Women’s roles changing, but not enough

Date: January 1, 1970
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“Convicts and lunatics have no vote for parliament, should all women be classified with these?” This is just one of the statements that can be found on a suffragette poster. Some ask, “Are we children?” while another declares, “Votes for women wanted everywhere!”

100 years ago, women were still fighting for the right to vote. Today, we see women rising to the top of business, government, media, and every other sector. Yet, there still exists high levels gender inequality in the world, violence against women is still pervasive, and in some countries, women still considered minors in the eyes of the law. With International Women’s Day just around the corner on 8 March, it’s a good time too look back through global history.
Looking back around the world, through time, the contradiction is striking; women’s roles are changing drastically, but the fight for gender equality goes on, and on. Gender equality is not only about the women who stand out in public life, it is also about ensuring that all women, everywhere, enjoy equality.
Money.cnn.com recently took glimpse into history with a special feature on “Looking back on women and power,” in honour of the 10th edition of their annual “Most Powerful Women” list. The feature provides highlights of Fortune’s coverage from 1985 to today, and shows the fast changing perception of women in the world of work.
The articles range from “Beauty and the managerial beast” by Walter Kiechel III, written in 1986. The article is about the fact that physical beauty counts when it comes to making it professionally.
In 1987, Felice N. Schwartz wrote, “Don’t write women off as leaders.” In 1990, Jaclyn Fierman and Alison Sprout questioned, “Why women still don’t hit the top.” They were bringing to light the issues that women face in the corporate world. In September of the same year, Julie Connelly and Laurie Kretchmar wrote about “How dual-income couples cope.”
In 1992 the key questions were “What do working women want,” by Anne B. Fisher, and “When will women get to the top,” by Anne B. Fisher and Therese Eiben.
When you fast-forward a couple of years, the trend seems to have change a bit. Betsy Morris and Lixandra Urresta wrote, “It’s her job too,” in 1998. In the year 2000, the articles were about women moving up in manufacturing and winemaking. In 2006 Fisher became a bit more positive, writing “The sky’s the limit.” The three highlights of this year are “The power of women,” “The survival of Pattie Dunn” and “Is it harder for women techies to succeed?”
Thought the articles show how ideas behind gender equality are changing, it has not been a quick evolution in many respects. Women in Australia, America, England and New Zealand started fighting for their right to vote in the late 1880s. The women no longer wanted to be objectified and treated like children. They wanted their male counterparts to recognise that women have brains and the ability to think and make rational decisions. The first step was changing the law so that they could vote.
According to abc.net.au, the societies that women formed to fight for their rights played a key role in winning the battle. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was formed on the 16th November 1887 and The Australian Women’s Suffrage Society was formed in 1889. The website says that the society "argued for equal justice, equal privileges in marriage and divorce, rights to property and the custody of children in divorce." The men of the time, and indeed some women too, thought the suffragettes were just being ridiculous they did not see how these women hoped to achieve their goals.
In 1891, Australian women united across the divider for the first time. Various Christian and suffrage societies collected 30 000 signatures in a petition that was presented to the Victorian Parliament. It wasn’t until 1894 that some Australian women could join their New Zealand counterparts, who were granted the right to vote a year earlier. American women were granted the right to vote, for the first time, in 1788. By 1908 all Australian women, except Aboriginal women, could vote.
In South Africa white women were allowed to vote from 1930. It took another 74 years before black people, men, and women, could vote. On 27 April 1994, all South Africans, over the age of 18, voted together for the first time.
Voting is an important part of the world we live in today. It opens doors and allows individuals to make informed decisions about whom their leaders are, who sets the legislation and the law etc. Women realise this and use this right as a tool to gain ground in the war for equality.
Indeed women have come a long way. They have proved to the men, who supposedly run the world, that they are just as capable of working, making decisions and taking up leadership roles. World War I and II also helped in this regard. When all the men went off to fight in Europe, the women had to stay back and fill the men’s positions. They had mouths to feed and the economy could not come to a complete standstill.
When the men returned they faced somewhat unfamiliar territory. Their women had taken their place in society. It must have been scary for the men but it was empowering for the women.
It has now been well over a century that women have been fighting for equality. We have come close but clearly not nearly close enough. It is not enough that only a hand full of women in the world is in leadership positions. It is not enough when so many of our sisters out there are illiterate. It is not enough when so many women are being plagued by HIV that their men bring home. It is just not enough.
We cannot fight for better opportunities and higher salaries when so many of our sisters are left behind. I believe that this is not what the original struggle was about. We need to stop seeing ourselves as the victims and see how privileged we are. We as privileged women need to fight and speak up for our sisters who cannot do it for themselves. Aluta Continua!
Tsholofelo Segage is a student in the Department of Journalism, Stellenbosch University. This article, produced during a Gender Links “Business Unusual” training workshop, is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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