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The long fight of women
by Antoni Ferret
08 Jun 2002
Many fights, many years, and some good results.
But it hasn't been easy.
THE LONG FIGHT OF WOMEN
(A short summary)
Our starting point is a traditional situation, in which religion, law and science formed an alliance that contended woman’s inferiority. This status quo was unchallenged neither by the Renaissance nor by the Lutheran Reform.
But there was an early pioneer, the French Christine de Pizan, who staunchly championed the idea that girls should receive an education equal to that of boys; in her work "Le livre de la Cité des Dames" ("The Book of the City of the Ladies", 1405) she attacked the concept of woman’s inferiority.
The feminist fight experienced its first period of strength during, naturally, the French Revolution. Women’s political clubs were created in order to defend women’s rights. In 1791, Olympe de Gouges challenged the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" by writing the "Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen", where she states that if “woman has the right to mount the scaffold, she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum”.
But the first terrible fiasco was lurking. When, in 1793, the women’s clubs demanded from the National Assembly the statement and legislation of their equal rights, this was vehemently denied, and, furthermore, the feminine clubs were prohibited. Some of those feminist fighters were put to death or were imprisoned. The Napoleonic Civil Code confirmed the submission of the wife to the husband, and this would continue to be the law in Europe during almost 200 years.
In the meantime, in England, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote and published in 1792 "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman".
During the 19th century, feminism evolved as an international social movement, and claimed its own space in the Socialist and Anarchist movements. But still, society, such as it was, denied women many rights, even more so if they were married and had to submit to their husbands. Women didn’t have the right to vote, but had to pay taxes the same as men. In every country, groups of women started fighting for their rights, and, overcoming resistance and mockery, in the last decades of the century they succeeded in securing some improvements.
The year 1848 marks the second important fiasco. In the USA, as many women as men, or even more, had been supporting the anti-slavery campaign. But when an international anti-slavery conference took place in London, women were not allowed to participate.
In the same year 1848, the First Woman’s Rights Convention was held at Seneca Falls, not far from New York (USA). It brought forth a strong increase of the activities in defense of women’s claims.
The mainstream of this struggle was concerned with women’s suffrage (hence the term "suffragettes"). Women, specially the members of the bourgeois or middle class, fought for their right to vote, in order to be able to influence the rest of their civil rights through the legislation process.
In 1868, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony founded the National Woman Suffrage Association in the USA.
In Europe the feminist movement was also gaining force, mainly in Great Britain, where the House of Commons approved three times —in 1870, 1884 and 1897— women’s right to vote, only to see it steadfastly rejected by the House of Lords.
This rejection provoked a radicalization in the suffragette movement. In 1897, under the leadership of Millicent Garret Fawcett, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies came into being. The upsurge of their activities took the form of civil disobedience, attacks against property and hunger strikes, while massive demonstrations were organized. Many feminist fighters went to prison, some even died in the battles for their cause (one feminist committed suicide by throwing herself in front of the horses during a race).
Feminism experienced a close, and at times conflictive rapport with the Socialist movement, although the first feminist reformers belonged to the middle class: at that time, they alone had the cultural background and the financial means to undertake any kind of social action. Trade unions were against women’s employment, because it might bring about a reduction of men’s wages; they did not act in the interest of women workers. The consequence was the establishment of all-women unions, and this forced the Socialist (Labour) parties and unions to take up the problems of women as part of the broader social issues that concerned them. In 1879 August Bebel wrote "Women and Socialism", a theoretical description of women’s role in an ideal socialist society. During those years, working-class women felt frustrated by the feminist movement, because it stood for the interests of a social class that was not their own.
In 1889 the Second International (Socialist) included the social and legal rights of women in its program. At the time, its most influential leader was Clara Zetkin, a German woman of Polish origin. She claimed that the struggle of women was an integral part of the proletarian fight for the emancipation of both groups.
The Women’s Socialist International was founded in 1907 on two main agreements: the break-up of all ties to bourgeois feminism and the commitment of the Social-democratic parties to defend women’s right to vote.
In Russia, the development of a strong feminist movement started after the Revolution of 1905; the force behind it was Alexandra Kollontai, author of "The Social Basis of the Woman’s Question". In 1908 the First Women’s Congress of Russia took place in St. Petersburg.
In the USA, starting in 1909, the last Sunday of February was chosen as Woman’s Day, and celebrated with demonstrations in favor of the political and financial rights of women. A year later, 1910, in Copenhagen, the Second International (Socialist) Women’s Conference gave it international dimension; the date was changed a few times, till International Woman’s Day was definitively established on March 8th, in celebration of the rising of Russian women, an act which was the prelude to the Russian February Revolution (in the Russian calendar, the day is February 23rd).
The First World War was a moment of crisis in the feminist movement, with the division between those women who were supporting the war, on the basis of their nationalistic beliefs, and the feminists who spoke up for peace.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 was the beginning of a period where the ideals of equality of women came into being: women started to enjoy legal independence, sexual freedom, nurseries for their children, etc. Alexandra Kollontai said that the revolution had to happen first within the family, in order to establish a new idea of sex and gender. But all of this was short-lived : when the revolution was corrupted by Stalinism, the newly experienced gains also suffered greatly.
Finally, in 1920, women gained their voting right in the USA; in Great Britain they had to wait till 1928, in Spain till 1933 and in France till 1946. Some countries had been early pioneers; Finland (1907), Russia (1917) and Sweden (1918).
Outside the Western World it is worth mentioning the effect of the Chinese Revolution of 1949. The Marriage Law of 1950 freed women, by giving them full legal equality to men, inside and outside of the family.
During the sixties and seventies, the movement started again in the Western World, and soon showed its strength in the fight for new legal and socioeconomic aims: legal rights of the married woman, divorce, abortion, no-penalization of adultery, better work opportunities for women, equal pay for equal work... Up to which point those rights have been achieved still differs from country to country.
Well... that’s not the whole story, and it hasn’t ended yet. As with many other issues, the struggle is still ongoing. A few conclusions could be:
1) The periods when women’s fight has been strongest coincide with the periods of intense battle of the working classes: French Revolution, Russian Revolution, Chinese Revolution, the 60’s and 70’s.
2) Each and everyone of women’s achievements has been gained through their own struggle. None of these gains has been a gift; women have not received anything free from their male counterparts.
Even though it might appear that the two previous conclusions are contradictory, they are not: everything has to do with dialectics, contradictions and struggles, and with the complex mix of all of them.
We, as men, have to clearly understand that the struggle of women is also “ours”, because women are our partners in the family, at work, of our intellectual pursuits, in the political battles and in friendship. The further women can reach in their self-realization, the more we will receive in our mutual interaction.
Ahead all together!
(The source of most of the data used in this article has been the work of Carme López "La lluita pels drets de les dones. Dia Internacional de la Dona".)
(Translated by Harold Manly Stewart / Carina Esteve)