By Fiona Pape

03 December 2014 - 04:08

'Women's suffrage marks a watershed moment for equality in many countries.'
'Women's suffrage marks a watershed moment for equality in many countries.' Photo ©

DVIDSHUB, licensed under CC BY-2.0 and adapted from the original.

In the final instalment of our blog series on the 80 moments that shaped the world in the last 80 years, we turn to number ten: the move towards greater equality for women in many parts of the world. The British Council's Fiona Pape looks back at how far we've come.

Women's equality was still a new concept 80 years ago

The early 20th century was a period of many hard-won firsts for British women in the professional, educational and public spheres. There was the first professional woman pilot in 1914, the first woman MP in 1919, the first women jurors to be sworn in in 1920, the first woman barrister in 1921, the first woman veterinarian in 1922, and the first woman stockbroker, in Dublin, in 1925. Oxford University admitted its first female student to full membership in 1920.

It was also a period of important legal changes in the UK, including the first piece of equal opportunities legislation, the Sex Disqualification Removal Act of 1919, which allowed women to join the professions for the first time. In 1926, the legal age of marriage for girls was raised from 12 to 16.

The introduction of voting rights is often seen as a watershed moment in women’s equality

Over the past 80 years, a lot more has changed for women in many countries, especially in terms of employment rules, reproductive rights, and anti-harassment laws. Women's suffrage marks a watershed moment for equality in many countries.

In 1934, women in the UK were already voting, but only just. The first general election in which all British women over the age of 21 could vote was only five years before, in 1929. The first three decades of the century had seen the rise of the suffragette movement in the UK, driven by activists such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Davison.

Women received the right to vote in different countries at different times: from 1893, in New Zealand, to 2005 in Kuwait. In some cases, women were only allowed to vote in local elections first, and then in national elections some years later. 

In the mid-20th century, women’s equality became an international issue

The UN has done a lot to try to improve the rights of women globally and address gender inequality, including equal rights for women in its founding Charter in 1945. It also adopted an international bill of rights for women in 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), in which states commit to writing gender equality into their legal systems and to protect women from discrimination.

Social attitudes must change, not just laws

The reality on the ground, however, for many women, is that there is still much needed to implement and embed the rules and rights as determined in the courts. In many societies, there is still a long way to go. I’m writing this from Nairobi, where, yesterday, there was a protest march in the city centre with the hashtag ‘#MyDressMyChoice’ following two separate incidents where women were attacked, stripped and paraded on the street naked by a male group of self-appointed moral police because they felt the women were provocatively dressed.

Cultural and traditional norms play an important role in perpetuating issues relating to gender inequality. The battle to end female genital mutilation, for example, still goes on in many parts of the world. This practice is mostly female-led, viewed as a traditional rite of passage, and it raises the question about the notion and extent to which women themselves are the ‘carriers of culture’.

Women’s equality is a precondition for solving many of the world’s problems

The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan once said, 'Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance.'

Women represent a disproportionate percentage of the world's poor. But it would be a mistake to look at gender equality only in terms of how it relates to poverty and economics. We need to understand how and why gender inequality continues, not just among the poor, but in society as a whole. We also need to measure how equally salaries and opportunities are shared out between men and women.

close look at the Nordic countries, which often come out top in global surveys on women's equality, suggests that making sure women have access to decent childcare, healthcare, and education is crucial. Norway also has gender quotas in place, to make sure that women make up at least 40 per cent of its companies' top leadership jobs.

Women's equality involves us all – men and women

Alongside this recognition, a small but significant shift has taken place over the last few decades in the language used to describe this issue. What were once described as ‘women’s issues’ are now called ‘gender issues’.

In the mid-1980s, when this shift started happening, the feminist historian Joan W. Scott explained why it was important: 'Gender as a substitute for "women" is used to suggest that information about women is necessarily information about men, that one implies the study of the other ... [T]he world of women is part of the world of men, created in and by it. [T]o study women in isolation perpetuates the fiction that one sphere, the experience of one sex, has little or nothing to do with the other.'

The notion that men have a role to play in these issues, that gender equality is a shared issue, is gaining ground. The recent UN Women’s ‘HeForShe’ campaign shows that gender equality is a human rights issue that concerns everyone, men and women. While the campaign targets men, their choice of spokesperson, Emma Watson, was a clever and crucial element to the campaign’s success; a young actress with mass appeal to a young generation of ‘Harry Potter’ fans who watched her as the smart heroine throughout the movie series.

Will things continue to get better for women?

There's still much work to be done, but things are changing. The media, and especially social media, are keeping the conversation about gender equality going, as the example from Nairobi above illustrates. Young people are sharing their experiences of gender inequality on social networks and YouTube. The astonishing and inspiring story of the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize winner, Pakistani Malala Yousafzai, has shone a bright light on the importance of girls' education, raising awareness and support. This allows people, often women, from different parts of the world to add their voices to the continuing conversation about women’s equality.

Meanwhile, the UN, donor agencies and corporate foundations are investing in developing countries to ensure girls receive basic education, setting up programmes like the UN Foundation's Girl Up and the UK's Department for International Development and the Nike Foundation's Girl Hub.

Continuing this conversation and projects such as these is an essential part of the global effort to achieve gender equality.

In the context of its 80th anniversary, the British Council has produced — with the help of eminent experts and the public in ten countries — a ranking of the top 80 moments, developments, individuals, and changes of the last 80 years.

What is your view? We want to know if you agree or disagree with the top 20. Which missing moment, person or innovation do you think should be in the list? 

Take part in the conversation on social media using the hashtag #80Moments.

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