A single moment can spark a revolution, collective actions can transform laws, creative expression can change attitudes and an invention can alter the course of history. It’s these threads that weave together to propel the women’s movement — even in the face of obstacles. Discover how some of these strands, big and small, have shaped your lives, and the rights and lives of women and girls worldwide.
Indignant over women being barred from speaking at an anti-slavery convention, Americans Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott congregate a few hundred people at their nation’s first women’s rights convention in New York. Together they demand civil, social, political and religious rights for women in a Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal.”
The women’s right to vote in particular is met with derision by the public. But a movement is born.
More than a word, feminism is a movement advocating for women’s social, political, legal and economic rights equal to those of men. Its first documented use dates back to 1837 in France, where socialist Charles Fourier uses ‘feminisme’ to describe women’s liberation in a utopian future.
By the early 1900s, it is associated with women’s suffrage, but later evolves to carry more meaning. In particular, ‘intersectional feminism’ draws attention to how women face different forms of discrimination based on factors, such as race, class, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.
In her 1851 speech “Ain't I a woman?”, American feminist and former slave Sojourner Truth draws attention to how women experience sexism differently.
The number of signatures in a ‘monster’ 270-metre long suffrage petition presented to New Zealand’s parliament in 1873. Soon after, New Zealand becomes the first self-governing nation to allow women to vote and inspires suffragists across the globe.
The bicycle as we know it today, paves way for less restrictive clothing and greater mobility for women in some regions.
Marked annually on 8 March, the first International Women’s Day in 1911 amasses more than one million people across Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland for women’s suffrage and labour rights. In its early years, the Day becomes a mechanism to protest World War I. Most notably, in Russia, a large women-led demonstration breaks out demanding “bread and peace!” Four days later, the Czar abdicates. Now a Russian national holiday, the Day is what some historians believe ignited the Russian Revolution.
In the first known campaign of its kind, the Egyptian Society of Physicians goes against tradition by declaring the negative health effects of Female Genital Mutilation. A practice that at least 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone, it takes until the late 20th Century before the term FGM is globally adopted and the practice explicitly classified as a form of violence. Today, the UN, grassroots women’s movements, civil society and others are working together to put an end to the practice.
Incensed by their social standing under colonial rule, the Igbo women send palm leaves — similar to today’s Facebook invite — to their fellow sisters across Southeastern Nigeria. Together they descend in the thousands to “sit on” or make “war on” undemocratically appointed chiefs by publicly shaming them through singing, dancing, banging on their walls and even tearing down roofs. Although the backlash against protests turn deadly, it eventually forces the chiefs to resign and market tax impositions on women to be dropped.
World War I and II drive women to take on “untraditional” jobs as men head to war. A Western cultural icon of women war workers, Rosie the Riveter has since been re-interpreted globally as a symbol of women’s empowerment.
What would you do without clean clothes for weeks? In 1945, Dubliners in Ireland learn the hard way. Tired of unhealthy work conditions, low wages, overtime and limited leave, around 1,500 unionized laundresses go on strike:
We leave it all to you... To gain what we are due.
Commercial laundries get hit, a big business at the time. More than three months (and lots of dirty clothes) later, the strike ends on a victory and gives all Irish workers a statutory second week of annual holidays.
Following the devastation of World War II, the United Nations forms in 1945 to foster international co-operation. Its charter enshrines gender equality:
“We the peoples…reaffirm faith…in the equal rights of men and women”
It is one of many steps the UN takes to lay a foundation for women’s rights: In 1946, the Commission on the Status of Women becomes the first global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to gender equality; and in 2010, UN Women becomes the first UN agency to champion exclusively for women’s rights.
In the inaugural session of the UN General Assembly in 1946, American Eleanor Roosevelt famously reads an "open letter to the women of the world", urging for their increased involvement in national and international affairs.
Translated into more than 500 languages and dialects today, the landmark Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) for the first time in human history spells out basic rights and fundamental freedoms that all human beings — men and women alike — should enjoy.
A symbol of popular feminist resistance, the Mirabal sisters — Minerva, María Teresa, and Patria — also known as Las Mariposas (the butterflies) form an opposition movement to openly protest the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. On 25 November 1960, the sisters are assassinated. The public outcry propels the anti-Trujillo movement, toppling the dictatorship within a year. The day of their brutal murders has since been marked on 25 November to raise awareness on ending violence against women.
The number of women, representing a tenth of the nation’s population, who gather at Iceland’s capital Reykjavik in 1975 to protest economic inequality. The “Women’s Day Off” puts the city’s services, schools and business at a virtual standstill.
The first International Women’s Year, the first UN Decade for Women and the first world conference on women in Mexico escalates global discourse on women’s rights.
Dubbed the "Women's Bill of Rights", the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is the most comprehensive international instrument to protect the human rights of women and is the second most ratified UN human rights treaty after the Convention on the Rights of the Child with ratifications from 189 nations. Adopted in 1979, the convention legally binds signatory governments to end all forms of discrimination against women in public and private life, including in the family, and aims to achieve substantive equality between women and men — not just in laws, but also in reality on the ground.
More than a century since the women’s suffrage movement begins and decades of vigorous activism later, women in a vast number of the world’s countries can vote by the 1980s. In contrast, women are still fighting to take on leadership positions today. How far have we come?
Women in the highest positions of state in the world
The “hippo water roller” allows for a more efficient means to transport clean water, easing the burden of rural women globally, often the main water collectors.
Global norms and standards play a key role in establishing benchmarks for the international community to abide by, and for countries to implement. The end of the 20th Century is marked with a number of landmark treaties and norm-setting outcomes that have transformed women’s lives.
The first international instrument to explicitly address and define forms of violence against women.
A 23-year action plan that puts people and their rights at the heart of development and recognizes women’s sexual and reproductive health as key to everyone’s well-being.
A comprehensive framework adopted at the Fourth World Conference for Women with a road map of actions under 12 critical areas to advance women's rights.
The first UN legal and political framework to recognize that war impacts women differently and to call for women’s participation in conflict prevention and resolution.
A set of eight time-bound goals unanimously adopted by world leaders to end poverty with a 15-year deadline. In 2015, the world reflects on progress and gaps, and develops its next transformative agenda: The Sustainable Development Goals.
From hunger strikes and human chains to petitions and memes, activism comes in many shapes and forms to provoke change.
Similar to the advent of the printer, radio and television, the internet and mobile phone have dramatically transformed the landscape of how people campaign. Some scholars caution that ‘passive’ involvement online (slacktivism) will decrease active involvement offline.
Okay, we are all a little guilty. But with social media often being employed as a means to organize, express outrage and draw awareness to taboo or previously silenced topics, the women’s rights movement might be proving otherwise.
A relentless civil war impels thousands of Liberian women to form a movement. Driven by activist Leymah Gbowee, the movement employs various tactics, most notably: a sex strike to pressure their men to partake in peace talks, and a sit-in on peace negotiations by women who threaten to disrobe as a means to shame and prevent male delegates from leaving without some resolution.
The movement is so successful it ends a 14-year civil war and leads to the election of Africa’s first woman head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
In Northern India’s poverty-stricken Banda ../assetsrict of Uttar Pradesh state, a handful of bamboo-wielding women take matters into their own hands when they hear of a neighbour abusing his wife. Together, they intervene, forcing the husband to acknowledge the abuse and put a stop to it. The modest movement on domestic abuse later snowballs into a statewide one: Today, a “gang” of tens of thousands of women dressed in pink (gulabi) collectively tackle social injustices against women in the state and are inspiring similar uprisings in the nation.
Media plays a powerful role in shaping attitudes towards women and is at the same time a window into how women are viewed. While sexism in media is still plentiful, viral ads and campaigns online are challenging these very stereotypes.
From the Arabian Peninsula to the capitals of North Africa, streams of women vigorously protest for their rights as part of a broader uprising: the pan-Arab movement. The outcry thrusts women into the global limelight, challenging perceptions of them as passive. This determination is not new though: In Morocco, tribal Soulaliyate women continue to fight for land rights; in Tunisia, activism propels gender equality being enshrined in the nation’s constitution; and in Lebanon, campaigning leads to a controversial rape law being scrapped.
It’s a moment that wakes up the world: The attack on a school girl and education activist Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan. Surviving a gunshot wound to the head and neck, watch Malala speak as she marks her first public appearance at the UN on her 16th birthday in 2013.
The estimated number of people worldwide who attend the “women’s march” on 21 January 2017 in solidarity for women’s rights. It’s one of numerous mass uprisings that mark the decade, including: in India, following the gang rape of a student; across Latin America after a succession of femicides; and in Nigeria, following the kidnapping of almost 280 school girls.
The hashtags say it all: Women and girls want a life free of violence and a gender equal world.
Today, 1 in 3 women experience violence in their lifetime; 830 women die every day from preventable pregnancy-related causes; only 1 in 4 parliamentarians worldwide are women; and it will be 2086 before we close the gender pay gap if present trends continue with no action. Gender inequality is rife. As the international community unites around the Sustainable Development Agenda, we owe it to the next generations to strive for a world where women have voice, choice and agency and enjoy the same rights as men.
Women, men, boys and girls, citizens of the world, unite!