Baby Feminist

How Feminist Activism Reshaped History’s Narrative Of Gender Equality

Content warning: This article discusses sexual assault in a way that may be distressing to some readers
When you look at the history of feminism through the lens of activism, it shows a rich timeline of women who have fought – and made huge strides – for gender equality. ‘Feminism’ describes both an ideology of people who believe in the social, political, and economic equality of the genders and the accompanying political movement, which has been propelled by activism. 

So, what has feminist activism looked like throughout history? 

First wave feminism described the first era of sustained feminist political activity in the Western world and it kicked off in the late 1800s. At the time, women were fighting for political equality by trying to secure the right to vote and multiple organisations of women participated in the women’s suffrage movement. In the US, there were organisations like the National Women Suffrage Association, formed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and in the UK, there were groups like the Women’s Suffrage Committee, formed by Barbara Bodichon. 
While the women’s suffrage movement had clear aims to secure voting rights for women, there were vastly different approaches that fell under that umbrella. The suffragists believed in achieving change through parliamentary means and using traditional political lobbying techniques with members of governments. 
Meanwhile, the suffragettes were more militant and took more extreme action. In the UK, feminist activists like Emmeline Pankhurst formed groups with the philosophy of ‘deeds not words’ and took direct action such as disruptive protests, civil disobedience, and destruction of public property. In 1908, suffragettes attempted to invade the British House of Commons, gathering 60,000 people to ‘rush’ on Parliament, however, they were held off by police. 
When suffragettes were arrested by police, many also went on hunger strike. Famously, one British suffragette also became a martyr for the cause of suffrage when she threw herself in front of the King’s horse during the 1913 Epsom Derby and died from her injuries four days later. While the suffragettes were more controversial in their actions than suffragists, they attracted a huge amount of attention to their cause. 
The women’s suffrage movement was also closely associated with union movements and the first International Women’s Day, held in 1911, was held in solidarity with 15,000 women who went on strike three years earlier in New York against terrible working conditions and exploitation. More than a million people turned out to rallies in Europe on that day. 
Ultimately, the women’s suffrage movement was hugely successful and began a chain of legislative change that secured the vote for the vast majority of women around the world – although it’s still debated as to whether the suffragists or the suffragettes can claim that victory. 
But it wasn’t just women in the Western world who were taking up feminist causes around this period. In Nigeria in 1929, a mass collective action known as the Aba Women’s War saw thousands of Nigerian women protest against colonial authorities that had shut them out of political life, in the first major revolt by women in West Africa. Women sent palm leaves around the country in a call to action and they used tactics such as surrounding men’s houses, taunting them, and entering government buildings naked. The protests were ultimately successful in challenging the colonial administration. 
Later in the 20th Century, second wave feminism brought a renewed call for mass protest and organisation around feminist issues on a global scale. The US feminist movement was led largely by influential academics and writers, such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan and focused on issues affecting women from reproductive rights to sexual violence. Second wave feminism saw organised political action that led to huge political victories. For example, in 1963, US President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act of 1963, stipulating that women could no longer be paid less than a man for doing the same job. The Act was the result of work led in the White House by labor activist, Esther Peterson. 
The era of second wave feminism also coincided with the Civil Rights Movement, during which Black Americans were fighting against racism, violence, segregation, and for basic human rights. Second wave feminism failed in many ways to include voices from the Black community and so Black women were forced to convene as separate feminist organisations. 
Outside of the US, second wave feminism was also driving huge movements. In 1975, 25,000 women (representing a tenth of the country’s entire population) gathered in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik to protest economic inequality in a mass strike known as the “Women’s Day Off”. 
In 1979, all of this increased political pressure and awareness led to the ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, a UN human rights treaty otherwise known as the ‘Women’s Bill of Rights’. It’s the most comprehensive international instrument to protect the rights of women and legally binds all its signatories to end all forms of discrimination against women in public and private life. 

What has recent feminist activism looked like? 

Since 2012, feminist activism has, once again, exploded into the mainstream and has been driven in particular by online dialogue and activism. There have also been high-profile cases that have drawn attention to issues of sexual violence. In December 2012, a 22-year-old physiotherapy intern, Jyoti Singh, was beaten, gang-raped and tortured by six men while she was travelling on a bus in Dehli. While she was rushed to Singapore following the assault, she succumbed to her injuries two days later. The incident saw an eruption of outrage worldwide and public protests took place across India and other South Asian nations, as well as globally online. As a result, several Indian states implemented helplines, altered legislation and a national Commission of Inquiry was established to make Delhi safer for women. 
Mass protests such as the #MeToo movement, which went viral after multiple sexual assault and harassment complaints were made against film producer, Harvey Weinstein, the Time’s Up movement and protest campaigns like Million Women Rise and the ‘SlutWalks’ that protest the idea that women need to dress more modestly in order to prevent sexual assault, have all drawn huge amounts of media attention. The #MeToo movement, which was originally coined by activist Tarana Burke back in 2006, has been particularly successful in creating progress and accountability within institutions worldwide and sparked a societal reckoning that has put a spotlight on sexual harassment and assault. 
And in 2017, the Women’s March, which attracted over seven million people globally following the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, also drew a huge amount of media attention to feminist issues. 
Countless feminist organisations still work today to protest, lobby, and bring together women to fight for women’s rights, on scales from local to global. Here in Australia, we have witnessed our own feminist reckoning in recent years, led by voices such as former Australian of the Year, Grace Tame, Chanel Contos, who has campaigned for consent education across the country, and Brittany Higgins, who has spurred broad debates about women’s treatment in politics after speaking out about her own alleged sexual assault in Parliament House. While many defining moments of feminist history have seen mass movements of tens of thousands of people, it’s also clear that many of these protests began with the efforts of individuals.
If you or anyone you know has experienced sexual or domestic violence and is in need of support, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), the National Sexual Assault Domestic Family Violence Service. 

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