March 9, 2009 to October 9, 2009

The exhibition opens on Monday, March 9, 2009, and runs through Friday, October 9, 2009, and will be on view in the Schlesinger Library's first floor exhibition area during regular library hours: Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

From its earliest days and throughout much of the 20th century, the American legal system created and sustained gender inequality. Because this systematic inequity grew out of common law, was woven into the fabric of the Constitution, and was given expression in a myriad of federal and state laws, the campaign to achieve equality has been long and hard fought. However, this same legal system has shown that just as it can constrain and restrict rights, it can also expand and enlarge them.

The pursuit of gender equality has been marked by bitter disputes over whether existing differences between men and women are biological in origin or socially constructed; whether and how any such differences should be recognized in law; and what role legislatures, government agencies, and the courts should play in regulating business practices, educational opportunities, and private lives.

Women activists and their allies expanded basic political and civil rights through letter writing, organizing, public speaking, personal suasion, petitioning, picketing, research, data gathering, testifying, marching, demonstrating, civil disobedience, and more recently, effective use of the courts.

Although the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920 after a 72-year campaign, guaranteed women the vote on an equal basis with men, hundreds of state laws regulating other aspects of civil and family life did not recognize women as equals before the law. Whether to attack these laws piecemeal, state-by-state, or take them on wholesale through a federal Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), was a source of contention for most of the 20th century.

This exhibition highlights some of the strengths of the Schlesinger Library's collections, focusing on legal issues surrounding citizenship, the body, economies of power, and educational rights.