13 Moments That Changed Women’s History Forever
In honour of International Women's Day on March 8, we're celebrating those moments in history when, for women, doors of opportunity suddenly flung open.
The future is female, thanks to these moments in the past
We probably think of women’s history in terms of several major milestones, but the truth is that these milestones have all been hard-won by years of back-breaking, often unrecognized labor by scores of activists and ordinary women. While these major moments, from the United States to Australia to Saudi Arabia and beyond, are incredible and should be celebrated, they’re all steps along the path to equality, and we have a long way to go.
1895: South Australia gives women the right to vote
Who knew that Australia was so ahead of the times in allowing women to cast their ballots in national elections? The South Australian Parliament passed a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote in December of 1894, which meant women could vote in the following year’s elections. The battle was hard-won. Women had reportedly fought for a decade to make this historical event happen. According to The National Museum of Australia, South Australia became the first electorate in the world to grant equal political rights to men and women.
1920: The United States ratifies 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote
It’s hard to believe that it was just over 100 years ago that women were first permitted to vote in the United States. That’s what happened on August 18, 1920, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, thanks to the tireless efforts of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott. Organizing for women’s suffrage dated back to 1848, at the historic Seneca Falls Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, the first women’s rights conference in the United States.
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1963: Equal Pay Act passed in the United States
Former President John F. Kennedy backed amending the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act—as part of his New Frontier Program—so that women could be paid the same wages as men performing the same job. This act aimed to put a stop to sex-based wage discrimination, though to this day, women earn substantially less than men on average, according to Catalyst, a global nonprofit.
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1971: Reed v. Reed
Up until the early 1970s, if a relative in the United States died, the job of administering the estate was automatically given to the male relative, not the female. Obviously, this created some major family friction. In Reed v. Reed, the Supreme Court ruled that this violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, according to this ACLU summary. Note: this was the same year the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg established the Women’s Rights Project.
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1973: Roe v. Wade
Probably one of the most contentious U.S. court rulings regarding women’s rights over the last 75 years, Roe v. Wade handed the difficult decision of whether to end a pregnancy over to the woman who is pregnant. Courts, doctors, politicians, and other individuals could no longer make that decision for them, according to this Supreme Court ruling.
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1976: Portugal grants women the right to vote
Before the 1960s, women living in Portugal had few rights, especially when compared with North America and other European nations. They couldn’t get a Portuguese passport or travel to another country without their husband’s consent. The year 1976 was a major year to be a woman living in Portugal because that’s when the country’s constitution was amended to give women the same voting rights as men.
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1980: New Marriage Law passed in China
China’s New Marriage Law in 1980 granted certain rights to women during the legal contract of marriage: Women needed to be 18 years or older to marry, both parties had to consent, and the courts could reject marriages with ulterior motives (such as human trafficking and arranged marriages). Under the New Marriage Law, divorce proceedings started to consider women’s rights, including child custody and division of property.
2003: Japan’s government vows to fill more senior-government roles with women
In 2003, Japan declared the ambitious goal of aiming to have 30 per cent of senior-level government jobs in the country held by women. Apparently, it was too ambitious, because it was later revised to seven per cent by 2020, taking into account the lack of an uptick a few years into the new initiative. Government officials blamed the slow pace of cultural shifts. Hopefully, one day Japan will be in the same position as Paris, France: In 2020, the city was fined 90,000 euros for appointing too many women (11, or 69%) to senior government positions. Only five men were appointed, and the imbalance violated a rule that at least 40% of positions should go to people of each gender. The city paid the fine, and the rule has since been amended.
2012: United Nations passes a resolution banning female genital mutilation
The terror—and, unfortunate reality—of young girls up to the age of 15 having their genitals mutilated came to a screeching halt in 2012 (at least on paper) when the United Nations called on citizens worldwide to stop the practice, which has been most common in certain countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, affecting as many as 200 million girls and women. Thanks to increased awareness of this physically and emotionally scarring practice, Feb. 6 was named International Day of Zero Tolerance.
2017: Saudi Arabia lifts ban on female drivers
Imagine being a woman in this Middle Eastern country and needing a man to give you a lift for simple errands like picking up groceries at the market or visiting a friend. In the fall of 2017, the Saudi Arabian government lifted the ban on female drivers, which took effect in June the following year.
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2017: India rules sex with minors illegal
Another sign of the modernization of India was a Supreme Court ruling in October that deemed rape with a female under the age of 18 (even if the minor is a child bride) illegal. Further, being charged with this crime can result in a 10-year prison sentence. This ruling helps discourage the tradition of child brides and speaks to the country’s attempt to create more equal marriages (age-wise, at the very least).
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2017: Lebanon repeals law that sided with male rapists
It’s hard to believe, but up until the summer of 2017, a male rapist in Lebanon could be exonerated if he married his rape victim. In August, Lebanon’s Parliament finally repealed this ancient and horrific law at the urging of Lebanese and international women’s rights activists.
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2018: Iceland requires fair pay for women
Some countries talk a good game about equal pay for women, but Iceland made it the law of the land. Earlier this year, Iceland became the first country in the world to make it illegal—resulting in a fine—to pay men and women in the same job differently. One major difference between this law and the Equal Pay Act in the United States is that the burden is no longer on the employee to make this claim.
Next, read up on 10 great Canadian women you didn’t learn about in history class.