Women today, in many parts of the world, can own property, wear what they want, vote or run for office and, in general, enjoy greater freedoms than any other time in history. But the struggle for equality, choice and safety is far from over. There are still many places in the world where women are denied even the most basic of rights. While the west appears to be decades ahead of some of the other parts of the world in terms of women’s rights, women still face social and professional discrimination. Women are still subjected to harassment, sexual assault and a whole range of gender specific problems. Learning about and from the prominent women’s rights activists can help us understand how such significant strides were made and also, what still needs to be done.
Before diving any deeper, however, it is important to state that most women’s rights movements are about needs, wants and choices. Women need to feel secure. Women need to be respected. Women should be able to choose what to wear, where to work, and what to do with their bodies. This list is endless, but it starts at home. You do not need to be an activist or a political figure to make a difference. While this article aims to acknowledge some of the most prominent members of the different movements, any woman (named or unnamed) that has had a positive impact on the lives of other women is worthy of inspiration, respect and, even, imitation.
Women’s Rights – A Brief History
Fighting for the right to be heard is nothing new. For women, that struggle was often harder. If we go back far enough in history, we will be able to find so many ‘firsts’ for women that it will be impossible to list them all in a single place. However, life as we know it for women today is, primarily, the result of around 200 years of struggle.
The first prominent US gathering dedicated to the discussion and promotion of women’s rights was held in Seneca Falls, New York in July 1848. It has come to be known as the Seneca Falls Convention. Including the principal organizers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Mott, the convention was attended by around a 100 people. The gathering included some men as well. However, the majority of the attendees were women. Stanton drafted the ‘Declaration of Sentiments, Grievances and Resolutions’ that included the right to franchise, which is often regarded as the beginning of the Women’s Suffrage Movement.
Besides the struggle to achieve broader economic, social and political equality, women, as part of the suffrage movement, strived to achieve the right to vote in elections. National and international organizations, such as the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, were formed to coordinate the effort to change voting laws. With the Grand Duchy of Finland (then a part of the Russian Empire) being the first to gain the right to vote and run for office in 1906, most western powers, including the USA in 1920, extended voting rights to women by the mid-20th century.
The First World War played a significant role in this empowerment of women. Enlistment and conscription for the US war effort resulted in a large number of vacancies. Additionally, the war resulted in the creation of new businesses and jobs leading to a great disparity in the number of jobs and the available workforce. The focus, then, turned towards women. Women found themselves in environments and jobs, traditionally, considered the domain of men. While things improved significantly, the wage gap was massive, resulting in the earliest demands for equal pay.
However, once the men returned from war, new problems arose. A lot of women were laid off. On the other hand, men found themselves competing against women for employment for the first time in history. In the absence of laws protecting working women, discrimination, harassment and marginalization of women in the workplace became rampant.
Similar to the First World War, World War II created new opportunities for women once again. Life for women in western countries improved drastically. Advances in household technologies eased women’s household responsibilities, and allowed them to have more free time. Medical advancements improved life expectancies as well as the overall quality of life. The booming service industry meant that there was an increasing number of jobs that did not rely on physical strength, leading to more employment opportunities for women.
While subsequent milestones were achieved with leaps and bounds, the struggle has been real. The Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s and ‘70s was a diverse social movement that focused on equal rights, opportunities and personal liberties. This is often considered the Second Wave of Feminism which focused on the different aspects of a woman’s life – politics, employment, freedoms and sexuality. Through organized activism, women were once again able to achieve significant social and legal reforms.
Feminism can be defined as the struggle to achieve gender equality in areas of life ranging from economic opportunities to political representation and everything in between. While many regard it as a movement by itself, there are those that consider feminism to be the umbrella that covers all other movements that focus on improving life for women.
Feminism can be divided into 3 or 4 waves, depending on who you ask. The first wave, from 1848 to 1920, was dedicated to achieving political equality for women. It is important to note that the first wave of feminism does not necessarily mean that it was the origin of feminist thought. Women have been fighting to improve their lives for many hundreds of years, if not more. The first wave, however, resulted in the first significant coordinated effort to achieve political rights such as voting and female representation.
The origins of the second wave are popularly attributed to Betty Freidan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963. Popular opinion holds that this wave ran well into the 1980s. This wave focused on economic independence, sexual and other personal freedoms as well as social, economic and legal reforms. This wave merged personal issues with political ones and resulted in significant global changes. This wave also took racism into consideration – an issue previously largely ignored by previous movements.
While the majority agrees that the third wave began in 1990s, commonly attributed to the Anita Hill case, there is a lack of consensus on when it ended. Some argue that it is still going on. Thus, there’s a lack of clarity on whether there’s a fourth wave or just an extended third wave. There has been a great emphasis on sexual harassment, gender and sexual identities, sexual orientation and building female self-worth. This wave has been about opening up to new ideas, embracing greater diversity and letting go of traditional and overly conservative mind sets and perceptions within and about women.
The coming of social media have brought women’s issues and movements to the forefront. This unprecedented level of connectivity has allowed women to share experiences, and provide support and guidance to each other. One by-product of this new interconnectivity is the #MeToo Movement. Lead by victims of sexual harassment in Hollywood, women began publicizing allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct on social media platforms, resulting in high-profile investigations and convictions.
Prominent Women’s Rights Activists that Changed History
1 – Lucretia Mott (1793-1880)
Lucretia Mott was a Quaker abolitionist and a strong proponent of civil and women’s rights. At the time, even anti-slavery organizations did not allow female membership. This resulted in her forming women’s abolitionist societies and she was chosen as a delegate to speak at the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London in in 1840. However, the organizers of the convention refused to allow female participation and discussion of women’s rights.
This resulted in her becoming a key organizer of the Seneca Falls Convention in Seneca Falls, New York in 1840 – the first convention of its kind in the United States. This is the convention where the Declaration of Sentiments was presented by Elizabeth Stanton. This is often considered the beginning of the suffrage movement, and Mott is considered one of the key early suffragettes.
Mott’s lifelong commitment remained the advocacy of human rights and abolition. She was a pacifist and an eloquent orator – characteristics that helped her become one of the most important figures for women’s rights movements and social reforms.
2 – Sojourner Truth (1797-1883)
She was an African-American abolitionist who dedicated her life to gender equality regardless of race. She was born into slavery, but managed to escape with her son when she was 29 and, in 1828, became the first black woman to win a custody case against a white man. In 1851, she attended the Ohio Women’s Right Convention and her speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” moved hearts and minds and is still popular to this day.
She helped recruit African-Americans for the Union in the American Civil War and fought against segregation and racism. In fact, her efforts resulted in widespread recognition and even an invitation to the White House in 1964 by Abraham Lincoln.
3 – Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902)
Stanton is widely considered as one of the founding members of the suffrage movement. She was one of the key organizers of the first women’s right convention on US soil – the Seneca Falls Convention held in 1848. Her Declaration of Sentiments is often considered the cornerstone of the early women’s rights and suffrage movements. She was also the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association between 1880 and 1892.
Her husband, Henry Brewster Stanton, was the co-founder of the Republican Party. Together, they were staunch abolitionists. Her struggle, however, went beyond slavery and suffrage. She also fought for, among other things, women’s custody rights, property rights, employment and economic opportunities, divorce, and family and personal health issues such as birth control.
She, along with Susan B Anthony, were not in favor of the 14th and 15th Amendments that gave legal protections and voting rights to African-American males while women, irrespective of color, were denied those rights. She authored many works, including The Woman’s Bible and her autobiography Eighty Years and More, focusing on the different issues faced by the women of the day.
4 – Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906)
Susan B Anthony is one of the best known and most iconic women’s rights activists in history. She was an abolitionist that grew up in a Quakers household fighting against slavery. She was a staunch supporter of gender and racial equality, and was closely associated with another activist, Elizabeth Stanton (one of the organizers of the Seneca Falls Convention. They eventually disagreed with the American Woman Suffrage Association on the 15th Amendment and parted ways.
She was eventually arrested in 1872 as she was trying to cast a vote for Ulysses S Grant. She eventually presented the 19th Amendment to the US Congress, which was ratified in 1920, finally allowing women to vote. This eventually came to be known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.
5 – Ida B. Wells (1862-1931)
She was an African-American journalist and educator and one of the most prominent leaders of the early civil rights movements. She was also one of the founding members of the racial equality organization that came to be known as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
She was born as a slave and was freed in accordance to Abraham Lincolns Emancipation Proclamation. She dedicated her professional life as an educator for the discriminated and marginalized sections of American society and worked as an investigative reporter, documenting and exposing the atrocities committed against people of color.
6 – Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954)
She was one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree and was at the forefront of civil rights and suffrage movements. She was an educator and taught Latin in America’s first African-American School – the M Street School (now known as the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School) in Washington. Her efforts gained her widespread recognition and respect, and she became the first African-American to earn a membership to a school board of a major US city.
She was also an active member of the NAACP and the Colored Women’s League of Washington. In 1896, she was one of the founding members and the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, an organization dedicated to fighting for women’s voting rights and other issues. She was one of the founding members of the National Association of College Women in 1910. She was closely associated with Susan B Anthony.
She was a journalist as well and worked under a pseudonym. She wrote for, both, black and white publications. Through her written work, she aimed to create awareness about issues faced by women, particularly, black women. She was a staunch support of racial integration and desegregation and remained actively involved in various rights movements throughout her life.
7 – Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
Frida Kahlo was born in Mexico and was a strong supporter of the Mexican Revolution. She was a painter and was best known for her self-portraits that aimed to provoke deep thought and self-realization, especially among women. She used her work to promote her view on, then, taboo subjects such as abortion, breast feeding and other aspects of the female experience. She aimed to inspire conversations on controversial subjects.
She, along with her husband, was politically active and struggled against Franco’s regime in the Spanish Civil War. She even protested against the CIA’s involvement in regime changes in foreign lands and attended a protest against US intervention in Guatemala just days before her death. She was openly bisexual and unapologetic and used her work to encourage open minded attitudes towards sexuality.
8 – Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986)
Simone de Beauvoir was a Paris born French philosopher, writer and activist. However, her most influential work, The Second Sex, written in 1949 had a global impact and helped formulate ideas about modern feminism. In her book, she openly criticized the patriarchy and disagreed with the notion that women should only have a passive role in society. The book was unsuccessfully ostracized by the Vatican. Instead, she went on to start the conversation about the problems with feminism and how to move forward in a way that improves the lives of women. She fought for personal freedoms such as abortion rights and was an instrumental part of the global movement for the empowerment of women.
9 – Fannie Lou Hamer (nee Townsend, 1917-1977)
Hamer was an African-American suffragette, women’s rights activist, community organizer and leader, and a leader in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. She was a founding member and vice chairman of the Freedom Democratic Party, which she represented at the Democratic National Convention of 1964.
She was also one of the organizers of the Mississippi Freedom Summer and one of the co-founders of the National Women’s Political Caucus. The caucus was created to discover, recruit, train and support women running for office in any capacity.
She became a part of the civil rights movement in 1962, and continued the struggle for 9 years until she started facing health issues. She was subjected to extortion, threats, and harassment, and was even shot at by white supremacists and police alike. She even ran for the US Senate in 1964 and the Mississippi State Senate in 1971, but was not successful in these endeavors. She was, posthumously, inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993 for her desegregation efforts, fight for voting rights and her general activism for improving the lives of women.
10 – Betty Friedan (1921-2006)
She was an American feminist writer and women’s rights activist. She is considered a leading figure in 20th century women’s rights activism.
Discontent as a housewife, she surveyed her fellow Smith College Alumni about their aims, aspirations and contentment with the state of things. She published her findings in her 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique. Her findings indicated that, contrary to popular belief, a lot of women were not content staying at home as housewives. Her work served as the catalyst the sparked the second-wave of feminism in the 1960s.
She was the co-founder and first president of the National Organization for Women (NOW). She fought for abortion rights and was openly pro-choice. She also founded the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) in 1969, now known as NARAL Pro-Choice America. She was also one of the founding figures of the Women’s Political Caucus.
11 – Audre Lorde (1934-1992)
Lorde was a prominent revolutionary, poet and feminist. She was a New Yorker and a daughter of Caribbean immigrants. She was considered legally blind, and grew up with a speech impediment that added a unique perspective to her brand of feminism. She was black, queer, disabled and a woman – she had to fight for everything she was able to achieve.
Her works explored themes such as racism, women’s rights and issues, homosexual relationships and homophobia. She criticized feminist movements for focusing only on the problems faced by white women and promoted diversity and inclusivity in order to make feminism a force to be reckoned with.
12 – Malala Yousafzai (1997–)
Malala Yousafzai comes from a tribal background in the Swat Valley in Pakistan. At the age of 11, she started writing about her experience living under the threat of the Taliban that, often, resort to violence in preventing girls from going to school. At the age of 15, she was subjected to an attempted assassination by the Taliban and shot in the head. However, she survived and found international support, fame and prominence.
She has found a global reach and advocates social and gender issues, especially those faced by women in the less developed parts of the world. Her voice, however, resonates with western activists as well. Her experiences are a message for western feminists that the struggle is far from over. True equality cannot be achieved, unless it is achieved globally. As long as women are marginalized anywhere in the world, the fight for gender equality should continue. As a result of her experiences, efforts and advocacy, she became the youngest Nobel Laureate in history when she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.
The Way Forward
Perhaps the next step forward is to take a step back. A common theme among the most prominent female leaders and women’s right activists is that success never came without adversity. They never gave up. They never stopped fighting for their rights. They never stopped fighting for our rights. We should take a moment to pause and acknowledge their struggles, and be grateful for the part they played in shaping the world as we know it – making life easier for women, and even men, today.
Another lesson we should learn is that no one woman was able to achieve everything at once. There were imperfections in their plans and agendas. For instance, some ignored the racial element of women’s rights while others only focused on the issues faced by women in the western world. The message is clear – we as a society have to band together to form a better world.
A frequently asked question is – Is feminism or women’s rights activism still relevant today? The simple answer is that it is. There is still a long way to go. A common misconception is that with the strides feminist movements have made in achieving the right to work, the right to choose what to wear, whom to love and how to live, there is no longer a need for feminism. However, you only need to open a social media platform, or watch the news to know that women still face discrimination, and are still victims of harassment. They are still bound by social restrictions and limited by negative perceptions.
While, women are increasingly speaking out about the injustices they face, women’s right movements that are not critical of themselves are doomed to fail. Feminism, going forward, needs to investigate the intersection between socio-economic class, race, sexuality and gender. Men should also be included in all discussions as the best way forward is universal inclusivity. Religion, culture and traditions need to be taken into consideration when developing feminist theories and movements. In the modern world, with changing attitudes towards sexual, gender identities and transformations, feminism, femininity and women’s rights need to be redefined.