Feminism like modern socialism emerged as a critique and corrective to Enlightenment liberalism that began in England in the 18th century, later spreading to continental Europe and the United States.
Enlightenment liberalism placed the rational individual, “created equal and endowed with inalienable rights”, as Jefferson put it, at the center of political discourse which, however, meant a tiny number of white male owners. Since then, (1) the removal of property restrictions and the extension of suffrage to all men, (2) the abolition of slavery and (3) the extension of basic rights of custody, property, of inheritance and women’s suffrage became the main concerns of the 19th century, described as a century of struggle.
The demand for equality included both class and gender for most radical political activists. Women’s struggle for the right to vote and other basic rights has continued. The incompleteness of the doctrine of natural rights was brilliantly discovered by Mary Wollstonecraft, hailed as the mother of modern feminism. She challenged the male bias inherent in notions of rationality and citizenship and demanded equal opportunity, economic independence, and personal autonomy for women in general and middle-class women in particular.
Claiming that women are people first and women second, she harshly criticized the views of Rousseau, Burke and others for their sexual view of women. Wollstonecraft viewed education, employment, and emancipation as crucial to the emancipation of women, thus establishing a close connection between liberal individualism and feminism. The Reform Act of 1832 in Britain granted the right to vote to wealthy men. Women married under blanket laws were denied property and other legal rights.
It was not until 1870, after intense campaigning that led to changes in the blanket laws, that women gained rights of custody, property, inheritance, income and divorce. Single women who had the right to own property did not obtain the right to vote. There have been additional campaigns for equal opportunity in education and employment, ending double standards with equality, respect for sexual morality and the repeal of the Communicable Diseases Act . But securing the right to vote was the sole and overriding goal of the women’s movement since the 1850s in Britain and the United States, and later in other parts of Western Europe.
Universal male suffrage became a reality in 1919 in Britain when property restrictions were removed. Until then, only 58% of men had the right to vote. Men over 21 but women over 30 won the right to vote. It was not until 1928 that women over the age of 21 obtained suffrage putting them on an equal footing with men. In the United States, women gained the right to vote in 1920. In the United States, African American men gained the right to vote with the passing of the 14th and 15th Amendments in 1868 and 1870 respectively.
Slavery was abolished after the Civil War in 1865, while in Britain it was abolished in 1833. However, African American men were not able to fully and properly exercise their right until after 1965, after the civil rights movement, with a relaxation of restrictions by Jim Crow laws. of the late 1870s that were imposed by many southern states. Even today, there are errant attempts to restrict their franchise in some southern US states. The initial fight for suffrage was strictly constitutional but frustrated by the failed vote in 1903.
Emmeline Pankhurst and her two daughters, Christabel and Sylvia and many others, nicknamed Suffragettes, resorted to passive resistance techniques which included prison hunger strikes, arrest, refusal to pay fines and endure voluntarily suffering. These techniques were incorporated by Mahatma Gandhi into his satyagraha doctrine. The efforts of suffragists, their sacrifices, women’s contribution to the war effort in 1914-18, and Soviet women’s suffrage in 1917 made limited female suffrage possible in 1919.
Suffrage gave women a political voice and made them visible in the public domain. From “mere spectators, women became participants”, according to Abrams, “in the political and economic upheavals of the time”. During the women’s suffrage movement, there were debates about the role and status of women in society, marriage and femininity. The women’s suffrage movement unified women and projected a collective identity as “women” that transcended party lines and ideological positions with supporters and opponents of both genders.
The Industrial Revolution and urbanization began to separate household work and women’s work from men’s work. Wealthy women were confined to a life of idleness while poor women were forced into low-paying jobs – sewing, dyeing, embroidery, laundry, cleaning, retail and especially domestic work. Until World War II, unions emphasized the “family wage” which they did not want to see undermined by women demanding male skilled jobs and equal pay. The best chance for middle-class women to earn a good income was to marry a man who earned well.
The invention of a typewriter in the 1890s saw an increase in the number of female office workers. From the 1850s to the 1870s female employment reached new heights due to urbanization and universal compulsory education introduced in 1870. Female employment in Britain rose to 23.6% in 1914. In 1918 it reached 46.7%; 40% of the workforce is made up of married women.
Women took jobs traditionally held by men for much lower pay which fomented unrest. In principle, equal pay for equal work was accepted in 1919 but was legally granted in 1970 with the passage of the Equal Pay Act in response to the Ford Dagenham strike of 1968. Older British women 20 to 30 year olds conscripted for war service for the first time in 1941. They also made up a third of the total workforce in heavy industries, railways and canals. Their dress became functional when they started wearing pants or a one-piece mermaid costume.
Women benefited greatly from the expansion of the service sector with the establishment of the welfare state in 1945. In most advanced capitalist countries, women began to enjoy paid maternity leave, child care and adequate crèches, holidays, a pension, benefits and bonuses from the government. late 1970s. In the Scandinavian countries, there are state-funded nurseries, paternity leave for fathers, and they have the highest rates of women in the labor force. In India, women in the organized sector receive equal pay for equal work and, since 2008, two years of parental leave.
Since 2016, single male parents can also benefit. However, pay equity remains elusive for the majority of working women. A 2017 study noted that women in Britain had to wait 57 years to achieve pay parity. This is also the case in the United States, France and Japan. Since the 1990s, women’s representation in decision-making positions has steadily increased but remains insignificant and unequal.
The number of women parliamentarians has increased from 11.7% in 1997 to 24.9% in 2020. Only four countries have at least half of the women in parliament in single or lower houses. In 19 countries, it is above 40%; nine in Europe, 5 in Latin America and the Caribbean, four in Africa and one in the Pacific. At the current rate, gender parity in national legislatures would not be achieved until 2063. As of September 1, 2021, 26 women were heads of state and/or government in 24 countries.
At the current rate, it is estimated that it would take another 130 years to achieve gender equality in the highest positions of power. Women represent 21% of ministers with portfolios such as family, children, youth, elderly, social affairs, environment, etc. However, some women served as part of what Cronin calls the Inner Cabinet which includes state, defense, and treasury. At this rate, it is estimated that by 2077, gender parity in ministerial positions is likely. Women CEOs were 0.2% in 1994. In 2019, this figure is 6.6%. India has 14% female legislators in the 17th Lok Sabha elected in 2019. This is the highest since independence.
Women’s empowerment along with human rights, safety nets for all and environmental protection are on the political agenda of most countries, made possible by shifting political concerns and security to humanitarian, social and economic concerns with the end of the cold war. Women have made substantial progress towards equality and recognition. Professions once considered exclusively male have opened up to women.
Gender segregation in jobs has been significantly reduced, as have pay gaps. Women are visible in the corridors of power and decision-making. These impressive advances have led many to believe that feminism has become irrelevant as women have achieved their main demands. Faludi pointed out that in the late 1980s, about 63% of American women did not consider themselves feminists, not because they were free and equal, but out of fear of backlash, especially the negative stereotype career women.
It is also a fact that many fundamental issues raised by early feminists have only been partially resolved and that the achievement of gender equality remains an unfinished business. New challenges have arisen due to rapid technological change, the rise of neoliberalism. and the Covid 19 pandemic. Women continue to face discrimination, exploitation, prejudice and stereotyping, persistent violence, unequal pay for equal work, gross inequalities in domestic responsibilities and child care.
Inspired by the petition of Italian women filed in the wake of the pandemic in 2020 to give them their rightful place, there is a need to tackle gender inequalities as well as other inequalities within a notion common citizenship. It’s a big challenge. Social reform, as Eduard Bernstein pointed out, is like the work of a housewife that never ends.
(The author is Professor of Political Science, Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi)