March is ‘Women’s History Month’, a time to celebrate the achievements of women, but also an opportunity to reflect upon the challenges that still remain in women’s lives. The past year certainly seems to have been an explosive one, as a fresh tide of female activism has taken hold, most notably in campaigns such as ‘#MeToo’ and ‘Time’s Up’ that swept across the nation – and world, notably through social media channels in an electrifying movement that strongly protested against sexual harassment towards all women.
This year – 2018, is the ‘Year of Women’ and it has already been marked by widespread support from celebrities and the media, that have encouraged female empowerment on multiple levels. For instance, the banning of Formula 1 ‘grid girls’, the rising hostility to ‘ring side girls’ in boxing, the ‘Time’s Up’ campaign in Hollywood, women’s demonstrations and marches, in addition to various social media campaigns championing women’s rights.
Yet, the desire for female empowerment and gender equality is nothing new. International Women’s Day has been celebrated since 1913 with the aim of ending discrimination towards women and promoting gender equality, a battle still not won. Gloria Steinem, an American feminist and social activist of the 1960s and 70s stated simply, “A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men”. In other words, the goal of feminism then, and now, is full human rights for all. The ubiquitous phrase ‘Nevertheless, she persisted’ has become synonymous with the feminist movement, since the silencing of Elizabeth Warren’s objections to Senator Jeff Sessions in 2017. The reality, of course, is Elizabeth Warren’s was not the first female voice to have been silenced within the United States, or across the world.
Women have long fought against constructions of femininity that prevented them from living their lives in the way that best suited them. Various social and cultural stereotypes have abounded: the ‘Colonial Good Wife’ of early America, the ‘Cult of True Womanhood’ in the 1900s and the ‘Feminine Mystique’ of the Cold War era, all of which attempted to define (and control) women’s roles and their place within American society. Women who challenged the status quo ‘by speaking out’ were labelled as ‘unwomanly’, ‘disorderly’ or ‘mad’ in a society that celebrated female passivity, submission, and domesticity.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an early female activist at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 in the US, stressed, “I would have girls regard themselves as adjectives not as nouns.” They were people, not objects, which ties into the present day criticisms of the objectification of ‘grid girls’ and justifications of why it is an outdated practice. Women are not objects they are individuals. As female activist and former slave, Sojourner Truth asserted, “We do as much, we eat as much, we want as much” [as men]. In this context, women wanted to be treated as such, as equals.
Despite the constraints on women throughout history, women have persisted to have their voices heard, in an effort to secure their equal rights. Many of these rights have been achieved because of first and second wave feminism: property rights, suffrage, reproductive rights, and the broadening of opportunities in the workplace. Many battles have been won, and indeed continue to be won, spearheaded by determined, and inspirational female leaders. Other important battles for gender equality continue to be fought, most notably on the issue of equal pay for men and women. So, as we mark 2018 as the ‘Year of Women’, and the month of March as Women’s History Month, let us not forget the significant achievements made by women, but also let these propel us forward in order to shatter the glass ceilings that still need to be broken.
Dr. Marie Molloy
Lecturer in American History