9 Pivotal Victories That Quietly Changed Women's History

A group of men and women march together holding signs while participating in an ERA protest in Pittsburgh, PA, 1976. (Photo by Barbara Freeman/Getty Images)
A group of men and women march together holding signs while participating in an ERA protest in Pittsburgh, PA, 1976. (Photo by Barbara Freeman/Getty Images)

The last century of women's rights victories has a familiar highlight reel with women gaining the right to vote, access to birth control and abortion, and equal pay.

But there have also been a number of triumphs that haven't received as much attention, and yet have greatly improved the lives of women. As we wrap up Women's History Month, and celebrate Gloria Steinem's 80th birthday, we pause to reflect on nine incredible things women can do in 2014 that we could not do in 1914:

Marry a foreigner and keep their citizenship
The Expatriation Act of 1907 stipulated that American women who married foreign men would be stripped of their citizenship. No such penalty was levied against men marrying foreign women. Women wasted no time fighting against this discriminatory legislation after earning the right to vote in 1920 -- by 1922 it was repealed.

Have equal access to job listings
After sex-based discrimination in pay and hiring were made illegal in 1963 and 1964, respectively, ensuring women had access to career opportunities for which they would be fairly considered and equitably paid became the next fight. In 1968 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that the standard practice of separating help wanted ads by sex was unlawful.

Earn the same pay as men for the same work
We know the Equal Pay Act made it illegal to pay women less than men for the same job -- but what about for the same work? In 1970, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in Schultz v. Wheaton Glass Co. that an employer owed women the same compensation as men for jobs that are "substantially equal" even if they are not "identical." This prevents employers from giving women different titles than men in order to pay them less.

Address racism and sexism on a national level
Black women's groups existed informally throughout the early 20th century, but the establishment of the National Council of Negro Women in 1935 provided an organization under which local coalitions could discuss and unite efforts. The Council was also a vehicle to confront challenges unique to African American women, including racial discrimination and the ongoing fight for civil rights, that mainstream feminism did not adequately address.

Accuse husbands of rape
In 1976, Nebraska became the first state to make marital rape a criminal offense, and by 1993, all states had eliminated the "spousal exemption" for rape. Unbelievably, marital rape is still not punished to the same degree as extra-marital rape in 26 states.

Get divorced just because they want to
In 1969, California became the first state to allow for no-fault divorce, and by 1985, only New York required allegations of wrongdoing in order to petition for divorce. Before "irreconcilable differences" was sufficient grounds for a split, women had to claim, and sometimes prove, that their spouse had mistreated, abandoned, abused or been unfaithful in order for the state to approve the separation. States that permitted no-fault divorce saw a 30 percent decrease in domestic abuse and notable decline in female suicides over the course of 20 years, a 2004 Stanford Business School study found.

Lose a job or promotion because of pregnancy -- or potential pregnancy
Imagine if being a 30-year-old, married woman made you ineligible for a job ? Up until 1978, it was legal for employers to pass up on otherwise qualified applicants because of fears or assumptions that they might become pregnant. Even more, women were routinely let go after getting pregnant to spare employers health care and maternity leave costs. Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, a woman cannot be denied a job or promotion, or be fired, because she is or may become pregnant. Still, according to cases filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission pregnancy discrimination has outpaced unequal pay when it comes to workplace-related lawsuits.

Seek damages for sexual harassment
Prior to 1986, the only recourse for a woman whose boss was sexually harassing her was to quit and find a new boss. In Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, the Supreme Court determined that making repeated sexual references or advances in the workplace created a hostile work environment that amounted to discrimination on the basis of sex. That "sexual harassment" was an unlawful act rather than occupational hazard entered the national conversation with Anita Hill's allegations against Clarence Thomas in 1991.

Take more than a few months to realize they're being underpaid -- and do something about it.
In 2007, the Supreme Court told Lilly Ledbetter, a supervisor at Goodyear Tire who claimed (correctly) that she was paid less than her male counterparts over the course of her career, that she could only file a complaint six months after her first paycheck in order to have a case. Fortunately, the executive branch intervened. Signed by President Obama in 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act allows employees to file a complaint of pay discrimination within six months of receiving their last paycheck. Pre-2009 reasoning stipulated that the initial decision to pay a woman less is the first and only discriminatory act -- one with a statute of limitations of six months. The Lilly Ledbetter Act confirmed that discrimination occurs every time a woman is paid less for equal work.

Equal Pay For Women