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The ongoing battle for women's rights


By Maggie Hall


In this article, Maggie charts the continuous battle for women's rights from early feminism to the present day. She is a former chair of Brighton Humanists and happy to be called a feminist, though she is not a militant one.


The story of the battle for women’s rights is a very long one. There is no consensus regarding who the first feminist was. Mary Wollstonecraft, well known as the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1791–1792), is one of the most popular candidates, but there were certainly women before her time who risked all to speak out about inequality between the sexes.

Christine de Pisan was a French philosopher and author in the late 14th and early 15th centuries who argued for the education of women, something unheard of at that time.


Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Another champion of women’s education was Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a Mexican woman thought to have been born somewhere between 1648 and 1651. Having failed to gain entry to university by disguising herself as a man, she became a nun in order to avoid a life of marriage and domestic slavery and so that she could pursue a life of study.


‘Who has forbidden women to engage in private and individual studies? Have they not a rational soul as men do? I have this inclination to study and if it is evil I am not the one who formed me — thus, I was born with it and with it I shall die.’ Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz





In the same year that Mary Wollstonecraft published her famous book, the French writer Olympe de Gouges published Déclaration des Droits de la Femme et de la Citoyenne (Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the [female] Citizen). Both of these women were writing in response to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Declaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen), which failed to address the rights of women and advocated that the only function of their education should be to fit them to serve men.

"...the first woman to run for the Presidency of the United States was not Hilary Clinton but Victoria Woodhull, who did so in 1872."

First Wave Feminism

‘Deeds, not words’ was the motto of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), formed in 1903, when Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters became disappointed with the lack of progress by the National Union for Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), which had been campaigning since 1897. Most readers will be familiar with the names of the leaders of the campaign for women’s suffrage during the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the UK, they were the Pankhursts, Lady Constance Lytton, Emily Davidson, Millicent Fawcett, and Edith Garrud who was one of the world's first professional female martial arts instructors, known as the 'Jiu-jitsu Suffragette'. In the US, leading campaigners were Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone. Contrary to popular belief, the first woman to run for the Presidency of the United States was not Hilary Clinton, but Victoria Woodhull, who did so in 1872.


Simone de Beauvoir

Second Wave Feminism

Simone de Beauvoir’s book The Second Sex, published in 1949, was an important text for what is usually referred to as ‘second wave feminism’ in the 1960s and 70s. Her thesis centred on the ‘othering’ of women by men. Whereas First Wave Feminism focused on voting rights for women, the Second Wave addressed sexuality, workplace, family, marital rape, domestic violence and reproductive rights, as well as divorce reform. There is a fascinating collection of archive radio and TV programmes from the time on the BBC website.

'...the men who most respect embryonic life are the same ones who do not hesitate to send adults to death in war.' Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

Third Wave Feminism

Third Wave Feminism began in the 1990s with some of the main concerns being violence against women, body surgery, trafficking, self-mutilation, and pornification of the media, with an emphasis on female individuality and diversity. But in some respects the so-called Third Wave was regressive. ‘Girl Power’ promoted raunchy ‘ladettes’ and the right to dress scantily and to be a Katie Price lookalike. This movement in turn was criticised as harking back to the old gender divide and being complicit in maintaining the same old system.


Fourth Wave Feminism

It can be credibly claimed that a Fourth Wave of feminism began in 2012, when a young woman was brutally gang-raped in India and subsequently died, triggering local protests and international outrage. Some of the focal issues were sexual harassment, body shaming, and rape culture, with wide use of social media to raise awareness and draw public support.


Some women who objected to female stereotypes in video games were subsequently besieged with death and rape threats. Several misogynistic remarks by Donald Trump prompted a ‘Women’s March’ which took place across the United States and around the world on 21st January 2017. The Me Too movementwent viral in 2017 in response to revelations concerning Harvey Weinstein. It went on to expose the similarly reprehensible behaviour of many powerful men in business and public life.


Women's rights around the world

North Korea established a Women’s Rights Act in 2010 in response to international scrutiny, but in 2014 a Human Rights Council Commission of Enquiry found that no policies had been implemented and that the situation for women in the country appeared, if anything, to be even worse than before. The report makes very disturbing reading indeed.


South Korea's new President Yoon Suk-yeol has declared that structural sexism in his country is ‘a thing of the past’ and therefore the Government’s Gender Equality Ministry will be abolished. This is in a country where sexual harassment and assault is widespread and increasing, with cases of reported digital sex crime having risen to 11,568 in 2021 - an increase of 82 per cent on the previous year - according to figures from the Korea Communications Standards Commission. 46 per cent of female workers are in non-permanent contract work, compared to just 30 per cent of men, according to the latest government data. The Gender Equality Ministry supports women and victims of sexual assault and has been successful in improving equality over the past ten years. Protesters now fear that its abolition will have a damaging impact on women's lives.


In Ukraine, women were banned from around 450 occupations until as recently as 2017, including the clearing of landmines. Since the Russian invasion, the realisation has dawned that with most of the men engaged directly in the fighting, women can be relied upon to undertake many tasks which were previously thought to be suitable for men only.


Iranian women have been protesting for many years against the mandatory wearing of the hijab, but the campaign has escalated since the recent death in custody of Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by the Morality Police for wearing her headscarf improperly. Women, particularly young women and schoolgirls, and men have been prepared to put themselves in great danger by taking part in open protest, not just against the hijab but against the regime as a whole. Placards declaring ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ are hung outside classrooms and ‘Basij get lost!’ is shouted from school buildings. (Basij is one of the five forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.) Many of these incredibly brave young women have disappeared or died in doubtful circumstances. As I write this, Taraneh Alidoosti, one of Iran’s most famous actors, is being detained by security forces in Tehran following her criticism of the state’s use of the death penalty against protesters and posting pictures of herself without a hijab on Instagram. Her arrest seems to be part of a general crackdown on celebrities and journalists who are seen as promoting Western values amongst the young. These determined and escalating protests are becoming increasingly difficult for the regime to contain and hopes have been expressed that they could signal the beginning of the end for the repressive regime in Iran.


In Pakistan, violence against women and girls is still a major problem. In December 2020, a new anti-rape law was introduced to obtain speedier convictions and tougher sentences. However, conviction rates remain low. Only 2.5 per cent of all cases result in convictions. Domestic abuse, often involving honour killings, is rife. A social media model and activist, Qandeel Baloch, was recently strangled to death by her brother for allegedly bringing dishonour on the family. A gender equality movement has been formed as a result. Pakistani women continue to demand justice and equal treatment with men, despite opposition from conservative groups, who label their protests as a ‘Western campaign’.


In Afghanistan, since the takeover of the Taliban in 2021, much of the previously hard-won progress on human rights, particularly those of women, has been reversed. Violence and oppression against women has increased. The latest reports from Amnesty International show ‘surges in child marriage, denial of education, torture, arbitrary detention for those fleeing abuse, and arrest of protesters. Women are now banned from even entering public parks and gyms, and cannot leave the house without a male chaperone’. The Taliban's decision to ban female NGO workers has also led to the suspension of some humanitarian programmes.


There are still many places in the world where women do not have equal access with men to educational institutions, and where girls cannot access even basic education. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a major issue, including in the UK. It is mainly done for cultural reasons and is particularly widespread in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It is estimated that FGM affects 137,000 women in the UK, where it is illegal under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003. It is also now illegal to arrange for a child to be taken abroad for FGM. Despite this law coming into effect in 2015, only one conviction has so far been obtained and that not until 2019.


Women in many parts of the world have yet to achieve parity of pay with men. In 2015, the World Economic Forum predicted that global gender parity would, at the current rate of progress, not be achieved until 2133.


In the US, the Supreme Court’s overturning of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision of nearly half a century ago is seen by many as a regressive move, prompting fears that it may impact other civil rights, such as access to contraception, interracial marriage, and same-sex relationships and marriage. Two United Nations treaty bodies recently called on the Philippines to improve sexual and reproductive rights in the country. In more than twenty countries, abortion is still completely prohibited according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, a global legal advocacy group. Child marriage is still legal in at least 117 countries around the world, according to the Pew Research Center.


Here in the UK, the position of women is enormously better than it has ever been. As a result of much effort and sacrifice over many years they are now able to vote, access education and reproductive health services, including safe abortion, and have recourse to the law on issues like discrimination in the workplace, domestic abuse and violence. However, there are now new issues, such as online abuse, and some of the old ones, such as physical, mental and sexual violence against women, have not gone away despite legislation against them. Online pornography creates unrealistic expectations of the sexual experience, particularly in men, who are by far the largest proportion of consumers. A small but worrying number of young men who have difficulty finding a romantic relationship self-identify as ‘incels’ (involuntary celibates) and in some cases this has led to violence against women, mainly in the US, but there are indications that young British men are becoming involved in online ‘incel’ groups. The perpetrator of the tragic shooting incident in Plymouth in August 2021 made reference to ‘incels’ in his last You Tube video.


The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women comprises 30 articles committing member states to action on issues such as employment, health, economic and social benefits, equality before the law, and marriage and family life. 198 states have ratified or acceded to the Convention, albeit some with certain declarations, reservations, and objections. However, violations of the Convention occur with alarming frequency, and it is only through constant and courageous international activism by Human Rights organisations and ordinary people that global women’s rights will be advanced and maintained.


Further information

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-63905490

https://www.amnesty.org.uk/blogs/yes-minister-it-human-rights-issue/seven-reasons-we-still-need-fight-womens-human-rights

https://www.bl.uk/womens-rights

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-middle-east-63920617 (a short video with extracts from the secret diaries of women protesting in Iran)

South Korea report here


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