American women still have a long way to go to achieve equal representation in our nation’s top leadership positions. But, despite never having held more than 20 percent of seats in Congress, women have still managed to make an indelible mark on our nation’s legislative history, serving as the driving force behind some of America’s greatest progressive achievements.
In honor of Women’s History Month, here are five landmark laws you may not know were enacted with women playing a unique leadership role:
1. Women’s clubs and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 Upton Sinclair’s 1906 expose on the Chicago meatpacking industry may have served as the catalyst for the food safety reform movement, but it was the women’s clubs of the time who did the legwork in building grassroots support for food safety legislation. Members of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs “spearheaded a letter and telegram writing campaign” to which historians attribute the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Dr. Harvey Wiley, the first chief of the Pure Food Bureau, said of the club’s instrumental role in enacting the law, “Trust them to put the ball over the goal line every time.” The law, which prohibits interstate commerce in misbranded and adulterated food and drugs, paved the way for the creation of the Food and Drug Administration. Today the FDA continues to protect the health of all Americans by ensuring that our food, drugs, and cosmetics are safe and properly labeled.
2. Frances Perkins and The Social Security Act of 1935 As both the first woman to hold a cabinet position in the U.S. and the nation’s longest-serving Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins was instrumental in developing many of the New Deal laws enacted during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, including the one establishing a minimum wage. But Perkins is best remembered as the chief architect of the Social Security Act of 1935, which Roosevelt called “the cornerstone of his administration.” Social Security now insures 90 percent of all Americans against loss of income, keeps millions of Americans out of poverty, and provides all Americans with the peace of mind that they will not become destitute if their family loses its primary source of income due to retirement, disability, or death. It is the most successful and effective income security program in our nation’s history.
3. Mother Jones and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 Once known as “the most dangerous woman in America” for her fearless organizing tactics, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones began a campaign that ultimately resulted in the enactment of America’s child labor laws. The self-proclaimed “hell-raiser” and United Mine Workers organizer once led hundreds of striking children on a march from the textile mills of Pennsylvania to the doorstep of President Theodore Roosevelt in Long Island, New York. Her dramatic performance spurred the movement to abolish child labor. In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which, among other things, banned oppressive child labor.
4. Rachel Carson and the Environmental Protection Agency (1970)With the publication of her groundbreaking book, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson catalyzed the modern environmental movement. By bringing the effects of chemical pesticides to the attention of the American public, Carson is largely credited with inspiring the grassroots movement that led to a ban on DDT and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. Since its creation, the EPA has worked to protect Americans’ health and the environment.
5. Dolores Huerta and the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 Dolores Huerta co-founded the National Farmworkers Association with Cesar Chavez and led a consumer boycott that resulted in the passage of the landmark California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975. The first of its kind in the country, the law grants California farm workers the right to collectively organize and bargain for better wages and working conditions. Known for her courage and determination, Huerta was described by Chavez as “completely fearless” – even in the face of sometimes violent opposition. Over the course of her career, Huerta was arrested more than 20 times and was once severely beaten by police at a nonviolent protest in San Francisco. In 2012, President Obama awarded Huerta the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s top civilian honor.
Sarah Ayres is a Policy Analyst in the Economic Policy team at the Center for American Progress.