What Women Won: Looking Back at the Feminist Victories Across the Country in 2019

It was a rough year for women’s rights. The Trump administration and many state legislatures have been furiously rolling back hard-won protections—including reproductive rights, the right to be free from gender-based violence and the right to equal employment opportunities. Campus sexual assault protections have been eviscerated under Title IX, and so has the federal funding of contraception, STD testing and cancer screenings for low-income women under Title X; and pay data collection and reporting requirements to identify wage inequities based on sex and race. The Violence Against Women Act funding expired in February for the first time since 1994. Nine states banned abortion before most women know they are pregnant.

But not all was lost—and sometimes feminist even won.

The Trump administration rollbacks on women’s rights have inspired a political uprising that has resulted in record-breaking numbers of women winning political office both in Congress and in state legislatures. As a result, women have demanded, and achieved, widespread state-level legal change to shore up and expand women’s rights and passage of groundbreaking legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

In 2019, a record number of women were elected to Congress, increasing from 107 in 2018 to 127 in 2019 and raising the proportion of seats in Congress held by women from 20 percent to 23.7. Women of color, in particular, won a record number of seats rising from 38 in 2018 to 47 in 2019, and including the first two Native American women ever to serve in Congress—Deb Haaland from New Mexico and Sharice Davids from Kansas. Democrats flipped the House, and with Representative Nancy Pelosi at the helm, the U.S. House of Representatives passed many important new laws shoring up women’s rights, including the Violence Against Women Act of 2019 that would restore funding to domestic violence shelters and rape crisis centers, the Equality Act that would extend civil rights protections to LGBTQ people, the Paycheck Fairness Act that would address pay disparities based on sex and race, and the Voting Rights Advancement Act to protect and expand voting rights.

Mitch McConnell is blocking all these important laws in the Senate. So women are turning to the states to protect and expand their rights.

This effort has been buoyed by a record number of women elected to state legislatures in 2019, increasing from 1,879 in 2018 to 2,112 in 2019 and raising the proportion of seats in state legislatures held by women from 25.4 to 28.6 percent. For the first time in history, a state legislature has reached parity in women’s representation—Nevada with women holding 50.8 percent of seats. These new female state legislators led the charge in winning new state laws protecting and expanding women’s rights in many areas.

“Progress has been made in a climate of backlash in the U.S.,” says Katherine Spillar, executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation and executive editor of Ms. magazine. “Without equal decision making power or equal access to resources, women persist in making progress despite entrenched patriarchies.”

Advocates have used the Trump administration’s evisceration of federal civil rights protections to push women’s issues to the forefront of states legislative agendas. Below, we’ll look back at the progress they’ve made.

(Coy Ferrell / Creative Commons)

The Equal Rights Amendment

Democrats won both houses in the Virginia state legislature, which sets the state up to become the 38th and final state necessary to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. And the U.S. House Judiciary Committee voted to lift the arbitrary timeline on the Amendment

Sexual Harassment

11 states strengthened their sexual harassment laws, including limiting nondisclosure agreements, stopping forced arbitration, expanding what conduct is covered, and extending coverage to more employees.

Child Sex Abuse

Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia extended or eliminated statutes of limitations that blocked survivors of child sex abuse from suing their perpetrators. Experts expect at least 5,000 new cases against the Catholic Church in New York, New Jersey and California alone, potentially subjecting the church to liability for billions of dollars for harm to child survivors of priest sexual abuse.

Equal Pay

Nine states enacted equal pay legislation, including prohibiting the use of salary history, requiring transparency around salary ranges, protecting employees who discuss their pay, and allowing fairer comparisons of work and pay.

Reproductive Rights

Ten states strengthened their abortion laws, including California which became the first state to pass a law requiring student health centers at public universities to provide medication abortion on campus. In 2019 alone, these states enacted 36 new pro-choice policies surpassing the 28 policies states enacted in the previous nine years since 2010. In addition, many cities and towns passed resolutions supporting abortion access, including Austin, Texas, which became the first city in the nation to dedicate city funding to support services like transportation and childcare for people seeking abortion care.

Another version of this post appears at the Hampshire Daily Gazette. Republished with author permission.


Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman professor of American Studies and the chair of the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.