In the lead up to International Women’s Day on 8th March, we reflect on society’s journey towards gender equality.
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Simply put, in the words of the UN, gender equality is the “respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to sex”. For many girls, this means being able to go to school with their brothers. For others, it means being able to talk about their period at school and not be bullied for it. In some parts of the world, this means not being subjected to physical and verbal abuse from their communities while menstruating. For women in many countries across the world, this means not being at the receiving end of violence full stop. In some cases, gender equality is tangible and practical, like the right to drive a car. In others, it’s a hazier, less definable web of deeply imbedded social norms that culminates in a lack of voice, a lack of respect or a much too easily applied label.
Of course, gender equality has consequences not just for women. A stigmatised minority are those who identify with the many identities binary gender fails to recognise. For these people, gender equality begins with having more than two options to choose from on a form and perhaps ends with their choices being a cause for celebration, not discrimination. The journey towards gender equality has also caused us to reflect on the stifling gender roles placed not only on women, but also on men: gender equality can also mean a society that encourages men to express their emotions and admit vulnerability in the face of difficult issues, particularly concerning mental health. Clearly, there are myriad gender equalities.
Thinking about them also causes us to consider the journey so far: when did we start thinking about gender equality? What were societies like before gender equality was considered? How far have we come?
A brief history of gender equality
Humans have long distinguished binary gender. Early human societies were organised around this distinction: the men decide how to run the society, the women don’t. It is highly likely that almost all societies were patriarchal. There is some evidence of a matriarchal society in ancient Crete but this is an exception rather than the norm. As well as power and dominance, the vast majority of early societies also attributed inheritance to males. The vestiges of this organisation of inheritance are still visible today in Western societies’ custom of a married woman taking her husband’s surname.
Societies functioned more or less like this for roughly the next 300,000 years. Throughout this time, there were individuals who called for gender equality, among them Plato in 380BC, Christine de Pizan in the early 1400s and Margaret Cavendish in the 17th century. In the 18th century, the Shakers, an evangelical group from England, successfully practiced gender equality in their ministry in America, interestingly by becoming strict celebrants. In wider society, the move towards gender equality really began with the suffrage movement in the late 19th century in mostly Western cultures. Only in 1985 was the movement declared global following a UN World Conference in Nairobi focused on women’s rights.
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Viewed from this distance, some of the changes in regards to women’s status in society have occurred remarkably recently. Most of the changes made to the legal and social role of women have occurred in the last 30 years. Male members of the baby-boomer generation may recall conversations being held among their peers about whether they would allow their wives to work. Given the vast amount of time that patriarchy was the one and only status quo, some could say we’ve come quite far. Many will agree it’s not far enough.
Victories for the gender equality movement
In a rather elegant way, the gender equality movement began by changing the oldest and perhaps the most fundamental element of patriarchal society: the right to take part in its organisation. New Zealand led the way, allowing its women to vote in 1893. Most Western societies followed suit fairly quickly (the exception being Switzerland who gave women the vote in 1971). Today, woman can vote in every country bar Brunei where no citizens vote and the Vatican City. Perhaps not a fundamental element of patriarchal society, but certainly fundamental to being an equal member of society, is not feeling shame for a normal and extremely important biological function. This month marks a big step in the destigmatisation of a defining feminine feature with the release of a menstruation emoji. There have been other positive results of the worldwide movement. A brief list of some recent achievements:
- In 2017, after years of activism and advocacy in the Middle East, Lebanon and Tunisia have repealed laws in relation to rape as part of a change in attitude towards violence against women.
- Saudi Arabian women celebrated being able to drive last year, after receiving the right to vote only in late 2015.
- 2018 also saw a birth by a head of state – New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern – for the second time. Ardern is the first head of state to take maternity leave, setting an example for and of women who want and can have demanding jobs while being a mother.
- Currently, women are actually over-represented in Spain’s parliament, eleven to six.
Needless to say, none of these victories can be viewed from a place of satisfaction that the job is done.
Gender equality in language
Perhaps some of the more observant readers among you noticed the choice of the word “humankind” earlier in the text. “Mankind” could easily have been, and often is, used. For many, this is exclusive and unrepresentative. A similar case could be made for using the masculine pronoun “he” to refer to an unspecified person. While it is becoming increasingly more common to use the more politically correct terms “humankind” and “he/she”, we still refer to our female friends as “guys”, we still tell our young girls they are “pretty” and our boys “brave” and we still tell people to “man up” when telling them, somewhat harshly, to have more courage.
Some may argue this is trivial when considered alongside the other issues still on society’s gender equality to do list – namely, underrepresentation of women in senior positions, sex slavery, abortion rights and unequal pay (just to name a few). And perhaps they are right. While the language angle can be seen as inconsequential next to the brutal reality of violence and the cutting injustice of a lack of control over one’s life, its power lies hidden, firmly and deeply ingrained in its ability to alter individual behaviour and social norms. The move towards gender equality must and is taking place from manifold directions simultaneously and like the Suffragettes focused on an inequality central to the structure of other inequalities, perhaps some of us too can focus on what many researchers believe to be at the heart of sexist culture.
Given the timeframe of gender equality’s history, some may find it understandable that the movement’s victories are only first steps in a much longer journey. Others are more angered about the inequalities that have existed for so long and still permeate all aspects of society. It is from their passion that the wheels of change gradually build momentum.