Feminism is a global movement aimed at advancing women’s rights. It has a long and complex history, with big and small accomplishments in each country and region. In this first part of the feminism mini-series, we discuss these accomplishments, but also shed a light on the challenges it still faces.

Fundamental rights

One of the most famous accomplishment of feminists is the acquirement of women’s right to vote and to hold public office. Famously, the suffragettes fought for these rights in Ireland, the UK and the USA. However, it was New Zealand who first granted the right to vote and hold public office to women in 1893. Other countries were quick to follow. In 2011, Saudi Arabia was the last country so far to join those where women have these basic rights. Nowadays, there are just two countries that have yet to come through; Brunei, where all citizens are denied the right to vote, and Vatican City.

Building a live

Another important fundamental right that women and girls enjoy because of the work of feminists is the right to education. Receiving a proper education opens doors for women and empowers them to choose the kind of live they want to live. Girls who have received education are less likely to become victim of domestic and sexual violence and to enter into child marriage. Moreover, educated women have greater chances of escaping poverty, leading healthier and more productive lives, and can thereby provide a higher standard of living for their children, families and communities.

As beneficial proper education is to girls, its effects go much further than that. Mothers who have received education are much more likely to ensure that their children receive education. They also generally have less children, which enables them to direct more resources to the children they have. Moreover, their children are generally more healthy.

However, while an increasing number of girls go to school, worldwide 130 million girls still do not have access to education. While gender seems to play little role in whether a girl has access to primary education, it is a huge factor in secondary education and beyond. Moreover, whenever education is disrupted by conflict or early marriage, girls are far less likely to go back to school than boys.

Sexual and reproductive rights

Whether and how many children women have significantly impacts their health and wellbeing and their social and economic situation. While a great deal of credit should be given to scientists for coming up with measures such as birth control and abortion, women would not have the right to use these technological advances to their benefits if it had not been for feminists. By establishing rights to birth control, sexual education and abortion, feminism has given women the power to decide over their own futures. 

However, feminism’s accomplishments in terms of sexual and reproductive rights extend beyond family planning abilities. For instance, just a few decades ago, notions of sexual assault and rape were non-existent because women were seen as property, they did not have rights. Because of the efforts of the feminist anti-rape movement, the notion of sexual assault emerged around the 1970s. Most countries now define coerced sexual acts as rape. Moreover, practically every country in the world defines sex with children now as statutory rape because children cannot consent, with notable exceptions of Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

By creating the notion of sexual assault, feminism basically established the right to bodily integrity, the right to control one’s own body. This was a giant step forward, as the common preconception used to be that women caused men to have sex with them, purely by being in their presence. Women used to be seen as a temptation for sex to which men had no way of resisting. But increasingly, men’s predatory behaviour is seen as being the problem.

More than just a vessle of life

By fighting for access to birth control and establishing the notion of sexual assault and women’s right to bodily autonomy, feminists managed to liberate women from the burden that their reproductive function used to be. Women are less and less seen as having just one function – to create new life -, and are increasingly seen as full people who should be able to decide for themselves what to do with their lives and whether or not to have children. Women’s new-found control over their sexuality and reproductive functions has enabled them to take on other roles than solely being a mother.

However, these advances do not mean that feminists’ work for women’s reproductive and sexual rights is finished. Countless women all over the world still face sexual abuse and violence, and struggle with a lack of control over their own bodies. In the US, for instance, 1 in 6 women has experienced rape (attempted and/or completed), and someone is sexually assaulted every 92 seconds. In Europe, where 1 in 20 women have been raped since the age of 15, all countries have laws that criminalise forcing someone to have sex, but only 8 countries have laws that define sex without consent as rape.

Moreover, there are still many places where women do not have access to birth control measures and abortions, and where motherhood is not so much a choice as just something that happens. For example, 214 million women of reproductive age in developing countries who want to avoid pregnancy do not use modern contraceptive methods because of limited choices and access, cultural and religious opposition, and gender-based barriers.

The challenge of being truly inclusive

While feminism has many accomplishments, it has been heavily criticised for failing to be inclusive, accounting only for around the white cis-gendered female perspective. It thereby neglected to account for the situation of women of colour, women in non-western countries, and less-abled, low-income, and LGBTI women. These women were often kept out of feminist protest movements and did not benefit from feminists’ accomplishments.  

For instance, while feminism has been successful in criminalising violence against women, it has failed to protect trans women. These women are still extremely likely to face violence and intimidation. A trans woman’s life expectancy is substantially lower because of the threat of being murdered. In the US, for instance, trans women of colour are expected to live for only 35 years, while their cis-gendered counterparts are expected to live to 78 years.

Moreover, while we are increasingly aware of the objectification of women’s bodies and promote body-positivity, black women’s bodies are still often seen as different or exotic. On the other side of the coin, the crusade on the sexualisation of women has included forcing Muslim women in Europe out of their hijab, without even asking or considering whether they want to wear it. 

More than gender alone

To be really inclusive, feminism has to acknowledge that gender is not the sole reason why women face discrimination. Instead, it is just one factor that interacts with other forms of discrimination, such as age, socioeconomic status, mental ability, physical ability, sexual identity, religion and ethnicity. For instance, a black woman in North-America or Europe likely faces discrimination based on sexism, as well as on racism.

Moreover, feminism should acknowledge that women’s experiences are not similar. A woman in India encounters different obstacles and forms of oppression than a woman in the Netherlands, just like black women in the USA have different experiences than white woman, even if they live in the same country. Different age groups also have different experiences. Basically, different forms of discrimination together shape how women experience inequality, and it is crucial or any equality movement to acknowledge this.

While women are probably the largest discriminated group in the world, we should also acknowledge that they are not the only group that faces discrimination. For instance, while women in the USA got the right to vote in 1920, it was not until 1965 until all racial minorities, regardless of gender, received this right. And while Canada granted women voting rights in 1917, Canadian Indian women received the same right only in 1960. The same goes for Australia and South-Africa, where Aboriginals and black citizens received voting rights only decades after the white population did.

Clearly, gender is just one of many factors based on which people experience discrimination. True feminism strives for inclusive societies in which everyone has equal rights and opportunities, regardless of factors such as gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. 

It’s not a contest

Different social groups clearly have different experiences that deserve to be acknowledged. However, feminism should be careful not to turn into a contest of who is worst off. Instead, it is about the acknowledgement that we all have different experiences, and working together to increase equality for all. True equality leaves no one behind.