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15 Moments That Changed Women’s History Forever

In honor of Women's Equality Day, a look back at the single moments in history when, for women, doors of opportunity suddenly flung open.

Portrait Of Young latin woman combined with vintage photoNick Dolding/Getty Images

The future is female, thanks to these moments in the past

We probably think of women’s history in terms of several major milestones, but the truth is that these milestones have all been hard-won by years of back-breaking, often unrecognized labor by scores of activists and ordinary women. While these major moments, from the United States to Australia to Saudi Arabia and beyond, are incredible and should be celebrated, they’re all steps along the path to equality, and we have a long way to go. These 15 most inspiring women alive today give us hope!

Chicago, Around 1915 -- The Earliest Beginnings Of Women's Participation In Government. Five Women Learning How To Use A Voting Machine In ChicagoNara Archives/Shutterstock

1895: South Australia gives women the right to vote

Who knew that this Down Under nation was ahead of the times in allowing women to cast their ballots in national elections? The South Australian Parliament passed a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote in December of 1894, which meant women could vote in the following year’s elections. The battle was hard-won. Women had reportedly fought for a decade to make this historical event happen. According to The National Museum of Australia, South Australia became the first electorate in the world to grant equal political rights to men and women. Learn about more countries where women could vote before the United States.

National League of Women Voters hold up signs reading, 'VOTE', Sept. 17, 1924. Millions of women voted in 1920 and 1924, but in a lower proportion than men.Everett Historical/Shutterstock

1920: The United States ratifies 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote

It’s hard to believe that only 100 years ago, women were first permitted to vote in the United States. That’s what happened on August 18, 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, thanks to the tireless efforts of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott. Organizing for women’s suffrage dated back to 1848, at the historic Seneca Falls Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, the first women’s rights conference in the United States. Did you know that in the United States, there were 20 states where women could vote before the 19th Amendment?

President Kennedy passes out pens, at the White House after signing a bill to provide equal pay for women. From left: Ethlyn Christensen of the YWCA; Rep. Leonor Sullivan, D-MO; Mrs. Joseph Willen of the National Council of Jewish Women; Rep. Edna Kelly, D-NY; Margaret Mealey, foreground, checkered dress, of the National Council of Catholic Women; Rep. Edith Green, D-OR; and Mrs. Carolyn Davis of the United Auto WorkersHARVEY GEORGES/Shutterstock

1963: Equal Pay Act passed in the United States

Former President John F. Kennedy backed amending the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act—as part of his New Frontier Program—so that women could be paid the same wages as men performing the same job. This act aimed to put a stop to sex-based wage discrimination, though to this day, women earned 81.5 percent of what men earned in 2019, according to Catalyst, a global nonprofit. Find out some more ways women still aren’t treated equally to men.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg Listens to Us President Bush During a Swearing in Ceremony in the Benjamin Franklin Room of the Department of State in Washington Dc Friday 28 January 2005 Secretary Rice Who is the Second Woman and the First Black Woman to Become Secretary of State Was Sworn in by White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card Wednesday Evening Hours After the Senate Confirmed Her by a Vote of 85 to 13 in a Private Ceremony at the White HouseShawn Thew/Shutterstock

1971: Reed v. Reed

Up until the early 1970s, if a relative in the United States died, the job of administering the estate was automatically given to the male relative, not the female. Obviously, this created some major family friction. In Reed v. Reed, the Supreme Court ruled that this violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, according to this ACLU summary. Note: This was the same year Ruth Bader Ginsburg established the Women’s Rights Project. Learn some of the many ways Ruth Bader Ginsburg has made history.

Thousands rallied at the Wesley Bolin Plaza on the State Capitol grounds in Phoenix, Ariz., after a march for abortion on the day before the anniversary decision of Roe v. WadeLarry Woodall/Shutterstock

1973: Roe v. Wade

Probably one of the most contentious court rulings regarding women’s rights over the last 75 years, Roe v. Wade handed the difficult decision of whether to end a pregnancy over to the woman who is pregnant. Courts, doctors, politicians, and other individuals could no longer make that decision for them, according to this Supreme Court ruling. Check out this story of women’s rights activist Betty Friedan, who founded the pro-choice organization, NARAL, as well as other inspiring stories of women who changed the world.

WAEHLER Lisbon residents vote in a polling station, as Portugal goes to the polls in a general election to pass judgement on 10 years of Social Democrat rule. Opinion polls showing the Socialist have a slight leadGUILHERME VENANCIO/Shutterstock

1976: Portugal grants women the right to vote

Before the 1960s, women living in Portugal had few rights, especially when compared with the United States and other European nations. They couldn’t get a Portuguese passport or travel to another country without their husband’s consent. The year 1976 was a major year to be a woman living in Portugal because that’s when the country’s constitution was amended to give women the same voting rights as men. Read these confidence-boosting quotes from amazing women in history.

Man proposing to his girlfriendRawpixel.com/Shutterstock

1980: New Marriage Law passed in China

China’s New Marriage Law in 1980 granted certain rights to women during the legal contract of marriage: Women needed to be 18 years or older to marry, both parties had to consent, and the courts could reject marriages with ulterior motives (such as human trafficking and arranged marriages). Under the New Marriage Law, divorce proceedings started to consider women’s rights, including child custody and division of property.

Japan's new Defense Minister Tomomi Inada inspects a honor guard on her first day at the Defense Ministry in Tokyo, . Inada, a woman with revisionist views of World War II history, has been named Japan's defense minister in a Cabinet reshuffle. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe changed more than half of the 19-member Cabinet on Wednesday in a bid to support his economic, security and other policy goalsShuji Kajiyama/Shutterstock

2003: Japan’s government vows to fill more senior-government roles with women

In 2003, Japan declared the ambitious goal of aiming to have 30 percent of senior-level government jobs in the country held by women by 2020. Apparently, it was too ambitious, because it was later revised to seven percent, taking into account the lack of an uptick a few years into the new initiative. Government officials blamed the slow pace of cultural shifts. Learn the story of how Women’s History Month came to be.

Participants of the rally against female genital mutilation hold placards at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany, 23 November 2017. A group of activists 'TERRE DES FEMMES' organized the event ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on 25 November which was designated by the United Nations.H. JEON/Shutterstock

2012: United Nations passes a resolution banning female genital mutilation

The terror—and unfortunate reality—of young girls up to the age of 15 having their genitals mutilated came to a halt in 2012 (at least on paper) when the United Nations called on citizens worldwide to stop the practice, which has been most common in countries throughout Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, affecting as many as 200 million girls and women. Thanks to increased awareness of this physically and emotionally scarring practice, February 6 was named International Day of Zero Tolerance. Meet 11 young women who are about to make history.

Aziza Yousef drives a car in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as part of a campaign to defy Saudi Arabia's ban on women driving. In the six months since Saudi activists renewed calls to defy the kingdom's ban on female drivers, small numbers of women have gotten behind the wheel almost daily in what has become the country's longest such campaignHasan Jamali/Shutterstock

2017: Saudi Arabia lifts ban on female drivers

Imagine being a woman in this Middle Eastern country and needing a man to give you a lift for simple errands like picking up groceries at the market or visiting a friend. In fall 2017, the Saudi Arabian government lifted the ban on female drivers; it took effect in June 2018.

Horizontal color capture taken at a hindu wedding in Surat India. Photo session after the ceremony of the happy hand holding couple displaying their rings of matrimony and the bride lays her claimarfabita/Shutterstock

2017: India rules sex with minors illegal

Another sign of the modernization of India was a Supreme Court ruling in October 2017 that deemed rape with a female under the age of 18 (even if the minor is a child bride) illegal. Further, being charged with this crime can result in a ten-year prison sentence. This ruling helps discourage the tradition of child brides and speaks to the country’s attempt to create more equal marriages (age-wise, at the very least). Find out the children’s rights that should be universal but aren’t.

Activists From the Lebanese Ngo Abaad (arabic For Dimensions) a Resource Center For Gender Equality Dress As Brides and Wearing Injury Patches During a Protest Against Article 522 in the Lebanese Penal Code at Downtown Beirut Lebanon 06 December 2016 According to the Article Rapists Are Obligated to Marry Their Victims to Avoid Prosecution Which is Still Practiced in the Conservative Part of the Country and Especially Among Families Whose Priorities Are Headed by Preserving the Family's So-called 'Honor' Lebanon BeirutWael Hamzeh/Shutterstock

2017: Lebanon repeals law that sided with male rapists

It’s hard to believe, but summer 2017, a male rapist in Lebanon could be exonerated if he married his rape victim. In August, Lebanon’s Parliament finally repealed the ancient law at the urging of women’s rights activists not only in Lebanon but around the world.

Hundreds of BBC staff protest over equal pay outside the Corporation's headquarters. Former China editor Carrie Gracie spearheaded the campaignAssociated Newspapers Ltd/Shutterstock

2018: Iceland requires fair pay for women

Some countries talk a good game about equal pay for women, but Iceland made it the law of the land. In 2018, Iceland became the first country in the world to make it illegal—resulting in a fine—to pay men and women in the same job differently. One major difference between this law and the Equal Pay Act in the United States is that the burden is no longer on the employee to make this claim. To support women in business, take your money to one of these 23 amazing shopping sites that support women.

Congresswomen Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Omar, And Pressley Hold News Conference After President Trump Attacks Them On TwitterAlex Wroblewski/Getty Images

2018: Major U.S. Congressional milestones

It’s fairly rare that midterm elections in the United States have made major news or generated much fanfare. But after two years of Donald Trump as president, Americans were mobilized to vote like never before. The 2018 midterm elections saw a surge of amazing firsts for women in government: the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, the first Muslim woman elected to Congress; and Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous women in Congress. Plus, a record number of women were elected to the House of Representatives; 101 House seats are now filled by women, soaring past the previous record of 85. While this is incredible, that’s still only 23.2 percent of the total House—we have a long way to go! Read these facts and figures about the Equal Rights Amendment—which still isn’t law.

Sen. Kamala Harris Speaks At Her Alma Mater Howard UniversityAl Drago/Getty Images

2020: First Black female vice presidential candidate

On August 11, 2020, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden announced that California Senator Kamala Harris would be his running mate. Harris is only the third woman to be named a candidate for vice president, and the first Black woman. If the Biden-Harris ticket wins, she’ll be the first woman vice president! Next, read about more incredible female firsts that made history.

Kristine Hansen
Based in Milwaukee, and a former Californian, Kristine Hansen is the author of Wisconsin Cheese Cookbook: Creamy, Cheesy, Sweet, and Savory Recipes from the State's Best Creameries (Globe Pequot Press) and writes about food/drink, travel and art/design for outlets that include--in addition to RD.com--ArchitecturalDigest.com, Fodors.com, TravelandLeisure.com and MarthaStewart.com. She earned a bachelor's degree in English, with a focus on writing, from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and enjoys yoga, reading, knitting and hiking.