The Women’s Movement: What it is to be a Feminist and why we all need to know the history of Women’s Rights
I was watching Sunrise this-morning after having a Saturday Morning breakfast in town with my husband. I had been slightly amused by the fact that when we arrived at the Café I had a number of people stop and speak to me that my husband did not know. Quite a few years ago it would have been the reverse but these days as a professional business woman and peoples advocate I am proud to be known within my own right.
Now getting back to the connection between this and my watching Sunrise. It was interesting to watch some young teenage private school girls speaking out against a trend for young woman to move away from the feminist notion that has been such a strong movement since the mid 1800’s.
It seems that today the word feminist is becoming a dirty word, and not just to those few confused men who think of feminists as lesbian man haters but also to young women.
There is now apparently an online women’s anti-feminist movement.
This got me thinking as to why any woman could be anti-feminist; I can understand women being anti-extremist feminist but not anti-feminist in general.
Then I realised that most women do not actually know what feminism really is. The term is thrown around all over the place; often in a derogative manner as a label used by the ignorant or as an inaccurate symbol of women who are thought to be trying to oppress the said rights of families or traditional marriage or religion. Women who break into the corporate world or political domain are labelled feminists in a manner that attributes negative connotations to both them and the word.
It is no wonder that when schools do not educate our future adults of the world about the true meaning of feminism and where and why it was born; there is so many who see feminism as a dirty word to steer clear of.
It’s funny; as I write this I have the song “Ego Is Not a Dirty Word” by Skyhooks pop into my head; and I think yes that is correct Ego is a necessity to have, without ego we do not strive to grow, achieve, better ourselves or believe that we deserve to have more. Feminism is in a sense a woman’s ego. It gives as a sense of right to expect more than we have been offered. It also gives us a right to say; “I am not waiting to be offered something that I believe I have a right to. Instead I am going to say I want that and I will work to achieve it, regardless of the constraints of patriarchal beliefs within society.”
So what is this feminism thing from a historic and current perspective? Ok here’s a brief history lesson curtsey of what I recall from my University days with a bit of a refresher via some timelines; (my memory is not that great for names and dates.)
The women’s movement began officially around 1848 when the first Women’s Conference was held in Seneca Falls America. This conference was focused on issues such as; the abolition of slavery, Social purity, (which sounds like a rather narrow minded idea but in actual fact as I will detail later was a turning point for women’s sexuality and socio-economic rights), and the Temperance movement. This conference began campaigns for issues such as; guardianship rights of children (single women, separated women and widows would often have no recognised guardianship rights to their children and could find them taken from them by family, landlords, churches for minor infringements or moral disagreements. This conference raised issues of property rights, divorce, access to education including secondary and university education for women, access for women into the medical profession, equal pay was put on the table way back then as well as was protective legislation for female workers; these two issues are still seen on campaign agendas today.
Although it wasn’t until 1928 in America that all women had the right to vote, regardless of age, socio-economic or cultural background; Australian women were kicking arse in this arena ahead of the US with the Australian Suffrage Society successfully campaigning to changes in Acts to bring about the right for women to vote first in South Australia in 1895, Western Australia followed in 1900, Tasmanian women won the right to vote in elections for the House of Assembly in February 1904. While women with property were eligible to vote for the Legislative Council and from October 1920 those who served in the 1914-1918 war were eligible to vote for the Upper House. In 1922 Tasmania passed equal rights for women to stand for election in both Upper and Lower Houses. It took Victoria another five years to come to the party and give women equal rights to vote in State elections, however again only women with property ownership could vote in Legislative Council elections. Victorian women won equal rights to stand for election to both Upper and Lower Houses of State Parliament in 1924. It wasn’t until 1967 that Aboriginal Australian’s; Men and Women were given equal right to vote.
It is interesting to reflect on the achievements of the National Women Suffrage Association and the American Suffrage Association who merged into one movement in 1890. Although in the early days of these movements; women had no power through votes, they still brought about change, often through the influence they had upon their husbands. These movements were began by women of influence through money and social status. They were somewhat out of touch to the blue collar wives and children of the working class or the poverty stricken lower class; however much of what they protested against helped to bring a safety net and rights to all socio-economic and cultural backgrounds.
The notion of Social Purity fought for by these upper class women focused on issues to elevate morality and improve sexual treatment of women. At this time much of the focus was around the abolition of prostitution, the re-education of men in regard to sexual domination and exploitation and the raising of the age of consent which across the world went from non-existent to barely existent in the 1800’s depending upon country and state. In regard to America issues of rape of an enchased female in early centuries was seen as a property theft offence against the girl’s father rather than her and there were no such things as sex offences of a girl regardless of age if she was married as she was the property of her husband.
Ages of consent have thankfully altered over time and we can give most of the credit to these changes to our early feminist movements
Age of sexual consent
Country/ State 1800's 1920's 2000's
NSW 12 16 16
QLD 12 17 16
Vic 12 16 16
WA 12 14 16
Canada 12 14 14
Alabama 10 16 16
Arizona 12 18 18
California 10 18 15
Delaware 7 16 16
Texas 10 18 17
Washington 12 18 16
Wales 13 16 16
Russia 10 14 16
Chile 20 20 18
In the 1960's and 70's the feminist movement led the fight for women to have the right for inclusion in the workforce as well as the right to the contraception pill.
The world as we know it in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the UK and the US as well as other Western Countries has not reached equality yet for all women. We still have inequalities for ingenious and other cultural groups of women, low socio-economic women, rurally isolated women, undereducated, women in the workforce and women attempting to move into politics. In fact while we have come a long way since the mid 1800’s; we still have a need for feminism in society if Women are to experience gender equality across all social spheres.
Some of our international achievements over the centuries:
1848 First Women’s Convention in America
1890 National Women’s Suffrage Association combines with American Women’s Suffrage Association to campaign for women’s voting rights
1893 Colorado is the first state to grant women the right to vote in US
1895 South Australia is the first state to grant women the right to vote in Australia
1896 The National Association of Coloured Women is formed
1903 The first woman stands for Federal Parliament in Australia
1903 The National women's Trade Union was established in the US
1916 First US birth control clinic opened in Brooklyn
1921 The first woman is elected to parliament in Western Australia
1943 The first woman is elected to the Federal Parliament being Labor Party member Dorothy Tangney within the senate
1962 Australian Aboriginals are given voluntary right to vote in Federal elections
1966 South Australian Council of Aboriginal Women is founded by Gladys Elphick
1967 92% of Australians support a national referendum to remove discriminatory references about Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people from the Constitution
1992 Gay and Lesbian people are given the right to serve in Australian Armed Forces
1994 Same-sex sexual activity legal in all states of Australia
2010 Julia Gillard is voted in as the first Australian Female Prime Minister. She is also the first Australian Prime Minister to live in a defacto relationship
2013 Sex discrimination laws amended in Australia to ensure rights in relation to sexual orientation, gender identity and Intersex status
Feminism has not stood alone to strive toward equality for people, equal rights activists and advocates have championed the cause for women’s, race rights, children’s rights, religious equality, social group rights, Gay & Lesbian equality; disability rights and so on. The time line of achievements is by no means complete, it is merely an example of some of the great achievements made.
In this day and age we can reflect back and be proud of much that has been gained in the name of Human Rights, however we cannot afford to be complacent about human rights; particularly in this time of our world development. We see many within the world’s nations who wish to take not just their own countries back to a time of oppression against races, women, children, religions and those below the poverty scale.
Even in our own country of Australia we see a pattern of narrowly educated biased thinking influencing the political decision making in a manner that may set the achievements gained by past advocates back by years. Now just as importantly as any other time in the history of Human Rights and Equality we need to understand what Feminism and Human Rights means and know that they are not a dirty words to cringe from. nations to work on creating equal rights for all people without impeding the rights of others groups in the process. This work cannot be left to a cabinet full of University Educated Silver Spooned politicians. The early achievements of our nations were not made by politicians they were made by people who had a vision for the rights of themselves as well as others less fortunate. They made life difficult for themselves in the process by speaking out, but they also made life uncomfortable for those in positions of power to bring about change. For some; this thinking and attitude will still be offensive; but if it offends some that I am a Feminist and a believer in Human Rights then I am glad to make those people uncomfortable as it is only by rattling the comfort of biased people who hold rusty prehistoric beliefs allowing the maintaining of power through the suffering and abuse of others will end.
Australian Women’s History Forum www.womenshitory.net.au
Children & Youth in History http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/primary-sources/24
s Studies 2005 www.feminism.eserver.org
Women’s Rights Movement in the US by Ann-Marie Imbornoni