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A Century of Progress: The Evolution of Women's Rights in America

two female faces facing away from one another in between abstract artwork.

The Declaration of Independence's ideal of equality originally excluded all but "white males with property," igniting centuries of advocacy, especially by women, for true equality.

In the seminal document that birthed a nation, the Declaration of Independence boldly proclaimed that "all men are created equal." Yet, the reality of the era translated this noble assertion to primarily benefit "all white males with property," leaving vast segments of society in the shadows of inequality. Among those fighting for their place in the sun was Alison Turnbull Hopkins, a fervent suffrage activist who, in a poignant display of protest, stood outside the White House with a sign asking, "MR. PRESIDENT HOW LONG MUST WOMEN WAIT FOR LIBERTY."

The struggle for women's suffrage was a long and arduous journey, igniting decades before the Civil War and reaching a monumental milestone on August 18, 1920, with the ratification of the 19th Amendment. This historic amendment affirmed that women, too, were entitled to all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, effectively opening a new chapter in American democracy. The recognition and celebration of women's contributions and struggles have since been institutionalized through the designation of Women’s History Month in March, a tradition that commenced with Women’s History Week in 1981 and expanded to a full month in 1987, thanks to the advocacy efforts of the National Women’s History Project and subsequent Congressional support.

The recognition of women's rights stretched into various sectors, including healthcare, as evidenced by the Veterans Affairs' (VA) initiatives focusing on women's health. Beginning in the 1940s, the VA started hiring women physicians and leaders specialized in women’s health, establishing the first designated medical facilities for treating women Veterans. The 1980s marked a pivotal era as the National Advisory Committee on Women Veterans was established in 1983, leading to significant improvements in healthcare delivery and the creation of dedicated programs catering to the unique needs of women Veterans.

Further advancements were realized with the establishment of VA’s Center for Women Veterans in 1994, mandated by Congress to ensure equitable outcomes, access to VA benefits, services, and opportunities through education, outreach, and collaboration. Today, VA is committed to creating a more inclusive and supportive environment for women Veterans, offering enhanced services in fertility, newborn and maternity care, childcare, homelessness solutions, and addressing sexual assault and trauma. Initiatives such as the White Ribbon campaign and End Harassment programs stand as testaments to VA’s unwavering dedication to improving the experiences of women in medical centers.

As the ranks of women serving in the military swell, their roles in operations becoming increasingly critical, the importance of the VA's readiness to meet their needs has never been more pronounced. With nearly two million living women Veterans in the United States today, the legacy of figures like Alison Turnbull Hopkins endures, reminding us of the continual strive toward liberty, equality, and recognition for all citizens, regardless of gender.