History of the Movement for Gender Equality

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The concept of equality of the sexes is a relatively new phenomena. Until the end of the nineteenth century, women were treated as the inferior sex and were excluded from taking part in public life, especially in areas pertaining to politics, education and certain professions. Resistance to the idea of gender equality drew its strength from Stoic and Platonic misogyny, which was reinforced and justified under different intellectual movements, from early Christianity through to the Enlightenment. The history of the movement for gender equality is therefore an intellectual, political, social and economic history of the changing relationship between men and women, rather than how it is often distortedly represented as a ‘pro-woman’ movement.

Legacy of ancient misogyny

Women have historically been associated with inferiority in philosophical, medical and religious traditions. Hellenic
Plato Seneca Aristotle.jpg
philosophical schools, such as Stoicism and Platonism distrusted all that was corporal, favouring instead the spiritual. The hierarchical dichotomy of body versus soul/intellect was seen to parallel the division of the sexes, with women, due to their childbearing functions and menarche, pejoratively associated with corporeality. The mistrust of the flesh extended to mistrust of sexuality; a common antifeminist trope that developed over centuries was the idea of the woman as temptress, someone who tempts the virtuous male from the true ascetic path to wisdom. With the advent of Christianity, the Old Testament figure of Eve came to embody earlier misogynist traditions: Eve, the sinful Woman (Woman because she in fact represents all women) who condemned humanity by corrupting Adam. Moreover, since Eve was born out of Adam’s rib, the link between Woman’s physicality and debt to Man was made more manifest.

Even in medical treatises of the first five centuries AD, women’s inferiority to men was justified by their physiological weaknesses. In Aristotelian physiological tradition, which influenced medieval, early modern and even modern notions of sex and gender, Woman is the imperfect version of Man: she is matter whereas he is form. For the Greek philosopher and medical doctor, Galen (AD 129 – 200), women lacked self-restraint whereas men were characterised by self-control.

These traditions intersected and justified the dominant view that women were physiologically, intellectually and spiritually inferior to men.


Despite the dominance of these misogynist traditions, some individuals during the Middle Ages and early modern
Christine de pisan.jpg
period challenged the status quo and called for greater equality between the sexes.

Christine de Pisan (d. 1430), a successful Italian-born female writer of the French royal court is now often named as “the first proto-modern woman” due to her treatise panegyrising the contributions of women to civilization, in her famous works, The Book of the Cities of Ladies. For Christine, gender inequality was not on account of any innate differences between men and women. Instead, she recognised the role of education and opportunities as the main cause:

“If it were the custom to send little girls to school and teach them all sorts of different subjects there, as one does with little boys, they would grasp and learn the difficulties of all the arts and sciences just as easily as the boys.”

Christine comprehensively critiques the tradition of misogyny underpinning literary, religious and philosophical discourses while at the same time reconstructing a ‘new’ canon of literature and history in which the contributions of women are included and applauded. There remains considerable debate on the merits of the label ‘protofeminist’, in particular as it applied to Christine de Pisan. Many contemporary feminist historians find her ‘disappointing’ for not being more ‘radical’ yet (Delaney, 1987), others have argued that by her life example (self-educated, supporting herself and her family through her writing, publicly engaging with contemporary debates) and by her arguments for greater appreciation, better treatment and equal access to education for women, she embodied and espoused one of the earliest formulations of gender equality.

Did Women enjoy a Renaissance?

This famous question, first posed by the historian Joan W. Scott (1980?), raised the issue for historians of gender of the  unequal fate of men and women in periods of relative social, economic and political ‘renaissance’. Many Italian women, daughters or relatives of the leading humanists of the time, it could be argued, did ‘enjoy’ some kind of renaissance since they were permitted to receive educations comparable to their male peers. However, even then, there was a distinct glass ceiling. The humanist, Leonardo Bruni, in a letter outlining a programme of study ‘most fitting to a woman’ for Battista da Montefeltro Malatesa (1383-1450) argued:

“To her neither the intricacies of debate nor the oratorical artifices of action and delivery are of the least practical use, if indeed they are not positively becoming. Rhetoric in all its forms, - public discussion, forensic argument, logical defence, and the like, lies absolutely outside the province of woman."

In addition, not only were many of these educated women eventually compelled to abandon their studies and choose between the options of marriage or the cloister, they also showed a certain level of acceptance of their ‘inferior’ state. Isotta Nogarola (1417-1461) for example defended Eve in her debate with Ludovico Foscarini, ‘Of the Equal or Unequal Sin of Adam and Eve’, claiming that Eve was less guilty than Adam on account of women’s ‘natural ignorance’ and her ‘desire for knowledge of good and evil.’

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: The First Wave

In A Room of One’s Own, the British author, Virginia Woolf (d. 1941), lamented the absence of female authors, the ‘empty spaces on bookshelves’ which were only filled by men writing, typically negatively, about Woman.

"But whatever effect discouragement and criticism had upon their writing – and I believe that they had a very great effect – that was unimportant compared with the other difficulty which faced them … that is that they had no tradition behind them, or one so short and partial that it was of little help. For we think back through our mothers if we are women.”
Other than a handful of authors, both men and women, (notably Mary Wollstonecraft), the idea of pursuin
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g greater gender equality was rarely discussed. By the turn of the twentieth century, however, Woolf’s contemporaries in Britain and in the United States of America, New Zealand and Australia were actively pushing for greater equality, establishing new traditions and feminist mothers to inspire later generations. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in the US and the Suffragettes led by the Pankhursts in England were the key pioneers of ‘first-wave feminism’, a period in which women organised themselves into public and high –profile advocacy groups, campaigning for equality in property, economic and voting rights. Beginning with New Zealand in 1898, women were granted the right to vote and within half a century, enjoyed suffrage in a majority of countries across all continents: the US in 1919 and Britain in 1928 (to all women over 21).

The Second Wave

The second-wave of feminists campaigning for gender equality targeted new objectives from their ‘first wave’ sisters. Having achieved suffrage and equality in property rights, feminists after WWII broadened their objectives to tackling discrimination in employment opportunities, pay and education, reproductive rights and the role of women in the family and household. The slogan and battle-cry of the second wave was coined by Carol Hanisch: "The Personal is Political" The second wave deconstructed and criticised for the first time power relations between men and women in the realm of the personal as well as the public: culture, sexuality, and political inequalities were intimately intertwined, subjecting women to discrimination that only self-realization of these power relations could overcome.

Key feminists of this period include Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan. Their works explored the origins and contours of women’s inequality, breaking the silence over the false myth of the domestic and docile ‘bliss’ of housewives and breaking taboos over female sexuality.

"Women have somehow been separated from their libido, from their faculty of desire, from their sexuality. They've become suspicious about it. Like beasts, for example, who are castrated in farming in order to serve their master's ulterior motives — to be fattened or made docile — women have been cut off from their capacity for action. It's a process that sacrifices vigour for delicacy and succulence, and one that's got to be change” (Greer, The Female Eunuch)

"The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning [that is, a longing] that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries … she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question — 'Is this all?"
(The Feminine Mystique)

Key achievements of second wave feminists in the area of gender equality include:

  • In the US: the Equal Pay Act of 1963, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX and the Women's Educational Equity Act (1972 and 1975), Title X (1970, health and family planning), the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (1974), the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, and landmark Supreme Court cases overturning anti-abortion legislation (Roe v. Wade, 1973).

This period also saw international committees and conferences dedicated to promoting gender equality. The United Nations established a Commission on the Status for Women in 1946 whose mission was

“to raise the status of women, irrespective of nationality, race, language or religion, to equality with men in all fields of human enterprise, and to eliminate all discrimination against women in the provisions of statutory law, in legal maxims or rules, or in interpretation of customary law”

In its first decade, the Commission passed the following conventions aimed at promoting gender equality: Convention on the Political Rights of Women, adopted by the General Assembly (1952); the Convention on the Nationality of Married Women, (1957), the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages (1962); and the Recommendation on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages (1965).

Under the auspices of the various UN agencies responsible for gender equality, the first world conferences on women were held, first in Mexico (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985) and Beijing (1995). In 1980, in the middle of the UN Decade for Women, the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) came into force on 3 September 1981, signed initially by 64 countries.

Third Wave Feminism: diversifying the path to equality

By the late 1980s, the campaign for gender equality entered the ‘third wave’. In response to what was seen as the
predominantly ‘white’ and middle class agenda of the second wave, feminists called for greater awareness of the specific equality concerns of other female identities previously marginalised in second wave discourses for gender equality: women from black and minority backgrounds, bisexual, lesbian and transgender women, the ‘postcolonial’ voice and lower social classes. The third wave criticises the second wave’s “conformism”:

“For many of us it seems that to be a feminist in the way that we have seen or understood feminism is to conform to an identity and way of living that doesn't allow for individuality, complexity, or less than perfect personal histories. We fear that the identity will dictate and regulate our lives, instantaneously pitting us against someone, forcing us to choose inflexible and unchanging sides, female against male, black against white, oppressed against oppressor, good against bad." (Rebecca Walker,1995)

An important shift in the past two decades has occurred in the approach to gender equality issues. Previously departmentalised as ‘women’s issues’ that were studied, analysed and of interest only to women, issues such as equality in employment is now studied under the rubric ‘gender’. While certain academics have criticised this shift as cosmetic, that is another way of referring to ‘women’ or an attempt to lend legitimacy to the study of women, the shift does have strong epistemological justifications. As the feminist historian, Joan W. Scott described:

“Gender as a substitute for ‘women’ is also used to suggest that information about women is necessarily information about men, that one implies the study of the other. This usage insists that the world of women is part of the world of men, created in and by it. This usage rejects the interpretive utility of the idea of separate spheres, maintaining that to study women in isolation perpetuates the fiction that one sphere, the experience of one sex, has little or nothing to do with the other.”


  • Rebecca Walker, To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism (1995)
  • Joan W. Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category for Historical Analysis”, American Historical Review (1986), pp. 1053-1075
  • Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (Hogarth Press, London, 1991), pp. 70-71
  • James Brundage, Law, Sex and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (University of Chicago Press, 1991)
  • R. Howard Bloch, Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love (University of Chicago Press, 1991)
  • Sheila Delaney, "Mothers to Think Back Through": Who are they? The Ambiguous Exampel of Christine de Pizan" in L. A. Finke et al (eds), Medieval Texts and Contemporary Readers (Cornell University Press, New York, 1987), pp. 177-97
  • Joan Kelly, "Did Women Have a Renaissance", in R. Blumenthal et al (eds)Becoming VIsible: Women in European History (1977)

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