For centuries, women were restricted to the domestic sphere. And though our western societies have evolved, it has been difficult for women to enter the public sphere. They have had to fight to gain recognition and more rights in a male-dominated society.
I The Suffragettes: fighting for the right to vote
The Suffragettes were activists who believed women should influence public policy as well as men. That’s why they fought for women’s right to vote at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Indeed, at that time, women were still considered second-class citizens, even in a country like the UK whose female leaders are famous and recognised worldwide.
Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 and became the Suffragettes’ public voice. Her favourite motto was “Deeds, not words” for she believed women had to resort to demonstrations, strikes and violence to be heard.
• public policy: la politique publique • to resort to: avoir recours à • to be granted to: être accordé à
Years of advocacy and women’s contribution to the war effort eventually challenged the idea of women’s inferiority and inability to make decisions about their country: in the UK, suffrage was granted to women over 30 in 1918 and to all women over 21 in 1928.
II Women’s Lib and the changing role of women in the 1960s
A second wave of activism started in the USA with the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960s. It fought against sex-based discrimination and claimed equal rights for men and women: equal education, pay, job opportunities but also intellectual and financial independence.
Women’s Lib made things and laws change for most women in western countries, especially in the fields of employment, family or sexuality and reproductive rights. In the USA, the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibited employment discrimination based on sex (as well as on race, religion or origin). In 1965, married couples were given the right to use birth control and in 1972, the Supreme Court legalised birth control for all American women.
Most of all, by bringing private matters into the public view, the movement made more and more people acknowledge gender equality was a serious issue. It challenged men’s power in society and eventually changed the perception of women’s role worldwide.
III Women’s rights today
1 The situation of women today
Despite these achievements, gender stereotypes still have an impact on today’s society and the gender gap is still visible in terms of power and pay. For instance, the average gender pay gap in the European Union in 2016 was 16%; it was almost 18% in the USA in 2017. And still in 2016, women only held less than 5% of CEO positions in the 500 biggest American companies.
• CEO (chief executive officer): PDG • UN (United Nations): ONU
Nowadays, many feminist organisations focus on the negative impact of the stereotypes which still weigh on women and are spread by advertising and the media. The “HeforShe” campaign, initiated by the UN in 2014, aims at achieving gender equality by involving men and boys in the fight.
2 The #MeToo movement
In 2017, the Harvey Weinstein case showed how far we still are from equality. The powerful Hollywood media producer was accused of sexual harassment and assault by several women. The #MeToo movement which followed and spread through the social media shed light on the reality of sexual harassment and abuse in many women’s lives, especially in the workplace.
The #MeToo movement was a shockwave that made a great number of people react everywhere in the world. Will those facts help women’s voice to be truly listened to at last? Will access to the public sphere eventually help women to achieve gender equality?