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Civil Liberties and Civil Rights

Recent Crusades for Equal Rights

The Civil Rights Movement

Review Questions

The late twentieth century and early twenty-first century witnessed many groups agitating for equal rights, including women, seniors, the disabled, and gays and lesbians.


Like African Americans, women have had to struggle to win equal protection under federal law. The Constitution explicitly gives men power and rights that were not given to women, including the right to vote.

The First Women’s Movement (1840s–1920s)

In 1848, a group of women met in Seneca Falls, New York, to organize the suffrage movement. The Seneca Falls activists were disappointed when the Fifteenth Amendment extended the right to vote to black men, but not women. Women did not win the right to vote until the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920.

The Second Women’s Movement (1960s)

The civil rights movement of the 1950s galvanized many women to create their own movement for civil rights. Feminism, the movement that seeks social, political, and legal equality for women, gained strength. In 1966, several feminists formed the National Organization for Women (NOW) to promote their goals, including the Equal Rights Amendment.

In the 1960s, several court cases argued that gender discrimination violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. In many cases, the courts have struck down discriminatory laws. The 1964 Civil Rights Act forbids gender discrimination in the workplace, and some women have used this law to fight sexual harassment, which is unwanted and inappropriate physical or verbal conduct of a sexual nature that creates an uncomfortable work environment or interferes with a person’s ability to do his or her job.


In 1967, Congress passed the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which prohibits any age discrimination unless age is a clear and necessary qualification for the job. In 1978, Congress amended the ADEA to ban mandatory retirement rules for most employees.

The Disabled

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not protect people with disabilities. Congress has since passed several laws prohibiting discrimination against the disabled:

  • The Rehabilitation Act (1973), which banned discrimination against the disabled in any program receiving government funding. A 1978 amendment to the act required buildings constructed with federal money to accommodate the disabled with ramps, elevators, and other special equipment.
  • The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (1975), which required public schools to make provisions for students with disabilities.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), which required all public buildings to be handicapped accessible and forced employers to make all reasonable accommodations for disabled workers. Employers also cannot discriminate against the disabled when hiring.

Gays and Lesbians

Throughout much of the twentieth century, many states had laws that criminalized homosexual acts. In 2003, the Supreme Court declared such laws against sodomy illegal in Lawrence v. Texas, because they violate the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court decided that state governments cannot criminalize consensual adult sexual behavior.

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