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10 Facts about Women’s Rights

Everyone deserves basic human rights like the right to life, the right to freedom from discrimination, the right to education, and so on. However, for thousands of years – and still to this day – the rights of women and girls have been neglected, threatened, and stripped away. While gender’s connection to power has varied based on time, place, and culture, the struggle for women’s rights is one of the oldest human rights battles. In this article, we’ll explore ten facts about women’s rights, including the origins of gender inequality, the relationship between sexism and racism, and where women’s rights stand today.

#1. Pinpointing the start of gender inequality is difficult

When did women’s rights become threatened? It’s hard to say. In 2019, Cosmos Magazine described a study published in the European Journal of Archaeology that provides some insight. In the study, archaeologists analyzed around 500 bodies from 21 sites (5000-8000 years old) to see if signs of gender inequality could be found in pre-history before written records. The sex of most bodies couldn’t be determined, but for every female grave, there were around 1 ½ male graves. The researchers suggested this evidence could show a “cultural element,” meaning that women and children were less likely to get a formal burial. The study’s authors believe their findings indicate a need for further research on archaeological sites.

An earlier study in 2017 pointed to the Bronze Age as the beginning of gender inequality, at least in China. Researchers found male graves contained more riches. Also, female skeletons suddenly became shorter. This could link to changes in farming in this era, including new plants and domesticated animals, which led to women getting less nutrition in childhood because they weren’t as valued as men. We’ll likely never know the exact time gender inequality began and it’s also likely it isn’t the same everywhere in the world. We can say that women’s rights have been less valued in many places for a very, very long time.

#2. Not every culture devalues women’s rights

Not every place in the world sees women as inferior. The Mosuo people in the Yunnan and Sichuan regions in China are a good example. An isolated community, the Mosuo have maintained a matriarchal or matrilineal society. This means children take the name of their mother’s family, women run the households and finances, and mothers pass down inheritances to their daughters. Marriages are based on mutual consent and can be ended easily. A study of the Musuo found women are healthier in this type of system, though obviously there are other factors at play. Men do well in this system, as well, and still enjoy political power and freedom.

In Indonesia, the Minangkabau culture is the largest known matrilineal society. Clan property is passed down from mother to daughter. While men take the more commonplace political and spiritual leadership roles, the women’s role as head of the household is highly valued. Decisions are made together and girls are prized. Women also select the chief and have the power to remove him if they believe he’s failed in his responsibilities. Retired professor Taufik Abdullah was quoted in a Daily Beast article saying, “Women are the connection between the present and the past.” It’s also worth noting that most of the Minang people are Muslim, which is a religion often believed to be inherently sexist. The role of Minang women shows that isn’t the case.

#3. Women’s rights fluctuate over the years

The history of women’s rights is not linear. In some eras, it was a mixed bag. According to History on the Net, Mesopotamian women in Sumer enjoyed more rights than women in the Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian societies that came later. Sumerian women could own property, run businesses (with a husband), and become scribes, priestesses, or physicians. However, experts theorize that a patriarchal structure became more powerful as Mesopotamian cultures became wealthier. The story of women’s rights in Mesopotamia shows that time doesn’t always mean progress.

#4. Women have the right to vote in every country

Officially, every country with voting now allows women to vote. New Zealand became the first in 1893 while in 1902, the Commonwealth Franchise Act gave all White women in Australia the right to vote and the right to stand for election to parliament. According to Pew Research, at least 19 other countries in Europe and Asia followed suit before the United States passed the 19th Amendment in 1920. Saudi Arabia didn’t give women the right to vote until 2015. The right to vote doesn’t ensure voting access. In Saudi Arabia in 2015, only 10% of the ballots cast were by women. In Pakistan, where women have been able to vote since 1947, female turnout is among the lowest in the world.

#5. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy inspired the American suffragettes

In the United States in the 1880s, women struggled to make progress on equal rights. Suffragettes like Matilda Joslyn Gage looked to the Six Nation Haudenosaunee Confederacy, where women had power. They controlled the food system – growing and distribution – and had final say over decisions regarding war and land transfers. Haudenosaunee women also controlled their own property and belongings. Political power was shared equally, making the Six Nations one of the oldest democracies in the world. In suffragette history, this connection with Native American women is often overlooked. For her part, Gage was pushed out of the suffragette movement for being too radical. She supported Native American rights and rejected the white supremacist leanings of the mainstream suffragette movement.

#6. Women’s rights and racism have a close relationship

It’s impossible to talk about women’s rights movements without talking about racism. The data presents a jarring picture: at least 19 countries (including the US) restricted women’s right to vote based on factors like race. Australia, which was one of the first nations to give women voting rights, excluded Indigenous women until 1962. In South Africa, White women got the vote in 1930 while apartheid excluded Black women from voting until 1993. In the US, the early suffragette movement was saturated with racism. While activists like Susan B. Anthony fought for abolition, they were appalled when Black men were given the right to vote before White women.

The racism that fractured the women’s rights movement lingers today. Too many mainstream women’s rights movements and campaigns are guilty of “white feminism,” ignoring or even attacking the concerns and contributions of non-White (especially Black) women. Critics of white feminism advocate for ‘“intersectional feminism,” a phrase coined by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, which describes how forms of discrimination (sexism, racism, etc) overlap.

#7. Women’s rights activism has evolved

While the “waves of feminism” metaphor is imperfect and imprecise, it’s still commonly used to represent the different goals of feminists from different eras. From 1848-to 1920, activists focused on the right to vote and abolition. As we discussed before, this movement became divided over race. Leaders like Sojourner Truth, Frances E.W. Harper, and Frederick Douglass worked for universal suffrage while Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton only wanted votes for White women. First-wave feminism goals also included the right to own property, reproductive rights, and equal opportunities. Second-wave feminism, which goes through the 1980s, focused on sexism, gender roles, domestic violence, sexual harassment, and equal opportunities. The third wave is not easily defined but saw more women in power and the coining of intersectionality as a term. Despite progress, women’s rights still face many of the same threats.

#8. Violence often threatens women’s rights

Throughout history, violence has weakened women’s rights. Gender-based violence (GBV) refers to any harmful act directed at someone or a group based on their gender, but it disproportionately affects women and girls. There are a variety of types of violence, including emotional violence, sexual violence, physical violence, and economic violence. Violence and harassment often occur within relationships, but women face increased risk in the workplace and online. GBV affects the individuals targeted, but also has broad, long-term consequences for families and society. The protection of women’s rights includes preventing gender-based violence.

#9. Currently, there’s an increase in transphobia masked as women’s rights activism

In the early 1970s, “gender critical” feminists began threatening violence against trans women in spaces for women and lesbians. Gender critical feminists were a small – but vocal – group and their ideology had a tangible impact on trans women and transition-related healthcare. Today, you’ll see the term TERF circulated online, which stands for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist.” Those who don’t believe trans women are “real” women often still call themselves “gender critical.” The UK is a hotbed for this transphobia, though it exists in the United States, as well. Some gender-critical feminists have even aligned with right-wing groups to promote their beliefs, which they claim protect women. As attacks on trans people – especially trans women – amp up, it’s important to recognize how calls for “women’s rights” can be weaponized.

#10. It will take 135 years to reach gender equality

According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), it will take just over 135 years to reach global gender parity. A few years ago, it was about 100 years, but the COVID-19 pandemic added over three decades. There are a few reasons for this, including the fact that women make up the majority of the industries most affected by COVID, like the hospitality and retail industries. Women also took on more responsibilities at home such as caring for children or other family members. Many had to leave the workforce. Women’s rights clearly have a long way to go, but as we’ve seen from history, progress is possible.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.