host events related to racial justice or other topics that come up on our bus tour? Email your events and ideas to information@fhco.org to have them included in our future newsletters. 

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