Timeline: U.S. Women's Rights, 1980 - Present

Updated March 7, 2022 | Ann-Marie Imbornoni

Timeline of Key Events in the American Women's Rights Movement

Discover the key events of the women's rights movement in the United States. This timeline covers the years 1980 to 2009, and includes the Supreme Court ruling on sexual harrassment as a form of job discrimination and the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act.


EMILY's List (Early Money Is Like Yeast) is established as a financial network for pro-choice Democratic women running for national political office. The organization makes a significant impact on the increasing numbers of women elected to Congress.


Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, the Supreme Court finds that sexual harassment is a form of illegal job discrimination.


In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Supreme Court reaffirms the validity of a woman's right to abortion under Roe v. Wade. The case successfully challenges Pennsylvania's 1989 Abortion Control Act, which sought to reinstate restrictions previously ruled unconstitutional.


The Violence Against Women Act tightens federal penalties for sex offenders, funds services for victims of rape and domestic violence, and provides for special training of police officers.


In United States v. Virginia, the Supreme Court rules that the all-male Virginia Military School has to admit women in order to continue to receive public funding. It holds that creating a separate, all-female school will not suffice.


The Supreme Court rules in Kolstad v. American Dental Association that a woman can sue for punitive damages for sex discrimination if the anti-discrimination law was violated with malice or indifference to the law, even if that conduct was not especially severe.


In Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs, the Supreme Court rules that states can be sued in federal court for violations of the Family Leave Medical Act.


In Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education, the Supreme Court rules that Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on sex, also inherently prohibits disciplining someone for complaining about sex-based discrimination. It further holds that this is the case even when the person complaining is not among those being discriminated against.


The Supreme Court upholds the ban on the "partial-birth" abortion procedure. The ruling, 5–4, which upholds the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, a federal law passed in 2003, is the first to ban a specific type of abortion procedure. Writing in the majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy said, "The act expresses respect for the dignity of human life." Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who dissents, called the decision "alarming" and said it is "so at odds with our jurisprudence" that it "should not have staying power."


President Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which allows victims of pay discrimination to file a complaint with the government against their employer within 180 days of their last paycheck. Previously, victims (most often women) were only allowed 180 days from the date of the first unfair paycheck. This Act is named after a former employee of Goodyear who alleged that she was paid 15–40% less than her male counterparts, which was later found to be accurate.


In Jan. 2013, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the ban on women serving in combat roles would be lifted. In a Jan. 9 letter to Panetta urging the change Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said, "The time has come to rescind the direct combat exclusion rule for women and to eliminate all unnecessary gender-based barriers to service." The move reverses the 1994 rule that prohibited women from serving in combat. The change will be gradual; some positions will be available to women immediately but each branch of the military has until 2016 to request exceptions to the new rule.

Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (originally passed in 1994). The new bill enhances judicial and law enforcement tools to combat violence against women, provides support for victims, and extends coverage to young victims, immigrants, Indian women, and victims of trafficking.


Effective Jan. 2, 2016, women will be allowed to serve in any job in the armed services, provided they meet gender neutral performance standards. This move, initiated in 2013 and finalized under Defense Secretary Ash Carter, will open approximately 220,000 jobs to females.

In a 5–3 decision on June 27, 2016, the Supreme Court decides that a Texas law imposed on abortion clinics is unconstitutional and provides an unnecessary burden on women seeking abortions. The law was previously upheld and approved by lower courts but is now overturned by the Supreme Court. Conservative Justice Kennedy provided the fifth and essential vote, siding with the liberals. During the period of time that the Texas abortion law was in effect, abortion clinics in Texas dropped from 42 to 19, with more set to close.

2017On January 21, 2017, in response to numerous factorscontinued attempts by lawmakers to restrict access to abortions, persistent employment disparities, and contentious comments made by President Trump in a leaked video, among others—feminist activists from around the country organize a Women's March to advocate for women's rights. Despite some ideological conflicts between event organizers over inclusion and diversity, the nationwide protest begins  to enormous success. Upwards of 3 million people turn out, marking one of the largest and most peaceful protests in U.S. history.
2021By the end of 2021, many state legislatures succeed in vastly restricting access to abortions in most if not all cases of pregnancy, overcoming challenges in federal court. This represents one of the largest swells in opposition to legal abortion since the Roe v. Wade decision was issued.

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